Monday, February 4, 2013

The Last Ball

It was the ninth of November, 1889.

The imperial flag still flew over Brazil.

For weeks, the people of Rio de Janeiro, rich and poor alike, had been talking about a great royal ball – one that had come upon them as a somewhat of a surprise.

Because the ruling monarch, Pedro II, was known to intensely dislike such things.

He was an ascetic intellectual, probably the best ruler his country had ever had. (And, some say, will ever have.) Pedro has been (justly) called “The Greatest Brazilian”, and if you missed the post I wrote about him back in May of 2010, please take a moment to read it:

A little over a year before the ball in question, Pedro had made a decision that was ultimately to bring down his dynasty.
He’d collaborated with his daughter to manumit the country’s slaves.
Thereby infuriating the country’s wealthy slave owners.
And causing them to plot revolution.

To reverse the situation, this gentleman, the Viscount of Ouro Preto, President of Pedro’s Council of Ministers, came up with one of the worst ideas ever put forward by a Brazilian politician.

He suggested that an event be held to honor the officers of the Almirante Cochrane, a Chilean warship then anchored in the harbor of Rio de Janeiro.

But that was only an excuse. The true reason for staging the event, was to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of this couple:

Pedro’s daughter, Isabel, who was married to the Count d’Eu.

A glittering show of majesty, the Viscount thought, would be just the thing to rally the people behind their popular emperor.

A venue that could be surrounded by troops was out of the question. The army had gone over to the side of the wealthy landowners, so the Viscount elected to hold the event on an island in the Bay of Guanabara. There, the imperial family could enjoy the protection of the still-loyal navy. And the Brazilian navy was something the army didn’t want to trifle with, since it was, in those days, the third largest in the world.

But which island?

 The newly-completed palace ( inspired by several other, much older, buildings in Auverne, in France) on the Ilha Fiscal seemed to make that one the ideal choice. It had been built as a headquarters for the customs service – and was so close to the city that it could be reached in only minutes.

The decision taken, three thousand invitations were issued. They went to the nobility, to the cream of national society, to politicians loyal to the throne. And, of course, to all of the officers of the Almirante Cochrane.

An immense amount of money was set aside to finance the party. It amounted to more than ten percent of the entire operating budget of the City of Rio de Janeiro for the upcoming year.

Less than a week after the invitations had been distributed, the stocks of quality fabric in all the shops of Rio de Janiero had been sold out. Seamstresses were working day and night. Hairdressers were fully booked seventy-two hours in advance – and many of Rio’s beauties had to accept the fact that they’d have to sleep upright, and not wash their hair for three days prior to the event in order to maintain their coiffures.

The Ilha Fiscal was richly decorated as a tropical forest. Lighting was provided by five thousand Japanese lanterns, ten thousand of the Venetian variety and thousands of candles. In addition, light was provided by the searchlights from Naval ships as well as seven hundred electric light bulbs and, up on the tower, an immense searchlight producing 60,000 candlepower.

Behind the palace, in the open air, tables were mounted in the form of a great horseshoe. They were decked with linen and silver, and in front of each plate were nine glasses, six of them in different colors.

Why so many glasses?
Because the party was going to be a drinker’s delight.
Thousands of liters of beer and 258 cases of wine, of 39 different types, had been laid-on.

They included champagnes from Louis Roederer (Cristal), Veuve Cliqout Ponsardin and Heidsieck, Clarets from Château Lafite, Château Leoville, Château Beycheville, Château Pontet-Canet and Château Margaux. There was a thirty-five year old Chateau d’Yquem, a Fonseca vintage port from 1834, and selected labels from Madeira, Tokay, and various regions in Germany. There were also six kinds of liquors.

As to food, the menu (the cover of which is shown above) ran to twelve pages. The assembled multitude managed to eat their way through 18 peacocks, 25 suckling pigs, 64 pheasants, 300 hams, 500 turkeys, 800 kilograms of shrimp, 800 cans of truffles, 1,200 cans of asparagus, 1,300 chickens, 50 different kinds of salads, 2,900 dishes of assorted sweets, 12,000 tulips of ice cream, 18,000 fruits and 20,000 sandwiches.

So food and drink were in no short supply.
And the decoration was extraordinary.

But one thing had been overlooked.
There was only one toilet in the entire building.

The men had no problem relieving themselves over the sea wall.

The ladies and their daughters, however, were confronted with a major problem.
It was solved, at last, by sending for buckets which they were able to insert under their skirts.

A corner of one of the ballrooms was set aside for this purpose, but soon began to reek of urine, a situation most disagreeable for those guests congregating downwind.

The emperor, dressed in the uniform of a Brazilian admiral, arrived at ten.
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, but worth telling none-the-less, that when he entered the building, and the band broke into the national anthem, he stumbled on the edge of the red carpet.

He was prevented from falling by two journalists – and was said to have quipped: “The monarch stumbled, but the monarchy didn’t fall.”

Not then. Not quite yet.

Ascetic as ever, and conscious of his duty, he went the rounds, performed the tasks expected of him and left at one. He didn’t drink, he didn’t dine, and he danced only once: with the fifteen-year-old daughter of Baron Sampaio Vianna.

I have been unable to find a photo of her, but I do know this: the young lady lived long – and dined-out on that story for the rest of her life.

Imperatriz Theresa Cristina’s dress was unremarkable in its simplicity.
Her daughter Isabel’s, on the other hand, was much commented upon.
As where the dresses of 74 other ladies which were described, at length, in the Gazeta de Notícias.

There were six different bands, one playing from the deck of the Almirante Cochrane.
And it is said that the music could be heard in the room of the club where a group of militant republicans were meeting with Benjamin Constant Botelho de Magalhães to discuss the date for the proclamation of the republic.

They settled upon the 15th of November.

And, on the 17th of that month, a week to the day after the last imperial ball, Dom Pedro II, with a dignity that impressed all who witnessed it, left Brazil forever.

 And the new flag of the republic was hoisted over Brazil.

Leighton - Monday


  1. Wow! That's quite a wine list. I would have been interested in wrangling an invitation. I do feel sorry for the ladies though...

  2. Leighton, thanks for another post about Pedro II and the history of Brazil. The 19th century definitely produced some great leaders especially in the Western Hemisphere.

  3. Your description of the resolution of the problem faced by the ladies points out that the good old days weren't so good after all.

  4. Lovely and interesting. I always wondered about bathroom facilities in the old days. Pedro sounds like quite a man.

  5. An event fitting of Versailles most notably in the "facilities" planning. Great post. And I'm in with Michael on the wines.