The Tooth-puller, the Mad Queen, and the Longest Gold Rush in History – The Story of Tiradentes of Brazil

Tiradentes in Portuguese means “tooth-puller”.

This was the name that the Brazilian freedom fighter Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier was given by the Portuguese colonial authorities when they tried him for treason. They meant it as an insult, a reference to Joaquim Xavier’s days of working as a make-shift dentist to get by after he lost both his parents by the age of 11. 

On April 21st, 1792, Tiradentes was hanged by order of the Portuguese queen, Maria the Pious, who was known as Maria the Mad in Brazil. The queen got that name because of the terrible screaming fits she relapsed into, the result of an unexplained mental illness.

After Tiradentes was hanged, his body was torn to pieces, his body parts impaled on spikes and put on public display in the cities of Brazil where he had preached freedom from Portuguese rule.

This is his story.

The 18th Century – A Time of Intense Turmoil

The 18th century was a time of such an intense intellectual and political ferment, it was maddening.  It was as if history, meandering somnolently through the slow, soporific middle-ages had been grabbed by its shirt collars by the hands of man and violently shaken awake. There were revolutions, revelations, regicides, and radicalization.

In 1776 the American War of Independence happened. 13 former British colonies fought against and overthrew the rule of the mighty British empire in what was to become the United States of America. 

In 1781, Tupac Amaru led the Peruvian indigenous rebellion against Spanish colonists.

In 1789, the French Revolution broke out. The masses rebelled and guillotined the king and the queen. The famous declaration of the rights of man was adopted which decreed that all men are equal and none have any special rights to rule over others, even if they were kings or queens.

That same year, Tiradentes attempted to overthrow Portuguese rule in Brazil.

Perhaps at no other point in history had events so momentous been packed in so short a time frame. The wrecking ball of time had suddenly been loosened upon the edifices men had been building for almost one full millennium.

But why now?

The gunpowder that blew up Europe and America had been accumulating for several decades. It was called the Enlightenment. 

Up until the 17th century, kings ruled over people invoking the divine rights of kings to rule. In other words, kings and queens enjoyed hereditary rule over their kingdoms because God had ordained them to do so. Or at least, this was what the kings told the masses. Beginning with the 17th century this began to change. The chief driver of this shift in human thinking was the printing press and a sudden “opening up” of the world by European explorers. 

In 1450, the German inventor Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press, which was much faster, and cheaper than the process of woodblock printing which had hitherto been the only technology available for printing. The Gutenberg press also produced texts of much higher quality than had previously been available. This led to a printing revolution, in which books and newspapers began to be mass-produced and circulated. 

This meant that more people could now express revolutionary ideas to each other. And the foremost among those creating such revolutionary ideas in the 18th century was the Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau wrote many great books, but two of his texts are considered the most revolutionary – The Discourse on Inequality published in 1755, and The Social Contract, published in 1762. These books set forth ideas that had been swirling like restless waves in the minds of many, but had never been expressed so boldly and clearly – that all men are born equal, and that kings do not have an absolute right to rule over the citizens. “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” is the famous opening line of The Social Contract, which hit its readers like a bolt of lightning, so original, and so revolutionary the thought was for its time.

It did not take long for these revolutionary ideas to reach Latin America from Europe, where the naked plunder of natural resources by European colonists had been going on for over 2 centuries now.

Brazil in the 18th Century – The Longest Gold Rush in History

Tiradentes was born in 1746 in the principality of Minas Gerais in south-eastern Brazil, which,  in the 18th century was the nerve centre of the Brazilian Gold Rush. Gold had been discovered in Minas Gerais in the 1690s when Portuguese explorers found a gold-bearing stream flowing down the hills of Minas Gerais. This sparked off a gold rush that was to last for almost 200 years – the longest in history. It is estimated that in the 18th century alone, some 800 tons of gold had been extracted from Minas Gerais and sent to Portugal. To put that number in perspective, the global annual production of gold in the world today, using the most advanced mining technologies, stands at around 2500 tons. Brazil had been a Portuguese colony since 1500, and by 1789, this extraction and transfer of Brazilian gold to Portugal was to make tiny Portugal one of the richest countries on earth.  

It was in the middle of this gold rush that Tirandentes was to find himself stranded when he lost both his parents by the age of 11. He found work as a supervisor in the only industry that had any jobs to offer – gold – overseeing the transportation of gold from the mines in Minas Gerais to the port of Rio de Janeiro, from where it was shipped off to Portugal. 

Despite working at the job for years, he never made it above the lowest rank. The highest ranks, he realized were reserved for the Portuguese bureaucrats who were brought in specially from Portugal to control the gold mines. 

It was then that the cruelly exploitative nature of colonial rule struck Tiradentes most forcefully. He realized, for the first time, how Portugal was sucking gold and other valuable resources out of Brazil while keeping the native Brazilians shackled to a life of poverty.

Tiradentes was soon to lose even the low-paying job he had, forcing him to find work as a makeshift dentist in the town of Vila Rica, then the capital of Minas Gerais.

Vila Rica literally means the rich town. In the 18th century, it was the capital of Minas Gerais, and thus the nerve centre of the Brazilian gold rush. So rich had the town of Vita Rica become from its gold that churches and prominent buildings were adorned with gold. It soon became a major tourist spot for European nobility and intelligentsia who came down to see the famous gold town with its rivers of gold with their own eyes. 

But of course, as Tiradentes was to realize, most of this wealth was concentrated in the hands of the Portuguese nobility. For the Brazilians, whether indigenous or of European origin, there was little on the table. 

It was this realization of the nature of colonial exploitation that bled into the revolutionary ideas imported from Europe that finally led to Tiradente’s revolt.

The End

When the Portuguese crown imposed an additional levy on Brazil called the Derrama to shore up falling gold production, Tiradentes decided to strike.  Along with several Brazilian military and civilian officials of Minas Gerais, he formed the Inconfidencia Mineira or the Mineira Conspiracy. Members of the conspiracy planned to rise in armed rebellion, overthrow the rule of the Portuguese crown, and declare an independent Brazilian republic, as the Americans had done 13 years earlier. To rally more people to the cause, Tiradentes toured the towns and villages of Minas Gerais enthusiastically, forcefully putting his revolutionary ideas before the people.

The movement however died before it could challenge the Portuguese crown. Some of the conspirators betrayed the cause, divulging to the Portuguese authorities details of the planned armed rebellion, in return for, what else, but gold. The crown moved in swiftly – all the conspirators were arrested and the rebellion averted.

The Queen of Portugal, Maria the Mad commuted the death sentences of most of the conspirators to exile and life imprisonment. Except for Tiradentes. Tiradentes was to be hanged to death by the order of the Mad Queen of Portugal, his body cut into pieces, and the pieces put on public display at all the cities and villages where he had preached his revolutionary ideas. 

The sentence was carried out on April 21st, 1792.

Today, April 21st is observed in Brazil as Tiradentes Day, and Tiradentes recognized as a national hero.. Although his rebellion failed, the event is recognized as a key milestone in the path to Brazil’s eventual independence from Portugal in 1822, 30 years after Tiradentes’s death. After all, nothing can stop an idea whose time has come. 

Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

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