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Naval Royalists Revolt - 1893-1894

In April 1893, Admiral Custodio de Mello resigned his portfolio as Minister of Marine, and in a letter severely criticizing the President complained that the Ministry was ignored by the Executive. The Finance Minister, Dr Serzedello Correa, went out with him. At length, on 06 September 1893, the standard of revolt was raised in the harbor of Rio de Janeiro by Admiral Custodio de Mello on board the armored cruiser Aquidaban. The plans of the conspiracy had been carefully matured, but an inkling of them had reached the Government, which strove to discover the nature of the plot and the persons implicated. These efforts were unavailing, and it was a surprise to both the authorities and the public when the entire squadron in the harbor broke into open insurrection.

This pronunciamiento of Admiral Mello embodied the feeling of most naval officers, for the navy was on unfriendly terms with the army, and had been persistently ignored and slighted since the establishment of the Republic in 1889. When Admiral de Mello, therefore, determined to head the revolt, he relied upon this hostility to draw to his aid nearly all the officers of his own branch of the service, and the fact that he had been one of the prominent leaders in the successful revolt against General da Fonseca was also important, and undoubtedly attracted many Brazilians to his side.

The civilians actively participating in the revolt were a group of members of Congress and others, who joined Admiral de Mello on board the Aquidaban on the morning of September 6. That any prolonged conflict should occur, was not expected. The revolutionary movements in 1889 and 1891 had been of short duration, and similar brevity was anticipated now. It was thought President Peixoto would tender his resignation, or that a modus vivendi would be reached in a few days at furthest. But the sympathizers with the revolt and the peaceable section of the inhabitants were mistaken. Whatever faults Peixoto may have had, they did not include a lack of energy and determination, and a wish to resist the uprising was the dominant feeling amongst his supporters. But his decision to defend his position at all costs resulted in a prolonged and bloody struggle between the two factions.

The defenses of Rio de Janeiro and Nietheroy were strengthened. Sangbag breastworks were thrown up along the water-front in all positions where a landing was likely, and cavalry patrolled the streets. Batteries of artillery were mounted on the hills commanding the bay; martial law was proclaimed in the Federal District, and in the States of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Parana, Santa Catherina, and Rio Grande do Sul. The President personally inspected the defensive measures. Orders for war material were sent to Europe and the United States, and negotiations were opened for the purchase of war-vessels to take the offensive against the ships under command of Admiral de Mello. The military element rallied round the Government with few exceptions.

In possession of the insurgents were the warships Aquidaban, Republica, Trajano, Orion, Javary, Marajo, Marcilio Dias, Guanabara, Amazonas, Madeira, Sete de Septembre, Iguatemy, Araguary, the cruiser Almirante Tamandare, and five torpedo-boats; also the Brazilian merchant steamers Uranus, Venus, Marte, and Jupiter. Government steam-launches were captured, and utilized for warlike purposes. The rebels occupied the naval depot at the Armacao, near Nietheroy, but, after removing all stores and ammunition needed for immediate use, abandoned the position. In the first few days, the fleet was busy laying in coal and supplies; the former was taken from deposits in the bay, the latter from warehouses near the water-front, and consisting for the most part of dried beef and recently imported stores. Occasional skirmishes took place, but no serious fighting.

At the Armacao, however, matters bore a different aspect, for Peixoto had reinforced the garrison of Nietheroy, and every attempt of the rebels to land in the vicinity of that city was disputed. Fort Villegaignon remained neutral at the opening of the struggle, and was watched anxiously by both factions. It was the headquarters of the marine infantry and heavily armed with guns of large caliber, and its proximity to Rio de Janeiro gave it great strategical importance. Cobras Island was held by a garrison that also stood aloof from any active participation in the revolt. The naval school at Enxadas Island, in charge of Admiral Saldanha da Gama, followed the example of Villegaignon, while the forts of Santa Cruz, Sao Joao Baptista, and Lage remained faithful to Peixoto.

Civilians were apathetic, few thinking that there would be serious fighting, even after the suspension of all traffic in the harbor had brought home to people's minds the fact that something of the nature of civil war had broken out. But, on September 12, this apathy was abruptly disturbed when Admiral de Mello ordered all merchant vessels and foreign warships to leave the usual anchorage and move further up the bay, and next morning took up a position commanding the city. "When, about 9 A.m., the guns of the forts at Santa Cruz and Sao Joao opened an ineffective fire upon the rebel ships, and an hour later the fleet began to bombard the Government forts and certain points in the city, all was immediately confusion. The population, panic-stricken by the shot and shell thrown at the town, fled en masse to the suburbs, never pausing to note that the naval guns were directed chiefly against the war arsenal, the city being spared as much as possible. All day the fight went on, and the squadron then withdrew out of range of the guns of the forts. The Aquidaban had been struck several times by shells from Santa Cruz, but no serious damage occasioned to hull or machinery.

