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Brazzil - History - March 2004

Minas, Brazil: Land of Martyrs and Churches

Tiradentes and Aleijadinho are two Brazilian heroes from the
state of Minas Gerais. One was executed for daring to imagine
a free Brazil, the other created a world of angels and saints that is
still very much alive. Even though both died two hundred years ago,
their beliefs and accomplishments still inspire young Brazilians.

Guy Burton

Outside the state legislature in Rio de Janeiro stands a statue of a Christ-like figure. He has a beard and a beatific look on his face, the face of a martyr. To generations of Brazilian school children this man is seen as a national hero. A failure in his own lifetime and executed by the colonial Portuguese authorities, he dreamed of an independent Brazil. He is José da Silva Xavier, more commonly known by his profession as a dentist: Tiradentes, or `Teeth Puller'.

Tiradentes's crime was to dare to imagine a free Brazil through his involvement with the Inconfidência Mineira (the Mineira Conspiracy). But his efforts were flawed from the very beginning: although in league with several other conspirators, their discussions about Brazil's future never got beyond the stage of actually talking about it.

Among their number were few who knew what they wanted from an independent Brazil: some wanted to keep a form of monarchical government, others wanted a republic; some dared to suggest the abolition of slavery while others demanded its abolition. All in all, a rag bag of ideas.

What motivated them were a couple of issues. The year was 1789: the French Revolution was sending shockwaves throughout Europe; in the western hemisphere the newly independent United States was about to swear in its first president. But it wasn't just the glories of the Enlightenment that would encourage them; self-interest played a part too. Portugal had been taxing them for years and had just announced it was about to start collecting back taxes. It seemed more than Tiradentes and his circle could bear.

Tiradentes's plight was exacerbated by the region of Brazil in which he lived. His home was the town of Ouro Preto in what is today the state of Minas Gerais. It is about three hours away from Rio de Janeiro and is one of the country's top tourist attractions—or it is for those who have an interest in the history of Brazil.

A few years back, I travelled up to Ouro Preto. I had foregone the bus in favour of a journey with a contact of my family's, Wilson, who came from another town in Minas Gerais. There are many stereotypes in Brazil, from the Carioca (people from Rio) who avoids working as much as possible and Paulistas (São Paulo residents) who always work hard and don't know how to have fun to the Mineiros (those that come from Minas Gerais) who spend their time worrying they will never save enough for their coffin.

But in Wilson's case it was an unfair slur. His only failing—if indeed it was one—was that he could be rather intense and serious. Yet even this was only on the surface. When it came to talking about football or his family, he opened up remarkably easily. Wilson was to drive us down to Ouro Preto. He wasn't especially interested in the history of the town, but he had friends he could visit during the couple of days we would spend there.

The Coast and the Interior

Ouro Preto (Black Gold) got its name from the gold deposits which were found around it. For almost two hundred years after the Portuguese first landed in Brazil the focus of their colonisation had been concentrated around the coast. The capital was established at Salvador, in Bahia, but Rio also had a role as a harbour for war and merchant ships.

The system of administration was highly centralised with the Portuguese motherland; not only was communication difficult between Brazilian urban centres, but interaction was regulated through the authorities. For example, inter-city trade between Salvador and Rio could not happen freely, although a growth in black market activity naturally took place.

During these first two centuries the economy was mainly based upon the sugar cane plantations which sprung up in the sub-tropical region around Bahia. With a small colonial population to provide the manpower needed to cultivate the fields, the Portuguese initially enslaved the indigenous population.

However, sickness (for many of the indigenous people were not immune to the illnesses brought by the Europeans), high mortality rates and desertions made the authorities reconsider and begin the transportation of Africans across the Atlantic to Brazil.

But around the year 1695 something happened, which was to change the economic and social development of Brazil. In the region of what is now Minas Gerais gold was struck, including what was then among the largest known deposits in the world. Overnight the colony changed.

People flocked to the area in a bid to make it rich and the interior of Brazil was opened up. Towns sprouted up where there had been nothing but virgin woodland, the Mata Atlântica, before. Trees were chopped down to build houses, mine constructions and administrative buildings.

After an initial period of competing claims and disorganised mining, the process gained official overview and management. Slaves were redirected from the plantations to work in the mines around Ouro Preto and other towns in the region, making up more than half the town's population.

With the growth of gold findings, it was transported down the road to Rio, where it was taxed by the authorities, the Crown receiving the quinto (a tax worth a fifth of the haul). With the proceeds of this money, Portugal—which was in relative decline to England, France and Holland—was able to prolong its position as an important and rich country during the first half of the 1700s.

Meanwhile, the importance of the gold trade and relative decline of the sugarcane plantations to the Brazilian economy became apparent in 1763 when the Portuguese moved the capital of the colony from Salvador to Rio.

