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Minas Conspiracy (Inconfidência Mineira) of 1789

The elimination of the Jesuit missions, Spain's creation of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata (1776), and the opening of direct trade between Spain and Buenos Aires further reduced the profitable trade in smuggled goods. The decline in smuggling reduced transshipments of British goods through Portugal, reducing that country's overall level of trade with Britain catastrophically. The ensuing recession made it difficult to pay for the military expeditions sent to the southern borders during the 1770s, and the crown was unable to adjust expenditures in the face of declining revenues.

In Minas Gerais, landowners had manufacturing establishments on their properties turning out cotton, linen, and woolen items, and most of the other captaincies had "workshops and manufactories" that lessened the need to import from Portugal. The basis for a more complex textile industry was being laid.

Then, in February 1777, José I (king of Portugal, 1750-77) died, and with him went Pombal's hold on power and his common sense approach of encouraging industrial development. Pombal's successor as secretary of state for overseas dominions, Martinho de Melo e Castro, was alarmed that the nascent Brazilian factories could make the colony independent and warned that "Portugal without Brazil is an insignificant power." In January 1785, he ordered that they all be "closed and abolished."

In the early 1780s, Brazilian students at Coimbra had pledged themselves to seek independence. They were influenced greatly by the success of the North American British colonies in forming the United States of America. In 1786 and 1787, José Joaquim Maia e Barbalho of Rio de Janeiro, a Coimbra graduate studying medicine at Montpelier and a critic of the colonial relationship, approached Ambassador Thomas Jefferson in France. He told Jefferson that the students intended to break with Portugal and requested the aid of the United States. One of the Coimbra graduates was José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, the patriarch of Brazilian independence.

The failed Minas Conspiracy (Inconfidência Mineira) of 1789 involved some of the leading figures of the captaincy: tax collectors, priests, military officers, judges, government officials, and mine owners and landowners. Some had been born in Portugal, several had their early education with the Jesuits and later studied at Coimbra, a number wrote poetry that is still read and studied. But what they had most in common were financial problems caused by crown policies that required them to pay their debts, or that cut them out of lucrative gold and diamond contraband trade. They argued that Brazil had all it needed to survive and prosper and that Portugal was a parasite. They pledged to lift restrictions on mining; exploit iron ore; set up factories; create a university, a citizens' militia, and a Parliament; pardon debts to the royal treasury; free slaves born in Brazil; and form a union with São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro similar to that of the United States.

The history of the Minas Conspiracy is full of heavy drama. Revelation of the conspiracy turned brothers, friends, clients, and patrons against each other in an unseemly scramble to escape punishment. In one sense, the affair foreshadowed the nature of future Brazilian revolutionary movements in that it was a conspiracy of oligarchs seeking their own advantage, while claiming to act for the people. In the end, Lisbon decided to make an example of only one person, a low-ranked second lieutenant (alferes ) of the Royal Mineiro Dragoons named Joaquim José da Silva Xavier ("Tiradentes"). His execution in 1792 in Rio de Janeiro might well have been forgotten if the nineteenth-century republicans had not embraced him as a symbolic counterpoise to Dom Pedro I, who declared Brazilian independence from Portugal in 1822. Later, with the establishment of the republic in 1889, every town and city in Brazil built a Tiradentes square, and the day of his execution, April 21, became a well-commemorated national holiday. Nonetheless, because the Minas Conspiracy was marked more by skulduggery than nobility and clarity, its value as a national symbol required selective interpretation and presentation.

Portugal resolved to watch Brazilians more carefully and reacted forcefully to a nonexistent but suspected plot in Rio de Janeiro in 1794, and to a real, mulatto-led one in Bahia in 1798. Meanwhile, the French Revolution, the resulting slave rebellion in Haiti, and the fear of similar revolts in Brazil convinced the Brazilian elites that the dream of a United States-style conservative revolution that would leave the slave-based socioeconomic structure intact and in their hands was impossible. The crown separated the residents of Minas Gerais from the revived coastal sugar producers through policies that set their interests at odds. Lisbon diverted Brazilian nationalism with greater imperial involvement.



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