“The only colony in modern history to swallow its own empire”: how the Portuguese royal family remade Rio

The National Library of Rio, one legacy of John VI. Image: Getty.

In 1808, on the run from Napoleon, and after a short stay in Salvador, the Portuguese Royal Crown finally met its new home: Rio de Janeiro.

The portraits are, as these things usually are, much more impressive than reality likely was. Rio de Janeiro, for all its natural beauty, was a shabby, unimportant capital of a backwards colony. The Portuguese crown, on the other hand, was filled of odd characters, seasick and very likely filthy. Colony and coloniser glared at each other with some distaste. It was Rio de Janeiro’s first experience in being a living contradiction, an art that it still practices today. It’s the only colony in modern history to have swallowed its own empire.

John VI, the acting ruler of Portugal, traveled to the tropics a prince, his mad mother still holding the title of queen; in Rio he would become a king, just as Brazil would become a kingdom. The country has very few heroes in its culture; figureheads are divided in buffoons and rogues. John VI is usually seen as the first, a shy, fearful glutton pushed into a terrifying journey by the English, and who never really understood the art of politics.

Domingos Sequeira's portrait of John II. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

John was a second son, not expected to rule until his older brother died of smallpox, a fact that probably contributed to his image as an unprepared loser. The portrait doesn’t really match reality. Napoleon would, with frustration, describe John as the only one who fooled him; in any case is hard to reconcile the image of the cartoonishly frightened soft prince with a man that would transform Rio into a city capable of ruling itself and its coloniser.

The first priority was housing. The court demanded a lot of homes that simply had not been built; while John, Maria and Carlota had found suitable residences, they had brought along a demanding court with too many people for the modest colony.

The solution was to seize homes from current residents; it was common to find homes marked with the letters P.R (Prince Regent) to mark the takeover. Brazilians, with their usual sense of humor took to saying the letters stood for “ponha-se na rua” (get out). They would also come to grow frustrated with the intrusion of the court. The better food and products were given to the newcomers. Taxes were raised.

Hard feelings aside, change was inevitable. The city grew, molded into something suitable for a prince to stay in. Street lighting, water fonts, better streets would come; John would also open ports to new products and allow industry in the country (an interesting little detail: the taxation for imported goods from Portugal to Brazil was 16 per cent; the taxation for English products was just below, 15 per cent). No more the plain fashions of a dull countryside for Rio de Janeiro; that, of course, would not do for an European court.

John’s hunger for civilising the city did not stop at a few ticks: he brought many institutions that are still around Rio de Janeiro now. The Botanical Garden, with its magnificent palm trees that still grow, for which he had a special fondness. The National Library, with documents that had been transferred from Portugal’s. The bath house, the first Brazilian bank. To ensure that taste would rule, a French Artistic Mission, bringing artists to build the Royal School of Sciences, Arts and Crafts.

In everything, the Empire had a taste for the over the top. It also had a taste for spending money on red tape; John found jobs and functions for almost every single one of his court members, not necessarily for the sake of talent. This habit of building big and employing many is probably one of its most enduring legacies; many Rio mayors leave office with big buildings from which public money bleeds.

A lot of this was paid for by one of the Empire’s greatest industries: African slavery. The free population of Rio grew, but the city had the biggest slave population in the Americas, too. In its streets, the black and brown population did the hard work white Portuguese and Brazilians would consider below them.

To deal with the prospect of an uprising, John created the Rio military police, an organ still alive today. There has never been a better manifestation of the upper class paranoia, inherited from the royals, that one day black Brazilians might demand equality. Even today, black Brazilians die in larger numbers after conflict with the police, and the streets of Rio are one of their main graveyards. It would be 1888 before Brazil abolished slavery.

Long before that, John VI was gone, back to home to deal with an uneasy Portugal. The Empire stayed. His son Peter would declare Brazil’s independence not long afterwards. “If Brazil is to break away, it’s better that you do it, Peter, than some other adventurer,” John had told his son. Indeed, his family would hold power of newly independent Brazil for over 50 years – first through Peter I, and then, after a brief interval, through Peter II, who Brazilians remember as a gentle looking old man with a beard like Father Christmas.

Peter II. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Under Peter II’s command, Rio blossomed again, an industrialised wonder, lead by an emperor so keen on innovation and so in love with knowledge that he was one of the first men to own a telephone. A certain wide eyed nostalgia covers the period, lost in images of industrial wonderman Viscont of Mauá bringing railways and banks. But in truth, Peter II was supported by slave-owning coffee farmers, the army and church, all of which would abandon him eventually. Brazilian politics, as ever, are ruthless; the military coup that brought in the republic would follow.

The Brazilian royal family still exists today: strange, decaying curiosities who at times snipe about the state of Brazilian democracy, but don’t do so about the many periods of dictatorships. In its streets, in its architecture, in its natural beauty and its people, Rio de Janeiro remains, as ever, a strange empire.

Julia Blunck tweets as @angrysigh.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.