Did you know that the last Brazilian Emperor was a passionate Orientalist?

dom-pedro-PortraitThe 19th century’s official history was and remains too Eurocentric to notice the greatness of a non-European statesman and its sincere interest in other cultures, notably Oriental cultures.

In many ways, Pedro the Second, Emperor of Brazil (Rio, 1825- Paris, 1891), embodied the Enlightenment’s ideal of a humanist leader.

He was as fair and principled as Saint Luis, as cultured and enlightened as Frederic II of Prussia, and as unhappy on the throne as a true intellectual and adventurer could be. He had the most romantic death: in exile in Paris, poor and lonely.

His 58 year old reign transformed Brazil into a prosperous country with a liberal parliamentary monarchy. What’s more, he was a true abolitionist. In 1850, he even threatened to abdicate unless the Brazilian General Assembly declared the Atlantic slave trade illegal, and then fought to end the enslavement of children born of slaves (the “Law of the Free Birth” 1871).

What is less known about the Emperor is his insatiable fascination for Oriental cultures.

A gifted linguist himself, he started by studying ancient languages. He could read and write Hebrew[1]and started learning Arabic and even Sanskrit.

He visited twice the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Turkey and Egypt), first in 1871 followed by a second visit in 1876.

on the boat with the ImperatriceD Pedro EsfingeWe would like to highlight a few exceptional facts about the Emperor’s journey.

Don Pedro II was eager to travel incognito as much as he could  (that was not always possible – he was most of the time followed by a delegation of 200 noblemen…).  He chose to stay in simple hostels.

He ceased every opportunity to dialog with intellectuals, scholars and religious leaders. He even sat in the American University of Beirut among the students, quietly listening to the lecture of Cornellius Van Dyck[2].

He would also literally get out of his way to speak to simple men. The legend has it that, on his way to the Bekaa, he stopped the convoy to discuss with peasants working by the road and suggested they come to Brazil where a fertile land was awaiting for them. Looking at the migration statistics in the following months and years, it seems it worked [3].

exhibition picture

In Lebanon, Pedro II was offered a throne made out of Cedars. As a sign of gratitude; he offered a safe made out of gold and diamonds from the Brazilian mines of the Minas Gerais. If the Throne is still visible in the imperial museum of Petropolis, the question remains what happened to the golden safe (really).

We wanted to share  this story as an inspiration to get to know each other in a very direct and personal manner through journeys, dialogue with actors from all social and religious backgrounds and by learning each other’s languages. For it might well be the only path to avoid the risks Edwards Said sensed in his introduction to “Orientalism”: “My hope is to illustrate the formidable structure of cultural domination and, specifically for formerly colonized peoples, the dangers and temptations of employing this structure upon themselves or upon others”. 


[1] On Don Pedro II and the Judaic World, see the SESCSP exhibition “O Emperador Multicultural” (in Portuguese).

[2]C. Van Dyck authored the first translation of the Bible to Arabic and played a key role in the revival of Arabic literature (the Renaissance or “Nahda”).

[3] The 1876 census mentions the arrival of the first immigrants from Syria and Lebanon to Brazil in 1871.

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One thought on “Did you know that the last Brazilian Emperor was a passionate Orientalist?

  1. adrianouriel says:

    Reblogged this on ADRIANOURIEL and commented:
    História do Brasil, I like too much!! 😉

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