The Portuguese in Brazil Part 3 (1650-1808)

Lynne Booker


THE GOLDEN AGE (1650 - 1808) Part 2 of this five part series showed how the Portuguese expelled the Dutch from Salvador and Recife and fought off the French on four separate occasions in order to hold on to a colony that did not appear to offer much.  But very soon Brazil was able to offer gold and even jewels to the Portuguese king.


King Midas in reverse

The gold that made its way from Brazil to Portugal enabled D João V to build splendid palaces in Europe.  Unlike King Midas who turned everything that he touched into gold, D João´s touch turned gold into stone and the monumental palace-convent at Mafra is the most impressive example of his spending.  Merchants in Brazil were doing the same - building opulent mansions and churches in new cities to display their wealth.  For the majority of people in Portugal, life was a question of survival; in Brazil, for most people life was if possible even more difficult. Sugar and tobacco plantation owners had grown rich on the efforts of their negro slave workforces, and the discovery of the sources of gold indicated that they would need even more slaves to work them.


An early gold rush

When they first reached the coast of Brazil the Portuguese had hoped to find precious metals and gemstones such as Spanish explorers had found in Mexico and Peru. From 1674 onwards the Crown solicited the help of the Paulistas to look for gold by promising them titles as rewards.  (Paulistas were the enterprising and ruthless mixed race explorers originally from the area around São Paulo – hence Paulistas).  By 1693, Paulista explorers had found gold in a number of locations in the province now known as Minas Gerais (General Mines). They made an attempt to keep the finds quiet, since they regarded these discoveries as their own property, but news leaked out in 1697 to Europe and swarms of adventurers and unemployed converged on the region where nearly every watercourse seemed to contain gold. Nothing like it had been seen before.  People came from the coastal settlements fought their way in to the area, Portuguese were leaving their homeland in their droves - between 1705 and 1750 an annual average of 3,500 Portuguese were leaving Portugal to try their luck in the Brazilian goldfield. So many that the Minho was becoming depopulated and the Crown  legislated to limit the numbers of emigrants.


Finders keepers

At the end of 1708, Minas Gerais was in a state of civil war.  It was  Paulistas versus emboabas (the newcomers).  The slaves of the Paulistas were generally Amerindians and the slaves of the emboabas were generally black Africans, and this division added a racial flavour to the war.  Brazil itself was still at risk from its French enemies and Portugal´s English allies looked covetously for any signs of weakness,  António de Albuquerque, Governor of the province, moved quickly in 1710 and he settled the year-long war by ensuring that the two factions were evenly represented on the newly created town councils and that land grants and mining allotments were fairly shared. Albuquerque´s handling of the war had solved the short term problem but there were rich rewards at stake and the tensions remained unresolved.


The pioneers of plantation slavery

"A hell for blacks, a purgatory for whites and a paradise for mulattoes," was how D Francisco Manuel de Mello (a reluctant immigrant) described Brazil in 1660.  Portugal had been the pioneer of the widespread use of slaves on its sugar plantations and the discovery of gold and diamonds had greatly increased the demand for slaves. The slave trade was the life line of Brazil in general and of Bahia in particular. In 1731 the viceroy,  the Count of Sabugosa,  estimated that between 10,000 and 12,000 slaves were being taken each year from the Guinea coast to Bahia alone.  Angola provided another 6,000 – 7,000 slaves per annum to  Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco and Bahia.  In 1727 coffee was introduced into Brazil from French Guiana and, in the 1760s,  when it had become a major plantation crop, the slave trade boomed again.  Despite continuous pressure from the British Government from 1807 onwards.  Slavery was legal in Brazil until 1888.


Diamonds are not forever

The Crown´s measures to prevent gold smuggling were severe but when diamonds were discovered in the bleak and forbidding region of Serra do Frio in Minas Gerais, penalties for smuggling became even more severe. The diamonds had at first been thought to be crystals and were used as counters in card games for many years until someone recognised their true nature.  In 1726 some of the stones came into the hands of D Lourenço de Almeida, the goveror of Minas Gerais (1721-32). He collected as many as he could from unsuspecting miners before the game was given away and crowds of adventurers and slaves turned from gold working to diamond prospecting.   D Lourenço had to tell the Crown that ´some little white stones´had been found and even more draconian laws against smuggling were passed, enforced by companies of highly professional troops to ensure that the Crown took the royal fifth (20% tax of gold and diamonds mined). The effect of these laws was to create a colony within a colony, cut off from the rest of Brazil by a legal and administrative barrier.  Eventually in 1771, instead of contracting out the working of the diamond mines, the Marquês de Pombal arranged for the mines to be operated directly on behalf of the Crown.  There is no way of accurately estimating the total production of the Brazilian diamond fields but the legal diamond remissions in Lisbon show 1,166,569 carats for the period of mining by contract and 1,354,770 carats under the Crown-led extraction.  These figures may show that many people had chosen to ignore the  severe legal penalties and had clearly been in the smuggling business.  One notable example was governor D Lourenço de Almeida, who arrived back in Portugal in 1733 declaring at the customs only 80,000 cruzados when it was known that his servant was carrying for him a diamond of 82 carats.  He was asked by a friend whether he had brought back an enormous and illegal fortune and he agreed saying that he had  “so much to buy, so little to give and nothing to lend.”  When its own most trusted officers were cheating the Crown in such a spectacular fashion, there was little hope that the king would ever receive his due taxes.


