Brazil’s Battleships, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
September 2017

Brazil entered the 20th century as “the country of the future” — the same position some cynical Brazilians would say it held at the start of the 21st. Explosive economic growth fueled by rubber, sugar and coffee made the boast seem legitimate, though even then some economists pointed out the long-term weakness of an economy built solely on commodities.

Brazilian politicians believed that any important nation needed a powerful fleet if it were to exert international influence. As in other nations, Brazilian leaders debated whether this fleet should be based on a few large, powerful ships or a large number of small, fast ones. Navy Minister Admiral Julio Cesar de Noronha favored smaller warships and in 1904 laid out a program of three small battleships, three armored cruisers, six destroyers and a dozen torpedo boats. The Brazilian congress approved the measure and voted funding for an extensive building program. Its overriding theme became prestige — Brazil had to have the world’s most powerful warships to symbolize her “coming out” among the great nations.

This goal sets the Brazilian program apart from those of Chile and Argentina. Where Chile and Argentina built their fleets for combat (against one another), during the 20th Century Brazil rarely ordered warships for use in specific conflicts. Instead, they were meant to show the growing power of Brazil. And as often happens in such cases, it would be the Brazilian Navy that would be the only one of the three to participate in combat operations (in both World Wars) while the only shots fired in anger by Chilean and Argentine warships would be during civil conflicts.

Brazil’s model: HMS Swiftsure, the former Chilean Constitucion.

The Brazilian 1904 Naval Law stated that the new warships would be built in Great Britain: The Rothschilds banking conglomerate made it a condition of the loan to fund the construction. Armstrong’s had already laid designs for a coast defense ship and a small battleship in front of Noronha. The coast defense ship was a repeat of the Norge built for Norway; the small battleship was identical to Constitucion then just completing for Chile.

Constitucion, soon to be purchased along with her sister Libertad and incorporated into the Royal Navy, was termed a “light battleship” by her new owners as her big guns were only of 10-inch caliber (as opposed to the 12-inch guns that armed most of the world’s battleships). The design was intended as a counter to Argentina’s Italian-built armored cruisers and not as an opponent for a true battleship. The Chileans agreed to sell both ships after reaching a treaty with Argentina, and Britain purchased them to keep them out of Russian hands. Named Triumph and Swiftsure in British service, they saw duty on overseas stations and were considered greatly inferior to Britain’s other battleships.

Brazil had built a pair of coast defense ships in 1898, and Noronha was persuaded that the new class should represent a significant increase in capability. Copies of the Norwegian ship would not do. The initial Brazilian order appears to have been three Constitucion-class battleships from Armstrong’s and three 9,700-ton armored cruisers from Vickers. The two arms makers colluded to freeze out other bidders, using their joint monopoly over the production of heavy guns in Britain. Bitterness over the lost Brazilian contracts would cause the other major shipyards to form their own consortium to cast heavy naval cannon.


The two designs for armored cruisers presented by Vickers offered a main armament of a dozen 7.5-inch guns or eight 10-inch guns. The Brazilians preferred the heavier guns, as they would give them, on paper, the most powerful armored cruisers on the planet and achieve the desired notoriety. The heavy armament of the armored cruiser also put the battleship in a bad light: She had only four 10-inch guns, though boasting a very heavy secondary armament of fourteen 7.5-inch guns. The high cost of the armored cruiser helped quench Brazilian desires, and they wavered on placing any orders at all.

Anxious to keep the contract (and possibly to make use of heavy guns that had already been manufactured, about 33 percent of the ship’s total cost), Vickers submitted a radical redesign of Constitucion. The 7.5-inch guns would be replaced by eight more 10-inch guns, yielding the world’s first battleship with “all big guns” (even if the guns were not so big by world standards). The six twin turrets would be placed in a “hexagonal” layout, with one on either end and two on either beam. Displacement increased to 14,500 tons, though protection and speed remained below the standard of most of the world’s battleships. This satisfied Brazilian pride, and they contracted with Armstrong’s for three such battleships: Minas Geraes and Rio de Janeiro to be built at Armstrong’s Elswick yard, with Sao Paulo subcontracted to Vickers. Vickers also received contracts for all the ships’ machinery. The revised design would also increase the cost of each ship, and so the Brazilians cancelled their armored cruisers.

In practical terms, the new Brazilian ships were smaller and less powerful than the “semi-dreadnought” ships under construction for several navies, like the British Lord Nelson, Japanese Satsuma, French Danton or Austrian Radetzky. None of that mattered. Brazil would have big ships that the other South American navies did not, ships that could at least be put in the same class as those of the Great Powers.


All three ships were laid down in the summer of 1906, but Brazilian pride soon took a blow when the Royal Navy unveiled its new Dreadnought in December 1906. The Brazilians immediately ordered a halt to the work; in the meantime, Noronha had left office. The explosion of the old battleship Aquidaba in January 1906 had killed his only son and most of his “small theory” supporters. Shaken to his core both personally and politically, Noronha yielded up his office in November 1906 to Rear Admiral Alexandrino Faria de Alencar, a supporter of the big-ship school of thought. When Dreadnought appeared, bearing ten 12-inch guns and better speed and protection than any battleship then afloat, Alencar knew what he wanted.

Workers began dismantling the ships on 7 January 1907, while Armstrong’s rushed to recast the designs to replace the 10-inch main battery with 12-inch guns. Brazil would need the world’s most powerful warship to regain what the Navy saw as lost prestige, though none outside of Brazil seem to have noticed. Within two years, they’d have it. But that’s another story.

All of the early designs appear in Cone of Fire, allowing players to examine Brazil’s possible uses for such ships.

Click here to order Cone of Fire right now!

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.