When Brazil gained its independence from Portugal in 1822, the very idea of a country of such dimensions was improbable. The most logical assumption was that the country would eventually become fragmented into several independent republics – just like what happened with Spanish America. And this was nearly the case, as Brazil experienced numerous secession conflicts in different parts of the country. None lasted as long as the Farrapos Revolution, also known as the Ragamuffin War.
The uprising began due to economic disputes between Rio Grande do Sul and the rest of the country. The province’s main product, charque (dried beef) was overtaxed, while the same product from Uruguay and Argentina had free entry in Brazil. Growing dissatisfaction with the central government resulted in an armed group, led by Colonel Bento Gonçalves, to capture its capital Porto Alegre and depose the province governor on September 20, 1835. The rebels, known as “ragamuffins” (farrapos) because of the fringed leather worn by local gauchos, were inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution of 1789.
The Farrapos Revolution – and the independent republic that it created – lasted for ten years, and overcame setbacks including the imprisonment of its leader, Bento Gonçalves, by the Brazilian Empire in 1836. He later escaped the following year in true Edmond Dantès fashion – he swam from the prison to meet allies in a boat close to the shore – and returned to the province to assume his role as the President of the Riograndense Republic.
But the rebel capital, Porto Alegre, was reclaimed by imperial troops less than a year later. At this point, obtaining a victory in the revolution became highly improbable. The farrapos sieged the capital for five years, but never managed to recapture the city. Nevertheless, the rebels refused an offer of amnesty proposed by the central government in 1840. In 1842, the Riograndense Republic approved a Constitution in a last-ditch attempt to consolidate their power in Southern Brazil, which was ultimately unsuccessful.
The armistice was finally signed in 1845 on terms that suited both sides. The rebels were able to have their debts pardoned, the revolutionary commanders received amnesty from the government, and new tax laws for products from the province of Rio Grande do Sul were approved. After the revolution was dismantled, an army general was appointed as province governor to maintain control over the territory.
The Farrapos Revolution has forever marked the identity of Southern Brazil, and remains a continuing source of pride. Freedom, equality, and humanitarian values are often described as the motivation behind the secessionist movement, although historians agree that the uprising was based more on landowners protesting abusive taxation. Slaves were freed so that they could enlist in the Republic army; many were re-enslaved after the conflict.
The myth behind the revolt serves as a point of union for the gauchos, giving them a sense of belonging. A few groups still wonder what might have occurred if Bento Gonçalves and his crew had been successful. Rio Grande do Sul, for example, would not have received the waves of late 19th century German and Italian immigration that have greatly influenced the region’s demographics.