Win the adventure of a lifetime!

UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Gold Mining Displaces Cane Farming

The decline in the sugar economy cut off the smaller Northeastern cane farmers from the customary paths to higher socioeconomic status, producing a situation in which this potentially powerful segment of the population no longer had reasons to support the traditional colonial society. The cane farmers had the same social origins as the wealthier planter and mill-owner class but generally were less independent financially, and now their future was darkened. As sugar prices fell, the planters and mill owners' response was vertical integration ; stages of production were consolidated under the control of fewer firms. Purchases from independent cane farmers were reduced and their lands acquired. The situation was potentially explosive. Historian Stuart Schwartz commented that "at no time in Brazilian history had the conditions for a profound social upheaval been more suitable." But it did not occur for two reasons: the cane farmers did not rebel against the sugar barons for fear of encouraging a slave rebellion, and in addition, newly discovered gold fields to the south soon beckoned to free and slave populations. The removal of pressures for change solidified the hold of the great landowners on the coastal plantations.

Small deposits of alluvial gold had been exploited quietly for decades in São Paulo and to the south. The Paulistas likely found more than they revealed, fearing that the greed of the Portuguese authorities would soon strip them of their semi-independence. The discovery of gold by Paulistas in various parts of what is now Minas Gerais (General Mines), between the Serra de Mantiqueira and the headwaters of the Rio São Francisco, probably occurred between 1693 and 1695, but word filtered out slowly. The greatest concentration of deposits was along Brazil's oldest geological formation, the Serra do Espinhaço, lying in a north-south direction, throughout which it seemed that every river, stream, and brook glittered with gold. Mining camps that turned into the cities of Ouro Prêto, Mariana, and Sabará soon located in its southern end, and by 1730 diamonds were coming out of the northern reaches around Diamantina.

Word of the discoveries set off an unprecedented rush, the likes of which would not be seen again until the California gold rush of 1849. The Paulistas soon found themselves competing for control with adventurers from the Northeast who streamed down the Vale São Francisco, from Portugal, and from elsewhere. By 1709-10 the Vale São Francisco had become a lawless region filled with the dregs of the Portuguese world. Considerable violence broke out between the original Paulista bandeirantes , who considered the mines theirs, and the outsiders (emboabas ). This fighting gave the crown authorities a reason for asserting royal control and arranging a settlement of the War of the Outsiders (Guerra dos Emboabas, 1708-09). Many Paulistas moved on to new gold discoveries in Goiás and Mato Grosso.

The discoveries shifted Brazil's center of gravity away from the Northeastern coast and toward the South and West. The loser would be Bahia, which in 1763 lost the viceregal capital to Rio de Janeiro, as power followed wealth. The population also shifted, as would-be miners and those who would profit from the mines arrived with their native or African slaves. The Jesuit Father André João Antonil (whose Italian name was Giovanni Antonio Andreoni) wrote the best contemporary study of Brazilian economic and social conditions. He said that by 1709 some 30,000 people were in Minas Gerais. In the next decades, the population swelled. The 1735 tax records showed a total of 100,141 slaves, among whom there were numerous natives. By 1782 Minas Gerais's population of 319,769 included 166,995 blacks, 82,110 mulattoes, and 70,664 whites. The state had the largest concentration of population in the viceroyalty of Brazil: 20.5 percent of Brazil's 1,555,200 people.

The early population consisted predominantly of unruly males, who knew no law but their own whims and who drove their slaves hard in an existence that historian Charles Boxer tagged as "nasty, brutish, and short." Many African slaves reacted by running away to form hiding places called quilombos and were pursued by roughneck "bushwhacking captains" (capitães do mato ). However, during the first decades life could not have been easy for anyone. Items such as meat, corn, flour, and rum were rare and costly. The first local supply of hogs and chickens appeared only in 1723, and a flask of salt could cost as much as half a pound of gold.

By the last decades of the eighteenth century, however, the cities of Minas Gerais were graced with impressive baroque and rococo churches, multistoried homes and shops, and grand public buildings. Poets and musicians enlivened the cultural scene. Some 3,000 musicians, mostly mulattoes, played fine baroque pieces, often in churches built by architect Antonio Francisco Lisboa (also known as "O Aleijadinho") and under ceilings painted by Manuel da Costa Ataíde.

The overland trails from São Paulo and from Paratí were superseded by ones connecting to Rio de Janeiro. The new viceregal capital sent African slaves and European merchandise to Minas Gerais and received the heavily laden chests of gold and diamonds en route to Lisbon. Rio de Janeiro also served as the supply base for the newly created captaincies of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande de São Pedro, passing their livestock products on to Portugal. Those captaincies were linked overland to São Paulo and Minas Gerais via the livestock trails that ran northeast from the pampas of what was later called Rio Grande do Sul to Sorocaba in São Paulo Province.

Ranching had developed in the Northeastern interior as an adjunct to the sugar economy and in the South as the legacy of the Jesuit missions. In the eighteenth century, ranching was an increasingly important part of the overall colonial economy. The moving frontiers that it created drew the interior into effective relationships with European-oriented Brazil. From the interior of Maranhão, southeast through Piauí, Ceará, Pernambuco, and Bahia, then west into Goiás, and on down to Rio Grande do Sul, a set of cowboy (vaqueiro ) subcultures evolved that still mark local traditions. It was an age of leather in which the horse was the center of life. Many, perhaps most, of the vaqueiros were native Indians, mestizos, African slaves, and mulattoes. In the northern and central areas, slaves and free men worked together unsupervised for months at a time. In the South, the gaucho culture, mixing native, Spanish, and Portuguese bloodlines and traditions, took hold throughout the pampas of the Río de la Plata up into Rio Grande do Sul. In the latter state, by the mid-1820s cattle had driven out wheat farming, and the mounted gaucho with his bolas, knife, maté tea, and open-fire barbecued beef became characteristic.

Although gold mining weakened the dominance of sugar and seemingly stimulated the cattle industry, it did not totally supersede export agriculture. It displaced sugar as the colony's leading economic activity, but during the eighteenth century the value of gold exports never surpassed the value of sugar-led agricultural exports. Even so, gold did have serious long-term effects on Portugal. The fall in the value of Portugal's colonial products in the seventeenth century had made it difficult to obtain sufficient currency to purchase merchandise from northern Europe. In response, Portugal had begun to develop industries to meet its local and colonial requirements. The discovery of gold provided needed currency.

Join the mailing list

Page last modified: 15-04-2013 12:09:41 ZULU