Ouro Preto (Black Gold) in Brazil's state of Minas Gerais sprang up after gold was discovered in the 1690s in the black rocks of the nearby river.
Speculators descended on Minas Gerais in a Gold Rush and the settlement where gold was found, then known as Vila Rica, soon grew into a major city. At first men came alone, with the indigenous Indian population used for the heavy work. Then, when the Portuguese masters found Indians to be unreliable and difficult to control, they turned to Africa for a labor force. Almost 300,000 slaves were shipped here and they served two distinct purposes: men were brought for mining, women for mating.
Vila Rica in its heyday had a population of 110,000 and it was a wild, dangerous place. Gold was everywhere (a kilo of beans cost more than a kilo of gold in 1750), and robberies and murder were commonplace.
To get a closer perspective on the gold rush I visit the Mina da Passagem near Mariana, linked to Ouro Preto by a historic railway line that is now a popular tourist attraction. Riding on a rusty old mining cart I descend into the bowels of the mine during a three-minute journey that has passengers whooping with delight, despite the uncomfortable ride. Tracks leading to nowhere line the base of the mine, while seams of multi-colored rock hint at the riches held within. I am only able to walk around 100 meters inside the mine, the trail ending at a pool of water and I return via a small chapel made by the workers. No doubt they felt the need for all the divine intervention they could muster.
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