"José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva -
The Greatest Man in Brazilian History" - by Ricardo C. Amaral
Copyright © 1999

This article is the second part of a four part series in commemoration of Brazil's
500th anniversary. (Brazil's actual birthday date is April 22, 2000)

In this article I will highlight some important information to show to the reader that the impact which José Bonifácio had as the architect of Brazilian independence did not happen by chance, but as a result of his life-long hard work and experience. He had all the credentials and knowledge which he had acquired in Europe during the thirty six years in which he lived there, before returning to Brazil in 1819 to do a masterful job in directing Brazil in its independence process.

When Prince Dom Pedro asked José Bonifácio to be his Prime Minister in 1822, the Prince Regent was aware that he could not find a more qualified person for that job in Brazil. José Bonifácio told the Prince Regent that he would accept the position only when allowed to impose his unlimited authority. Dom Pedro did not hesitate. He armed José Bonifácio with the highest level of authority possible. The investiture of José Bonifácio carried with it the most extensive powers that any minister had in the history of the imperial or republican Brazil.

The World in the Early 1800's

To help put things in the right perspective I want to make two important points. First, the journalist/historian James Burke in his television series about world history called Connections gave the viewer some interesting information. In one of the episodes he mentioned that most people who lived up to the early 1800's spent their entire lives never traveling farther than a 20 mile radius from the place where they were born. In other words most people lived in a small and limited world.

Second, in 1822 the Brazilian population was estimated to be around 4.4 million people. The white population was around 2.0 million people, and only about 10 percent of them were literate or semi-literate. Very few people had an advanced education.

The percentage of people literate or semi-literate in Brazil improved a little bit by 1890. The census of 1890 in Brazil shows that out of a total population of 14 million people only 14.8 % were literate or semi-literate.

These points are important because they describe the world in which José Bonifácio was living from 1780 to 1838, where most people lived in this very limited world of 20 miles radius, and the great majority of people were illiterate or semi-literate.

José Bonifácio's Education

José Bonifácio was an extraordinary human being. He had attended some of the best Universities of his time; he studied mathematics, philosophy, astronomy and law. He received his philosophy degree in 1787 and his law degree in 1788. Later he studied and did research in the top universities in France, Germany and Scandinavia. He traveled extensively throughout Europe from 1789 through 1800. He met a large number of the best scientists of his day including Fourcroy, Vauquelin, Priestley, Lavoisier and many others.. He visited many of the well known Universities and scientific research centers of Europe of his day.

José Bonifácio was fluent in 6 languages ( write/read), including Portuguese, English, French, Italian, German and Spanish. He understood 11 languages in total, and he also had complete command of Greek and Latin.

He traveled extensively throughout Europe and witnessed first hand how different places and different people were organized and how their society operated. He was in Paris in the period 1790 through 1792, and he was very interested in the debates of the Convention in Paris. He stayed in Paris until the proclamation of the French Republic in September 1792. During this period he frequented a very exclusive group of powerful thinkers; some of them had influenced and played a major role in the French Revolution and others were authorities in their fields of specialization.

The Portugal Period 1800 - 1819

After he returned to Portugal in 1800, he was appointed to many positions of responsibility by the Portuguese government. He also participated in the war effort to defend Portugal from three French invasions from 1808 to 1812.

José Bonifácio left Portugal with his family on August 19, 1819 to return to Brazil. He was 56 and 1/2 years old, considered an advanced age in 1819, and he had been living out of Brazil for 36 years.

When he arrived in Brazil in early November 1819, he was a respected and well known scientist in the top scientific research centers of Europe of his day. He came back to Brazil to retire and to enjoy his remaining days doing scientific research and writing, hardly knowing that the biggest accomplishments of his life and what would immortalize him in world history were still ahead of him.

The greatest accomplishment of Dom Pedro's life (the Prince Regent) in regard to Brazil, was to appoint José Bonifácio his Prime Minister, and not hesitating in arming José Bonifácio with unlimited authority to do his job.

Most of the above information with the proper footnotes can be found in much more detail in the book "José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva - 
The Greatest Man in Brazilian History" by Ricardo C. Amaral.

In part III of this series we will discuss the independence process of Brazil.

Homepage About the Author Part I Part II Part III Part IV