Cone of Fire:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
After ordering three pre-dreadnought battleships and modifying them into very early examples
of all-big-gun warships, the Brazlian Navy
stopped construction on them in early 1907.
The Royal Navy’s new Dreadnought had rendered them obsolete, and Brazil had
to have something at least as powerful as
the new British ship.
Work halted on the Brazilian battleships
on 7 January 1907; on 20 February the Brazilians
approved the new design and signed a contract.
The ships became much larger and now carried
a dozen 12-inch guns in place of their 10-inch
main battery. They also became much more expensive;
the new contract stipulated that two ships
would be re-started to the new design, while
the third would be laid down as soon as the
first was complete. Minas Geraes started
over in April and Sao Paulo in September.
Whether the ships represented an increase
in fighting power over Dreadnought was debated even at the time, and definitely
seems questionable now. They were indeed larger
(19,200 tons and 543 feet long for the Brazilian
ships vs. 18,100 tons and 527 feet for Dreadnought).
The Brazilian design had greater firepower,
with 12 guns to 10, with 10 firiing on a Brazilian
broadside and eight on a British one. Both
were rated for the same relatively high speed,
21 knots, but the British ship had much better
protection, with an armor belt of 11 inches
against 9 inches in the Brazilian ships. Even
so, Britain’s Director of Naval Construction
was unhappy with Dreadnought’s
armor scheme and hoped for thicker plating
on future battleships.
The new Brazilian design suffered from not
truly being original: The builders had been
instructed to make use of the materials already
collected for the earlier battleship design.
Thus the new ships were doomed to carry the
same thickness of belt armor as the ships
first ordered, small pre-dreadnoughts based
on the Chilean Constitucion (later the British Swiftsure).
Minas Geraes passes the high
Level Bridge at Newcastle, on her way
to final fitting-out.
Construction moved along rapidly, but a ship-fitter’s
strike stopped work on both for the first
half of 1908. Armstrong’s launched Minas
Geraes in September 1908, but Sao Paulo did not slide down the ways at Vickers until
the following April. The British shipbuilders
blamed the Brazilians for slowness in approving
progress, and suspected that an inability
to pay for the ships lay behind a deliberate
stall. In the fall of 1908 commodity prices
for coffee and rubber began to slide under
pressure from African and Asian competition,
respectively. An attempt for float a new loan
for 15 million sterling failed, and Brazil
risked default on her battleships.
Her financiers, the Rothschild’s banking
house, suggested selling one of the battleships
to the Royal Navy. Armstrong’s signalled
agreement if the Brazilians used the proceeds
to fund construction of the promised third
battleship. The “Navy Scare” of
1909, marked by Unionist demands in Parliament
for eight rather than four dreadnoughts in
the new naval bill, seemed to make the time
right for a sale. The Liberals had cut one
battleship each from the Bellerophon class
of 1906 and the Collingwood class of
1907, and two from the Neptune class
of 1908. Buying the two Brazilian ships would
immediately make good the 1906 and 1907 losses.
board of directors, however, feared that a
sale to the Royal Navy would get Brazil out
of the dreadnought market entirely or worse,
send her to another shipyard for replacements.
They apparently used their influence to convince
the British Admiralty that the battleships
were not suitable for the Royal Navy, pointing
out their origins as enlarged versions of
the greatly disliked Triumph-class
pre-dreadnoughts. The campaign proved a triumph
of perception manipulation, pressing the image
of the ships as the world’s most powerful
yet at the same time claiming them not good
enough for British service. Thus despite a
desire to sell, and a political situation
ripe for a quick sale at an inflated price,
the Brazilians ended up keeping their unwanted
Minas Geraes joined the Brazilian
fleet in January 1910 and her sister arrived
in July. The international naval press gave
the Brazilians all the positive coverage for
which they had hoped. “Never has the
Navy of a minor power,” opined the British
journal The Navy League Annual, “ loomed
so large on the international horizon as that
of Brazil during the past year.” Building
dreadnoughts, in the eyes of commentators,
even outweighed Japan’s naval victory
over the Russians five years earlier.
The satisfaction wouldn’t last long.