Pushing the boundaries

Gold and diamonds were Brazil´s most famous products in the eighteenth century but cattle made an equally important contribution in terms of the westward expansion of the colony. The exploitation of the sugar industry had led to the settlement of the littoral; gold and diamonds accounted for the settlement of Minas Gerais and Mato Grosso; the search for Amerindian slaves, silver and precious stones drove the Paulistas even deeper into the interior; but it was the drovers and stockmen who opened up most of Brazil.  The perceived danger was that the Spanish from the other side of the Andes might settle in territory claimed by Brazil, and to keep them out the Crown  even paid for poor peasants to move from the Azores to settle in the area around Rio Grande and Santa Catarina.  Cattle had provided the impulse of the moving frontiers of Bahia, Piauí, Rio Grande do Sul and Sacramento. and when Paulistas discovered more gold on the rivers Cuiabá and Coxipó in present day Mato Grosso, there followed another gold rush.  Perhaps slow boat might be more apt description, because the journey from São Paulo to the new goldfields took 7 months by fragile canoe.  Not only did the pioneers have to cope with the rapids and mosquitoes but they were also under threat from warlike Amerindians. - the Paiaguá and the Guiacurú - who were eventually at war with each other. Further gold strikes were made in Goiás and Guaporé.  The new gold strikes led to the division of the huge captaincy of São Paulo, and to the creation of two new captaincies, Goiás and Mato Grosso.


Brazil united

In 1623, it had been decided to split the enormous colony of Brazil into two parts, the southern half centred on Salvador de Bahia being called Brazil, and the northern half, called Grão-Pará e Maranhão, comprising the enormous Amazon region and Ceará.  The Crown forbade contact between the two halves (for fear of conflict with the Spanish missions on the Brazilian side of the Andes) but the royal decree did not stop the wandering Paulistas and Portuguese pioneers pushing out the frontiers of this huge region on behalf of the Crown of Portugal.  The boundary line between Spanish and Portuguese territory was still theoretically that laid down by the Treaty of Tordesilhas in 1494 but in 1746 the rulers of both countries realised that adjustments were needed to take into account events of the last 250 years.  The treaty of Madrid (1750) determined the borders between Spanish America and Portuguese America that are very much the same as Brazil´s borders today.  The wanderings of the Paulistas had thus earned for Brazil a vast territory.  It was also decided at this time that the administration of Brazil should be run from a new capital.  Since Rio de Janeiro had become the main point for the export of ores and minerals from Minas Gerais, in 1763 it became Brazil´s capital city (instead of Salvador de Bahia). In 1769, Portugal abandoned Mazagão its last fortress in Morocco and its citizens were shipped to Maranhão where they founded the new settlement Vila Nova de Mazagão on the north bank of the Amazon, a settlement which exists even today.


Ineffective taxation

With so much to be gained from the gold fields of Brazil, colonial administration needed to be strong to keep law and order and to ensure efficient tax collection. Despite its stringent efforts to prevent smuggling, the Crown failed miserably particularly regarding gold, diamonds and tobacco.  Large numbers of small fry were caught but nobody dared to give evidence against the powerful people who were smuggling on a colossal scale.  They were, as often as not, like D Lourenço de Almeida, working in collusion with Crown officials who should have been enforcing the law against them.  Even the priests could not be trusted.  It was alleged in 1705 that not a single priest in Minas Gerais took an active interest in the religious needs of the people - they were too busy smuggling gold in hollowed out wooden saints.  With their clerical immunity they were unlikely to be searched at control points. Despite all his legislation and paperwork, D João V never managed to set up a strong administration in Brazil.  Some royal governors were more effective than others in the collection of taxes but the collection of the royal fifths (about the same rate as we pay in IVA today) was so much resented that it was frequently resisted.


Strong arm tactics and rebellion 

D João V died in 1750,  and his son D José I in 1755 chose as his chief minister Sebastião José Carvalho e Mello (later known as the Marquês de Pombal) who made strong attempts to tighten up colonial administration and to reform and modernise Brazil´s economy.  He expelled the Jesuits from the Portuguese Empire (as a result of his influence the Society of Jesus was eventually suppressed)  and abolished the legal discrimination against New Christians and Jews.  Many Brazilians resented Portuguse landlords growing rich on Brazil´s resources and they resented being taxed by the Portuguese Crown.  During the eighteenth century calls for Brazil´s independence from Portugal grew stronger and in 1789 the first organised movement, known as the Inconfidência Mineira, was born.  In charge was Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, a dentist who was known as Tiradentes.  He and his fellow 11 conspirators were outraged at the level of taxation levied by the Portuguese and they began to search for ways to get rid of them. Their plans were quickly foiled and although all 12 were sentenced to death, their sentences were commuted to exile to Angola or Mozambique.  The royal pardon came too late for Tiradentes, however, and he was publicly hanged, drawn and quartered.  He became a Brazilian martyr and symbol of resistance to Portuguese Imperial power.


The royal jackpot 

Despite the facts that the collection of the the royal fifths was so inefficient and that about half to three quarters of the gold mined in Brazil found its way to England, by the end of the 18th century the Portuguese royal family was seen as the richest in Europe.  Gold was the pillar of that wealth.  Gold stimulated the whole economy of Brazil and cattle ranchers and tobacco planters and later coffee growers benefitted from an enlarged market at the mines.  Although Portuguese slavers lost some business when the Spanish slave supply contract (the Asiento) was granted to French slavers, they made up their losses through a contraband slave trade.  The sugar plantations lost some of their slaves to the gold and diamond workings but fresh African imports were always available.  The prosperity of Brazil and the relative poverty of metropolitan Portugal was such that the Portuguese monarch was often urged to move the seat of government to Rio de Janeiro.  The move did eventually take place in 1807, but for very different reasons.  (to be continued in get real 6 October)