But it couldn't last forever. When Lisbon suffered a devastating earthquake in the 1750s, the Crown's earnings from Brazil's gold was used to rebuild the city, while increasingly the money was spent to maintain the country's imperial status, by buying goods from the English.

Indeed, there is a school of thought, which suggests England's Industrial Revolution—the first of its kind in the world and dependent on a large amount of capital and financial assets—could never have occurred were it not for the wealth accrued from the Portuguese sale of Brazilian gold to the English.

Such a claim carries a familiar and disturbingly modern message: that the wealth and benefits enjoyed by the industrialised countries in North America and Europe have been built on the back of exploitation of other, poorer countries and people like Brazil. There may well be some truth within that.

Two Centuries Back

At first sight though, Ouro Preto hardly looks like a town visited by poverty and squalor. If anything, it bore all the hallmarks of affluence, its eighteenth century stone buildings a testimony to the wealth of the now defunct mines.

Having been built within a dip between several hills, it is possible to look down on the town and see the buildings with their dark red roofs below, while at the highest—and therefore most prominent parts of Ouro Preto—stand the churches which help make the place historically famous.

It had taken us several hours to reach the town, having driven through a barren and treeless landscape. Outside of Rio we had climbed into the mountains and travelled beyond the former imperial summer capital at Petrópolis, towards the frontier between Rio state and Minas Gerais, marked by a river.

It was hard to imagine that once these hills had been covered in dense woodland, not dissimilar to the few patches of the Mata Atlântica now preserved on some of the slopes surrounding the southern reaches of Rio.

It was early evening as we drove into the main square, named after Tiradentes. It was cobbled, like all the streets in the town. At one end stood the Museu da Inconfidência—the museum named for the failed revolution—while nearby was the local tourism office. We stepped out of the car and stepped into a different world, two hundred years earlier.

In a country where the old is forgotten or overlooked in the name of progress (look at the raised freeway built over the historic Praça Quinze in central Rio or the graffiti which litters the walls of the churches and buildings in the vicinity) and every Carioca dreams of living in a newly built Miami-style apartment block, Ouro Preto was akin to opening a decades-old, but well-preserved, letter.

The gold ran out in Ouro Preto several generations ago. The gold built the town around us; the exhaustion of the mines meant its decline. But that decline wasn't initially tranquil. Not only had the mining discouraged the population from farming, thereby causing food shortages, but its termination also meant a rise in relative poverty. But there was no corresponding fall in official demand for taxes; it was into these economic conditions that the Portuguese decision to demand back taxes encouraged talk of sedition by Tiradentes and his associates.

Churches Town

It was chilly. We pulled on our sweaters and walked into the tourist office; they had leaflets of pousadas (bed and breakfasts) in which we might stay. Because it was winter finding a place wouldn't be difficult; the town was relatively quiet. Indeed, so quiet was it that efforts to see Ouro Preto's nightlife were doomed from the start. Despite apparently being one of the largest and liveliest university towns in Minas Gerais, the students were elusive; like a timid animal, any sighting I made of them during the next two days would have been worthy of a photograph, were it not for the churches.

For Ouro Preto's lasting achievement is not the gold it produced, but the churches which were built. Given its small size—it is possible to walk through it in less than an hour—it would appear to have more churches than most other similar-sized towns would expect. Each though, has its own history and catered to a different stratum of Ouro Preto society.

One, the Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Pilar, is among the most opulent in Brazil, adorned with nearly 50 kilogrammes of gold. Another, the Igreja de Santa Efigênia dos Pretos, was built closer to the now-closed mines and was attended by the resident slave population who prayed they wouldn't be crushed in the mines while they worked.

But even in the church which catered for the slave population, the wealth of the town and the surrounding region was apparent. Gold leaf can be found by the wooden black-faced saints in the Santa Efigenia dos Pretos, much of it obtained by the slave miners washing the flecks of gold from their hair.

Yet it is not in the gold-leaf or even the architecture—much of it classical and baroque—which impresses in Ouro Preto's churches. Instead it is the wood and stone carvings which appear in the town's churches. Many of them were done by one master craftsman, Antônio Francisco Lisboa, otherwise known as Aleijadinho (1730-1814). It was Aleijadinho who personified Brazilian art during the eighteenth century, directing the style of sculpture from the excesses of baroque to a more subtle rococo.

Aleijadinho's depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints adorned with the sculptor's characteristic wavy hair and wide-open eyes manages to portray the suffering of the God-Man on his cross while encapsulating a sense of humanity and compassion. His cherubs, who he appeared to have a particular affinity for, are rosy-cheeked and fat.

At first sight, they may look naively done, especially if compared to that which can be found in religious centres throughout Europe. But this not only assumes a sense of European superiority, it also fails to recognise that Aleijadinho never went to Europe and worked in isolation from the masters in that continent.

