Barão do Rio Branco

Jose Maria da Silva Paranhos, Barão do Rio Branco (1845-1912), was a Brazilian political leader whose success in defining Brazil's frontiers during the early years of the republic added extensive territory to the Brazilian patrimony and eliminated numerous causes of international friction.

Born in Rio de Janeiro, the Barão do Rio Branco is often confused with his equally famous father, the Viscount of Rio Branco, former minister of foreign relations and author of the "Law of Free Birth." Rio Branco attended the law academies of São Paulo and Recife, graduating from the latter in 1866. He was a war correspondent for the Parisian paper L'Illustration during the Paraguayan War and from 1869 to 1875 served with little distinction as deputy from Mato Grosso.

After earning a reputation as a bohemian and playboy, Rio Branco underwent a severe change of character after being appointed consul to Liverpool in 1876. In 1884 he was named counselor of the empire. In recognition of his distinguished foreign service, he was given the title of Barão (Baron) do Rio Branco in 1888. In 1891 he became the director of the Brazilian immigration service in Paris.

A longtime member of the Brazilian Geographical and Historical Institute, Rio Branco took advantage of his trips throughout the Continent to visit libraries and museums and regularly submitted historical articles to Brazilian journals. This experience was invaluable for later diplomatic work, for he developed language skills, social and official contacts, and an affinity for spending hours in study and research.

In March 1893 Rio Branco represented Brazil in an old boundary dispute with Argentina over the province of Misiones. On Feb. 6, 1895, the arbiter, U.S. president Grover Cleveland, awarded the 13,680-square-mile territory to Brazil. In December 1900, thanks to Rio Branco's meticulous research and presentation, Brazil was awarded the 101,000-square-mile Amapá territory on the Brazilian-French Guianese border. He was appointed minister to Germany on March 28, 1901, but his stay there was a short one, for President Francisco Rodrigues Alves invited him to become minister of foreign relations in July of the following year. Apprehensively accepting the position, Rio Branco returned to Brazil for the first time in 26 years.

Yet Rio Branco's years in the foreign service had singularly well prepared him for his new task, and he had a profound understanding of Brazil's traditional diplomacy. His immediate task in 1902 was the demarcation of Brazil's 9,000-mile, ill-defined frontier, which touched all South American countries except Chile and posed a constant threat of international conflict. His most pressing problem was the dispute between Brazil and Bolivia over the rubber-rich area of Acre, where fighting had broken out just as he came to office. Obtaining a cease-fire, on Nov. 17, 1903, he negotiated the Treaty of Petrópolis, which gave Brazil 73,000 square miles of the rich territory. Between 1904 and 1909 Rio Branco won favorable decisions in boundary disputes with Ecuador, Venezuela, Surinam, Colombia, Uruguay, and Peru. In 15 years he had defined Brazilian boundaries, a cause of conflict for 4 centuries, and added almost 340,000 square miles to Brazilian national territory.

Besides his noted boundary successes, he jealously guarded Brazil's foreign coffee market and created numerous Brazilian diplomatic legations in all parts of the world. In 1905 he secured a cardinal for Brazil, which for 30 years was the only Latin American country that could boast of such a high Church official.

Rio Branco served four presidents and neither entered politics nor became involved in internal policies. He died in Rio on Feb. 10, 1912, after suffering a uremic attack.

Further Reading on Barão do Rio Branco

The best work in English on Rio Branco is E. Bradford Burns, The Unwritten Alliance: Rio Branco and Brazilian-American Relations (1966), which includes more than the title suggests and gives a good biographical treatment.