On the night of September 18 heavy firing was heard from Santa Cruz, Lage, and Sao Joao. This was occasioned by the warships Republica, Marcilio Diaz, and the armed merchantmen Uranus and Pallas passing the forts at the mouth of the harbor. Three of these vessels ran out unharmed, but the Pallas was struck and her machinery badly injured when abreast of the military school, where for eight hours she lay crippled and exposed to the fire of the forts, with a number of civilian sympathizers aboard, all of whom considered themselves lost. A few threw themselves into the sea and swam to shore, there to be captured and shot down by troops. The engineers of the Pallas, however, did not lose heart. Unable to repair the damage to the principal machinery, they got the ship under weigh with an auxiliary engine. Before this was accomplished, some twenty men were killed or wounded, but at length the Pallas steamed away at a speed of three miles an hour to the southward.

The object of sending the Republica and her consorts to southern waters was to establish a Provisional Government, thus giving a rallying point to Brazilians who wished to join the revolt. Direct communication was established also with the rebels in Rio Grande do Sul. The plan was for the fleet in Rio de Janeiro, and the people of Rio Grande do Sul to make common cause against Peixoto, and the island of Desterro, in Santa Catharina, was selected as a convenient place to establish the Government. The city of Desterro, the State capital, being weakly garrisoned, surrendered in October, and a Provisional Government was immediately formed, Captain Lorena being proclaimed President and furnished with a ministry to carry on the administration.

Little change occurred in the harbor of Rio de Janeiro during the remainder of September. At the instigation of the foreign diplomatic corps a compromise was arranged, by which the squadron refrained from firing upon the city, provided no artillery was mounted within the town limits. Foreign vessels were allowed to load and discharge in the harbor so long as no war material was landed. Constant skirmishing took place near Nietheroy, and in the vicinity of the Armacao; and on October 9 the white flag, which the insurgents had taken as their distinguishing emblem, was seen flying from the flagstaff of Fort Villegaignon, proof sufficient that the garrison had thrown in their lot with the revolt. It was impelled to do so by the action of the Government in cutting off the water supply and refusing further issue of rations.

During November the progress of the revolution was marked by a daily exchange of artillery fire between the Government forts of Santa Cruz and Sao Joao, and the insurgent stronghold Villegaignon and the warships. Admiral de Mello now determined to go south to Desterro to confer with the Provisional Government, and Admiral Saldanha da Gama agreed to take over command of the rebel forces in the harbor. An incident occurred at this time, resulting in the death of two officers, a boatswain, and an ordinary seaman of the British squadron. A party from H.M.S. Sirius and H.M.S. Racer landed close to the powder magazine on Ilha do Gouvernador, then in possession of the insurgents. About 3.40 P.m. on November 3, the Mattoso powder deposit, containing seventy tons of powder, blew up with a terrific explosion, killing a number of Brazilians in the vicinity, and, it was supposed, injuring some British sailors. Search parties from the British squadron found that Lieutenant Beauchamp Mowbray, of the Sirius, Lieutenant C. G. Tupper, of the Racer, and Boatswain Harris, of the Sirius, were dead, and seaman Lynch so severely injured that he succumbed shortly afterwards. The only trace of the two officers was some uniform buttons. The explosion was expected ashore, and was probably the work of a Government agent, but the facts were never disclosed.

On November 30 Admiral de Mello determined to carry out his intention of visiting Desterro. At midnight, the Aquidaban, accompanied by the steamer Esperanca, got under weigh. The Esperanca escaped unscathed. The Aquidaban was struck in several places, but not seriously damaged.

When de Mello left at the end of the month for Desterro, Admiral Saldanha da Gama, a man of great influence, published a manifesto to explain his position, in which he declared his wish to see affairs in Brazil on the same footing as existed previous to the revolution of November 15, 1889, and the people free to choose the form of government that they desired. This was twisted by the friends of President Peixoto to mean that Admiral da Gama was fighting to re-establish the imperial regime. That the Admiral preferred Monarchy to Republicanism there was no doubt; but he most emphatically and repeatedly reiterated that he had no intention of forcing any particular form of Government upon Brazilians. What he always said was, "Let them choose for themselves." Notwithstanding these denials, the effect of his manifesto was to weaken sympathy from a section of the population, who, while holding President Peixoto in detestation, were strong believers in the ethics of Republicanism.