But perhaps more tellingly, such a statement would omit to consider the great challenges Aleijadinho had to come to produce the work he did. For Aleijadinho wasn't only hampered with the social stigma of being a mulatto (half black, half white) in an environment where being white was associated with the elite, he was also physically challenged.

Aleijadinho's name means `Little Cripple'. Around 1760 he lost the use of his arms, later still his legs. But such impediments failed to restrict him. Strapping his hammer and chisel to his arms he would continue to work away; later in life he was to be found sitting on a little cart, barking orders at his assistants to wheel him around his work.

Whatever one's view are of religion and Christianity in particular, the faith and devotion it inspires in its adherents is immense. A visit to a medieval Gothic church in Europe bears this out. While we see the completed structure today, at the time its foundation stone went down its architects and planners would have known they would never live to see the completion of their work.

With the technology and building utensils of the day, that was only to be expected. These great Christian symbols became their life's work, only to be realised in death. Aleijadinho's infirmities, his physical suffering, are only another example of that faith. How else could he have motivated himself to carve the wood and stone that he did, into image after image of Christian individuals, many of them martyrs like him in their own way.

Faith and the Faithful

But even though Aleijadinho died nearly two hundred years ago, the belief and sustenance which Christianity offers Brazilians have not yet gone away. Having explored Ouro Preto's churches and museums, Wilson and I drove back to Rio with the objective of making a small detour. Off the BR-040 highway which links Rio with the Minas Gerais capital of Belo Horizonte lies a nondescript little town, undistinguishable for little more than a particular church and festival.

It was the second week of September and we were heading into Congonhas. Between 7 and 14 September the area outside the Basílica do Bom Jesus de Matosinhos swells with more than half a million pilgrims. They come to do penance, to pray for miracles and to receive blessings. And although Wilson wasn't especially interested in the fervour of the faithful, I had persuaded him to stay for awhile so we could drink in the atmosphere.

The church is famous for the soapstone sculptures of Old Testament prophets standing in its courtyard, each of which Aleijadinho had carved in the last fifteen years of his life. Deemed to be among his greatest achievement ever, the statues were produced at a time of immense suffering for the man; not only were his arms and legs virtually useless, his 60 years of age were also slowing him down.

I imagine that at most times the area around the church is peaceful and quiet. But during the festival it is another matter entirely. On that sultry, late afternoon, beneath the Prophets the square teemed with people, many literally wearing their faith: religious messages decorated their T-shirts, while others carried worry-beads. A voice was amplified through loud speakers at the edge of the square; someone was leading the faithful in the Lord's Prayer.

The church being raised above the square, I joined the throng snaking its way slowly up the steps. Old women in front and behind me murmured to themselves while making the sign of the cross as we passed within. Wooden carvings depicting Christ's last days stood along the simple whitewashed church walls. Behind the church stood a group of small stone buildings; they were dark within, lit only by the soft glow of numerous candles.

Queues formed outside as the pilgrims patiently waited to enter. Once inside they would deposit a votive offering (ex-voto) to represent a request, a blessing of one sort or another. Affixed to these symbols were photos of loved ones—family members or friends—and little notes describing their ailments, problems and dilemmas; many had come to leave these offerings and pray they would be cured or helped through divine providence.

Wilson grew impatient; although a believer, excessive religious fervour wasn't in his makeup. He was keen to leave. But as we made our way back onto the interstate highway and onwards to Rio, it wasn't the images of the faithful seeking God's help or comfort. Instead I remembered Aleijadinho's depictions of the suffering Christ within the church and who at the time of his death must have wondered how he would be remembered; and I compared that image with that of another—this time secular—martyr.

In April 1792, around a year after his arrest, Tiradentes heard his sentence: "[He is] to be paraded…to the place of hanging, where he will be executed, and that after death his head will be cut off and take to Villa Rica where in the most public place it will be fastened to a tall pole until consumed by time; his body will be divided into four quarters and fastened to poles along the road to Minas…and the rest at places of greatest population until consumed by time."

And so ended the Inconfidência Mineira. Sixteen years later, the Portuguese royal family, headed by the then prince regent, João, landed in Brazil to escape the Napoleonic invasion of his country. Fourteen years after his arrival—and thirty years after his execution—Brazil became independent and Tiradentes's reputation was recovered. Christ, Tiradentes, Aleijadinho, the pilgrims: destiny, it seems, works in mysterious ways.

Guy Burton was born in Brazil and lives in London. A student of Brazilian history and politics, he has written for Brazzil on a range of subjects. He has been back to Brazil several times since his time in Minas Gerais, including conducting postgraduate fieldwork on the Workers' Party. This research has subsequently appeared in Gianpaolo Baiocchi's Radicals in Power (London, Zed Books, 2003). He can be contacted at gjsburton@hotmail.com.

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