One foot there, the other here
Piauí was divided between those who wanted to remain tied to Portugal and those who supported the accession to Rio de Janeiro.
The news about the Cry of Ipiranga did not take long to reach Piauí. On September 30th, Parnaíba’s outside judge, João Cândido de Deus e Silva (1787-1860), urged the province’s Government Board to acclaim Don Pedro as emperor. He argued: “The best, the biggest, the richest and most populated part of Brazil has been declared to be in favor of the independence cause; how could we convince ourselves that the rest should not follow the same cause? Or should the people look at their divided country in cold blood, with the South following one system and the North, another one?”
The Board, dominated by the Portuguese party, would say yes, as it was made clear in the letter sent to General Labatut on January 14th of 1823. It stated that Piauí, Maranhão and Pará would have more advantages in the union with Portugal than with Rio de Janeiro, for communications with Lisbon were easier and the assets they produced would be more easily sold in Portugal than in Rio. For the Board, in case the province supported Don Pedro, they would be exchanging their dependence on Portugal for Rio de Janeiro, which seemed to be less advantageous.
The argumentation was weak. Piauí, with only 70 thousand inhabitants and small urban centers, among which the biggest were Oeiras, capital of the province, and the village of Parnaíba, the only sea port, had as the base of economy its huge flocks. It exported leather to Portugal, but the greatest markets for its cattle were Maranhão, Pernambuco, Bahia and, most of all, Minas Gerais.
However, Deus e Silva did not wait for the Board’s reaction. Along with other patriots in Parnaíba, he passed over the Portuguese party and proclaimed the accession to the Independence on October 19th of 1822. The Oeiras Board reacted immediately and, to restore the obedience in the village, sent against it the Governor of Arms, Portuguese Major João José da Cunha Fidié (?-1856).
Other troops joined him, coming from Maranhão, as well as the war brig D. Miguel. In no condition to resist, the patriots abandoned the village and sought refuge in Ceará. A group of them, commanded by Leonardo de Carvalho Castelo Branco (1788-1873), would return to Piauí to take Piracuruca by arms and declare, on January 22nd of 1823, the village’s accession to the Independence. The feat was repeated two weeks later in Campo Maior.
Leonardo – who, in fulfilling a promise when leaving the jail, would change his name to Leonardo da Senhora das Dores Castelo Branco – was, despite his romantic and deeply catholic nature, a late illuminist. A poet, philosopher and scientist, he invented a machine to gin cotton and another one intended to resolve the problem of perpetual motion. Among his works are Memory of the bees of the province of Piauí (Memória acerca das abelhas da província do Piauí) and Leonardo’s Astronomy and mechanics (Astronomia e mecânica leonardina), both unpublished to date, and the poems The holy miracle (O santíssimo milagre), The universal creation (A criação universal) and The impious confused (O ímpio confundido), works of ambition and breadth, the second one with more than four thousand verses and the third with almost 6500. He used to philosophy in verses. In verses he condemned slavery. And in verses he revealed himself as an excellent animalist.
With Fidié in Parnaíba, the supporters of Independence, on the night of January 24th, took Oeiras by surprise and proclaimed the accession to the Independence, electing a new provincial government presided by Brigadier Manuel de Sousa Martins (1767-1856).
Fidié went to the capital. And, on March 13th, on the Jenipapo River, close to Campo Maior, he encountered an improvised army that Sousa Martins, future Viscount of Parnaíba, had sent against him. The Portuguese won the battle, but lost their luggage with weapons, ammunition and medicines.
Insecure in an increasingly hostile environment, two weeks later Fidié abandoned Piauí and settled in Caxias, Maranhão. Piauians went after him and, with the reinforcement of troops from Ceará and Pernambuco, as well as supporters of the Independence from Maranhão, besieged the city where he had taken refuge. The Major finally surrendered on August 1st, being made prisoner and taken first to Oeiras and then to Rio de Janeiro, from where he would be sent back to Portugal. With his defeat, the Lusitanian party lost power once and for all, and Piauí’s accession to the Independence became irreversible.
Leonardo da Senhora das Dores Castelo Branco, one of the most active and undisguised leaders of the Independence cause, heard about the victory in the Limoeiro prison in Lisbon. He had been arrested by the Portuguese on March 1st and sent in chains to Portugal. Pardoned in September, he returned to Piauí, where he got involved in the Confederation of the Ecuador. He then sought refuge in Lisbon and lived there until 1850, when he returned to Brazil. After living in Maranhão, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, he finished his days in Piauí, at the age of 85.
Alberto da Costa e Silva is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and author of O quadrado amarelo (Imprensa Oficial do Estado de São Paulo, 2009).