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Empire Adrift

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In 1807, the Portuguese prince regent Dom Joao made an extraordinary decision. Although horrified by the idea of sea travel, Napoleon’s troops were closing in on Lisbon so he opted to transplant his entire court and government to Portugal’s largest colony, Brazil. 10,000 aristocrats, ministers, priests and servants clambered aboard the rickety fleet. After a rough passage they spilled off their ships bedraggled and lice-ridden to the astonishment of their new-world subjects. Thus began a thirteen-year period of imperial rule from a ‘tropical Versailles’ set against the city’s jungle-clad mountains. But this only partially obscured the brutal workings of what was then the largest slaving port in the Americas. While the court grappled with the dark side of its own empire, Brazil was coming of age. Patrick Wilcken brings this remarkable period to the life, blending vivid contemporary testament with a rich evocation of a time in history when European royalty went native.