On the evening of 22 November, mutinies broke
out on both battleships while at their usual
base in Rio de Janeiro. Seeds had been sown
during Sao Paulo’s delivery voyage
from England. The dreadnought stopped at Lisbon,
Portugal, to take President Hermes de Fonseca
on board for the journey to Brazil. While
the battleship was in port a radical rebellion
sent Portuguese King Manuel into hiding. Suspecting
their sovereign had taken refuge on the huge
warship, rebel army officers demanded and
received permission to search the ship. They
did not find the king, but the incident undermined
the authority of the ship’s officers
and exposed the crew to radical agitation.
Sao Paulo is launched. 19 April
The new ships required much larger crews
than previous Brazilian warships, 900 men
each. Their captains tried to work them into
shape with extraordinarily harsh discipline,
and that treatment combined with the Brazilian
Navy’s low pay scale and poor rations
led to widespread discontent. When a sailor
on Minas Geraes was severely flogged
for a minor infraction, the crew rose in anger
led by petty officer Joao Candido. They killed
the captain and several of his officers, and
on Candido’s orders threw all the ship’s
liquor stores overboard. The British civilian
shipyard employees still aboard both battleships
were locked in their cabins.
The red flag quickly rose on her sister Sao
Paulo, the old coast defense ship Marshal
Deodoro, and the new scout cruiser Bahia.
Crews of several torpedo boats refused to
join; the battleships opened fire on them
and they fled the scene. The four rebel warships
then steamed up and down the bay, performing
squadron evolutions much more crisply than
had ever been the case under their officers.
Intimidated, the government yielded to the
mutineers’ demands. All received amnesty,
though about a thousand sailors were discharged
from service. A new code of criminal conduct
was issued, and the government promised to
spend the money allocated for new dreadnoughts
on improving shore facilities and living conditions
for sailors. Though Armstrong’s did
not yet know it, the Brazilian naval program
was dead. The government began quietly seeking
to dispose of its two battleships but would
not be successful.
Sao Paulo crawls toward New York, 1918.
Brazil declared war on the Central Powers
in October 1917. Both battleships had deteriorated
badly in just eight years, and before Brazilian
desires to send them to join the Grand Fleet
could be realized they required major overhauls. Sao Paulo needed 42 days to travel
from Bahia to New York, and only made it with
large-scale assistance from the American pre-dradnought Nebraska, which sent 90 of her engine-room
gang aboard the Brazilian ship and escorted
her the entire distance. Fourteen of 18 boilers
failed during the trek, and Sao Paulo needed two years’ worth of repairs before
returning to Brazil. Afterwards, Minas
Geraes followed — having been the
site of yet another mutiny, in September 1919.
The war was long over before even the first
of the battleships was declared fit for service.
Led by a junior officer, Hercolino Cascardo, Sao Paulo’s crew raised the red
banner again in November 1924. This time Minas
Geraes did not join the rebellion, and the
two battleships confronted one another. Sao
Paulo fired a single shot at Minas
Geraes, wounding the ship’s cook,
and bombarded several of the harbor forts. Sao Paulo headed south, and her condensers
promptly broke down — less than five
years after her total overhaul. Making only
nine knots, she limped into Montevideo, Uruguay,
where most of the crew went ashore and asked
for asylum. The Uruguayans turned the ship
over to Minas Geraes a day later. Cascardo
later received a pardon and rose to the rank
of fleet admiral.
Minas Geraes was converted to burn
oil during a 1931–35 reconstruction. Sao Paulo’s condition would
not allow a similar change, but she was modernized
less thoroughly between 1934 and 1937. During
the Second World War the battleships proved
nearly useless, being relegated to harbor
defense roles. Sao Paulo was scrapped
in 1951 and her sister in 1953. The battleships
had wasted Brazilian resources for over forty
years, having contributed to rebellions but
Sao Paulo later in her career.
Both ships appear in Cone
of Fire, both in their fairly powerful Great War at Sea configuration and
as floating targets for Second World War
at Sea. Their weak protection makes them
vulnerable even when new; by the time more
powerful battleships or aircraft are available,
they are practically defenseless.
here to order Cone of Fire!
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.