Minas, Brazil: Land of Martyrs and Churches

 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
their beliefs and accomplishments still inspire young Brazilians.

by: Guy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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