The Brazilian Hero Who Died With the Word ‘Liberty’ on His Lips

By Pedro Mutzig

Two hundred and one years ago, Domingos José Martins was shot in Recife, the capital of Pernambuco, a Northeastern state in Brazil. His last words, interrupted by his executioners, were “I die for liber…”. His freedom of speech assaulted in the last moments of life, he was unable to finish the word “liberty.”

Domingos José Martins is one of many heroes who struggled to promote liberty and helped shaped the history of Brazil in the process. A more prosperous, free and fair society was his ideal. His story illustrates that the current upsurge of Brazilians’ interest in freedom and free markets is neither an isolated nor an unprecedented phenomenon. What we are seeing today is a revival of ideas rooted deep in our society.

It’s important for liberty’s defenders to go back in history and look for individuals who are examples of courage, integrity and heroism. They can inspire us to act with even more confidence. For that very purpose, I present the Domingos José Martins story here, with particular attention to the the social context of his time. He was a key figure in one of the greatest popular mobilizations of our colonial period: the Pernambucana Revolution.

Domingos José Martins was born in Marataízes in the Atlantic coastal state of Espírito Santo in 1781. His father commanded a small outpost of the Brazilian military, which served to prevent the clandestine landing of slaves and to protect travelers from indigenous attacks. When he completed his brief military career, he commenced business studies in the state capital of Vitória (the town where I live today), later completing his academic education in Portugal.

After graduation he moved to London as an employee of the Portuguese firm, Dourado Dias & Carvalho. During his stay in the British capital, Martins connected with the English liberal (classical, pro-liberty) movement. He embraced its principles and was hopeful at first that they might be applied by French Revolution (which as we know, took a left turn for the worse). Nonetheless, he proved to be an astute observer of the evolution of liberal ideas in Europe and hoped that they might eventually serve the emancipationist aspirations of Latin Americans chafing at authoritarian rule by the Portuguese and Spanish.

At age 32 in 1813, Martins returned to Brazil. He settled in Pernambuco, then the richest province in Brazil. It was a province of great political and economic influence as well as a history of popular support for ideas of liberty, which had arrived in Pernambuco with foreign travelers and Brazilians who lived abroad, and the books and other publications they brought with them.

Pernambucan society was ready for revolt. New taxes from the Portuguese Crown, the massive presence of the Portuguese in public administration and unpopular, mercantilist restrictions imposed on maritime commerce were factors contributing to growing dissatisfaction. It was in this historical context that Martins saw a fertile climate for the ideals of liberty for which he prized so much. He quickly became a well-respected and outspoken leader, gaining great influence throughout the region.

The central government’s arbitrariness affected the entire population of Pernambuco, which Martins wanted to liberate. Revolution broke out in 1817 as local, armed rebels struck against monarchist troops. Meanwhile, civil and religious leaders led by Martins managed to dominate the government of Pernambuco, formally proclaiming a Republic. In a short period of three months, a constituent assembly was called, which established the separation of powers, allowed freedom of religion, proclaimed freedom of the press and abolished various taxes. This was an unprecedented development in colonial Brazil.

Attempts to obtain support from other provinces, however, failed. Consequently, the young republic was alone in its fight and ended up violently repressed. Portuguese troops marched to Pernambuco and the navy blocked the capital’s main port. The revolutionaries were unfortunately defeated and its provisional government surrendered. The apex of the repression that ended the Revolution were the deaths of its main leaders, among them Domingos Martins himself. They were shot, hanged and quartered.

Though the Pernambuco Revolution was brief and unsuccessful, its animating principles still resonate today. It was in this movement that new ideas began to take hold throughout Brazilian society—ideas such as limited government, free markets, and individual liberty. The young liberal Martins played a very important role in lighting the flame of liberty in Brazil, so much so that the Revolution he ignited is considered as the precursor of Brazilian independence that would occur five years later.

Nowadays, Domingos José Martins has a city named after him in the mountains of Espírito Santo and is patron of the state’s civil police. But he deserves to be better known, in both the state of his birth, Espírito Santo, and in Brazil more broadly. An organization I am part of here in Vitoria takes its name from him, and we are working to reawaken our fellow Brazilians to his legacy. If we succeed, we will build the free Brazil that was our hero’s dream.

The organization’s name is Group Domingos Martins, founded in 2014 by Students for Liberty Brazil’s local coordinators. Nowadays, the Group’s associates are present in more than 10 colleges and universities throughout Espírito Santo, leading projects to impact the academic, entrepreneurial and political environments, such as student meetings, film screenings, debates, conferences and social mobilizations.

 

 

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