Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil – Heiress of the Empire (Part one)




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Isabel, the future Princess Imperial of Brazil, was born on 29 July 1846 as the daughter of Emperor Pedro II of Brazil, the younger brother of Queen Maria II of Portugal, and Teresa Cristina of the Two Sicilies. The labour had lasted from the early morning until Isabel was finally born at 6.30 P.M. Her father immediately took her to the adjourning room to be displayed to the dignitaries and afterwards she was washed and swaddled. She was fed by a wetnurse, as was the common practice, and given her own establishment under the charge of one of her mother’s ladies-in-waiting, Rosa de Santa Ana Lopes. On 15 November 1846, Isabel was baptised in the Imperial Chapel with water from the River Jordan.

At the time of her birth, her elder brother Afonso was still alive, but he would tragically die the following year. Isabel also became ill around this time, but she survived. His death briefly made Isabel the heiress presumptive to the Brazilian throne. A sister named Leopoldina was born in 1847, followed by a brother named Pedro in 1850. Pedro’s birth placed Isabel one step down in the line of succession, but he too would die before his second birthday, plunging the family into deep grief. Her father wrote, “This has been the most fatal blow that I could receive, and certainly I would not have survived were it not that I still have my wife and two children, whom I must educate so that they can assure the happiness of the country in which they were born.”1 By 1852, it became clear that Teresa Cristina would have no more children and Isabel’s as heir to the throne was confirmed.

Isabel grew up in the company of her younger sister and her parents. They often spent the winter and spring at São Cristóvão and the summer and autumn at Petrópolis. The Empress and Emperor were affectionate parents, but the sisters’ upbringing was rather sheltered, and they lived their lives outside of the public eye. The sisters learned to read and write with the help of a teacher named Valdetaro, who called them “Little Ladies.” At the age of seven, Isabel was placed in the care of an aio (supervisor) who traditionally oversaw the education of the heir. He realised that Isabel and Leopoldina would need more than the traditional education for girls and wrote, “As to their education I will only say that the character of both the princesses ought to be shaped as suits Ladies who, it may be, will have to direct the constitutional government of an Empire such as that of Brazil. The education should not differ from that given to men, combined with that suited to the other sex, but in a manner that does not detract from the first.2 Tradition also required that the girls be educated by a woman and Pedro did not believe that there was a suitable woman for this task in Brazil. He turned to his stepmother Empress Amélie (born of Leuchtenberg), but she refused to take up the post. He eventually found a suitable woman with the help of sister Francisca; her name was Luísa Margarida Portugal de Barros, the Countess of Barral.

The Countess of Barral took up her post in 1856 and attracted the immediate dislike of the girls’ mother, who was the exact opposite of the enigmatic Countess. Yet, she hid her dislike as best she could, not wanting to antagonise her husband. The Countess was also well-liked by the two Princesses, and Isabel became deeply attached to her. By the end of 1850s, both girls were following a strict educational program that lasted 9,5 hours a day, six days a week. The Countess of Barral did not personally teach them all their subjects, but she did supervise. Even their father took it upon himself to teach his daughters. Isabel would later write to her father, “How greatly I thank you for having taught me, for having given me teachers so that I now understand the greater part of the things I see, even though I am ignorant about so much.”

Upon her 14th birthday, Isabel took an oath at the ends of the Senate president as required by article 116 of the Constitution to “maintains the Apostolic Roman Catholic Religion, to observe the political constitution of the Brazilian nation, and to be obedient to the laws and the emperor.” Despite their excellent education, they were still kept in social seclusion and surprisingly, Pedro also excluded Isabel from the affairs of state. Yet, in 1863 – shortly before her 18th birthday – Pedro launched the search for a husband for Isabel and Leopoldina.

Two Princes were chosen and shipped to Brazil so that the Princesses could meet them. Although Pedro would have the final say in the matter, he did not wish to force them. The Princesses did not learn of all of this until just three weeks before Prince Gaston, Count of Eu and his cousin Prince Ludwig August of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha were due to arrive. They first met on 2 September 1864 before returning the following day for a longer meeting. Prince Gaston wrote home, “The princesses are ugly, but the second decidedly less attractive than the other, smaller, more stocky, and in sum less sympathetic.”3

Though Isabel was love-struck, Gaston was less so. He wrote that the Emperor’s proposal, “at first greatly upset me, but I believe less and less that it is my duty to reject this important position that God has placed in my path.”4 Ludwig August had been instructed by his parents to only settle for Isabel, but he found that he preferred Leopoldina. The engagement between Isabel and Gaston was settled on 18 September 1864, and they were to marry just one month later.

On 15 October 1864, the bride and groom heard mass at the palace before departing to the Imperial Chapel. They knelt before the high altar and were married by the Archbishop of Bahia. Afterwards, they departed on a two-week honeymoon. Isabel had been left utterly ignorant of any sexual matters, but her new husband later reported to her father, “I have the joy of telling you that Isabel feels perfectly well.” Isabel reminisced on her first wedding anniversary, “I shall certainly sleep more tonight than I did a year ago, but what a difference!! I was agitated, yes, but I was so content and so happy!!!”5 On 15 December 1864, Leopoldina married Ludwig August. Just one month later, Isabel and Gaston left Brazil to go on an extended honeymoon to Europe.

Read part two here.

  1. Princess Isabel of Brazil: Gender and Power in the Nineteenth Century by Roderick Barman p. 25
  2. Princess Isabel of Brazil: Gender and Power in the Nineteenth Century by Roderick Barman p. 35-36
  3. Princess Isabel of Brazil: Gender and Power in the Nineteenth Century by Roderick Barman p. 59
  4. Princess Isabel of Brazil: Gender and Power in the Nineteenth Century by Roderick Barman p. 59
  5. Princess Isabel of Brazil: Gender and Power in the Nineteenth Century by Roderick Barman p. 64






About Moniek 1744 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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