In December, 1893, civil war appeared inevitable. The people wanted peace, but they were too supine to take up arms to end the conflict. While the insurgents had many sympathizers, Peixoto was upheld by the military and a numerous political following, and he now allowed his vindictive passions to overcome all caution. Legal guarantees were suspended under martial law, and no act of the authorities towards citizens could be criticized by the courts. Suspicion surrounded every person who was not an ardent supporter of the Peixoto Administration, and arrests were the order of the day amongst all classes of society. The prisons were filled with insurgent sympathizers, opportunity being taken to gratify personal spite by denouncing private enemies as being implicated in seditious plots against the Government, and thousands of peaceful people fled the country. Prominent persons, unable to escape on account of the strict supervision over transport from Rio de Janeiro, to avoid arrest lay hidden while this reign of terror lasted.

The position of Admiral Saldanha da Gama in the harbor was a difficult one. His object was to keep the attention of the army concentrated upon Rio de Janeiro, to allow more freedom for the revolutionary movement in the South; but the rebel squadron was in an ineffective condition, and was not capable of taking the offensive. The monitor Javary had been sunk by a 9-inch shell, and the Aquidaban and the Republica, the two most serviceable vessels in the navy, were at Desterro. Villegaignon fortress, moreover, had suffered severely from the converging fire of Sao Joao, Santa Cruz, and Cragosta. Its casualties in men had been heavy, and rations were getting difficult to obtain. For the moment there was ammunition, but the Admiral knew the stock would be exhausted if a general action occurred, and the strain was beginning to tell on officers and men.

The Government troops now became more aggressive, and forced da Gama to active measures to denude his ships of their crews to obtain men for landing-parties. In December, for instance, Peixoto ordered General Telles with a strong body of men to occupy the Ilha do Gouvernador, hitherto in undisputed possession of the insurgents. This entailed a force being landed from the squadron, and in the sharp fight that followed (the rebels commanded by Admiral da Gama in person), the Government troops were routed and General Telles and a number of officers and men killed. The area of the island was of too great extent, however, to permit of permanent occupation by the rebels, so the position was evacuated and immediately occupied by Government troops.

The personality of the Admiral alone kept the revolt alive. Luiz Felipe Saldanha da Gama was a man of exceptional ability, who had become Rear-Admiral in the Brazilian navy after long service. A descendant of Vasco da Gama, he had the pride of family tradition deep-rooted in his heart. The subservience of political principles to personal motives had no place in his life. He had traveled extensively, and his knowledge of English, French, Italian, Spanish and German enabled him to profit from his journeys. Whilst holding aloof from political affairs in Brazil, he frequently expressed to his more intimate friends his contempt for the politicians who had dragged his country down since the abolition of the imperial regime. He condemned the dictatorial methods of Peixoto, and at heart was a devoted servant of the exiled royal family. His personal inclination was for its restoration, but he never proposed to re-establish monarchy by force.

Peixoto, likewise, was untiring in his efforts, and the artillery fire from Santa Cruz, Sao Joao, Gragoata, and the batteries mounted at the Armacao improved. In spite of reverses in the south, the President never wavered in his determination to subdue the revolt. In January, the vessels purchased in Europe and the United States were ordered to rendezvous at Pernambuco. The plan was to station them off the entrance of Rio de Janeiro to prevent the ingress or egress of insurgent vessels, and to cut off rebel supplies. If this was insufficient to induce the surrender of the insurgents, Peixoto proposed to open fire from every gun near the bay, and simultaneously to attack the insurgent squadron with his ships.

Whilst da Gama was waiting for news from Mello, the vessels Peixoto had purchased in Europe and the United States arrived off the entrance to the harbor on 07 March 1894. Peixoto then issued notice to the inhabitants that on the 13th all forts and batteries would open fire upon the insurgents, and that the new vessels would also attack. It was added that batteries posted in the city would join in the action, and that a bombardment by the rebel squadron might be anticipated. The population was therefore advised to leave the town.

Arrangements were commenced immediately by the rebels for abandoning the ships and Fort Villegaignon, and on the night of March 12 the rebels left their stations and embarked on the Portuguese vessels. On the following day the program announced by Peixoto was executed. As there was no response from the rebels, the order was given to cease firing, and the news rapidly spread that the insurgents had given up the fight. The wildest excesses took place after the collapse of the rebels.

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Page last modified: 15-04-2013 12:06:05 ZULU