Ouro Preto is not a place for the unfit.
With 30 percent gradients running down both sides of Praça Tiradentes, the central square and the only flat area of note in the whole town, a walk anywhere is guaranteed to provide a good work-out for the hamstrings. Yet it is the treasures found within these unforgiving slopes that mark out Ouro Preto as probably the single most important town in Brazilian history – and even beyond; it was the gold found in the state of Minas Gerais that helped finance Europe’s Industrial Revolution.
Vila Rica, as it was known then, sprung up soon after gold was discovered in the black rocks near the river valley that runs below today’s town. Speculators descended on the area in a Gold Rush and the settlement soon grew into a major city.
Nobody really knows how much gold was taken from Minas Gerais in total. Estimates suggest that in 1698 around 400 kg of gold was mined, increasing to two tons in 1710 and a staggering ten tons in 1750. But amounts were heavily under-reported as the Portuguese Crown took a heavy share (20 per cent) of all declared gold. The gold was considered the property of the king and his Treasury meted out severe punishment (usually beheading) to those found to be hiding it. Yet many ran the risk, often hiding the metal inside religious icons.
As gold reserves began to dry up in the late 18th century, the Portuguese crown, convinced that their reduced revenues were down to smuggling, imposed ever-higher taxes on the people of Minas Gerais.
Inspired by the stories of revolution in France and America, Joaquim José da Silva Xavier – better known as Tiradentes (“tooth-puller”) – led a protest movement known as the Inconfidência Mineira that called for independence from the Portuguese and for better opportunities for all of Brazil’s citizens.
Tiradentes was the most famous freedom-fighter of the 18th-century. The square in the center of Ouro Preto is named in his honor, as are public places in many Brazilian towns and cities.
For his troubles he was imprisoned for three years and hanged in Rio de Janeiro. His head was then put on display in Ouro Preto and other body parts left in towns along the Estrada Real, to deter any thought of further protest. His co-conspirators were exiled to Africa, and their bodies only returned to Brazil in 1942. They are now interred in the Conspiracy Museum at one end of the city’s main square.
Since independence, Tiradentes has become Brazil’s national hero. April 21, the date of his execution, is now a public holiday.
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