The Brazilian gold rush

12th October 2012

Perhaps the most popular and romantic aspect of the history of gold is the narrative of the various gold rushes that lured hundreds of thousands of people, literally, to the four corners of the globe during the eighteenth and, more notably, nineteenth centuries.

Such popularity can partly be explained by the fact that the gold rushes were typically marked by a general ‘free for all’ in income mobility and were characterised by an inherent individualism, whereby any single person might become exceptionally wealthy almost instantly with the help of sheer determination and a bit of luck.

The first most notable movement of a population, which undoubtedly deserves the name ‘gold rush’, occurred in the Brazilian province of Minas Gerais (Portuguese for ‘general mines’) at the turn of the eighteenth century.

The land that now comprises the country of Brazil was claimed by Portugal in April 1500 with the arrival of Portuguese coloniser Pedro Alvares Cabral.

Following the colonisation of the territory, the primary intentions of the Portuguese were to discover and exploit natural resources. In particular, they hoped to discover rich gold and silver deposits similar to those found and exploited by the Spanish in their South American colonies. Unfortunately, for the first two centuries of Portugal’s occupation of the region, the hunt for payable precious metals proved futile. Instead, the colonisers turned their attention to the production of pau-brasil (a species of Brazilian timber) and sugar cane, as well as the trading of enslaved indigenous Indians.

It was only when bandeirantes (groups of adventurers comprising Portuguese colonists, indigenous Indians and cabaclos – people of mixed race – who led private exploration expeditions into the interior of Brazil during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries) began to traverse the rugged mountain chains west of Rio de Janeiro and explore the southern interior of the colony in the latter half of the seventeenth century that payable gold was finally discovered.

The first recorded discovery of payable gold was made in 1693 by a bandeirante exploring the region surrounding the present town of Ouro Preto (Portuguese for ‘black gold’), in the province of Minas Gerais.

That discovery caused such a stir that, by 1697, a considerable proportion of Sao Paulo’s, Rio de Janeiro’s and the northern province of Bahia’s population had rushed to the site of the discovery. More significantly, as news of the discovery spread to the mother country, thousands of Portuguese adventurers set sail for Brazil at the turn of the eighteenth century, hoping to make their golden fortunes. Such was the rush to Brazil that the central government in Lisbon had to implement legislation to stop the Portuguese from emigrating en masse.

Between 1693 and 1720, the population of the gold-bearing province the Portuguese had christened Minas Gerais grew exponentially – it is estimated that, in that period, some 400 000 Portuguese and 500 000 slaves had relocated to south-eastern Brazil to mine gold. Such was the growth that, by 1725, half Brazil’s entire population was residing in Minas Gerais.

With such an influx of fortune seekers, it was inevitable that other gold discoveries would follow that of Ouro Preto. Indeed, gold was discovered in numerous other localities and two new mining districts, Villa do Principe and Istabira, were proclaimed in 1715 and 1720 respectively.

In the hilly landscape of Minas Gerais, the gold was predominantly found in alluvial deposits in the many streams of the province. Because the gold was found in alluvial desposits, its extraction was ideally suited to individual and small-scale mining, as very little technology was required. The only tools required were a prospecting pan, a shovel and a sluice box.

Perhaps, an aspect of the Brazilian gold rush that differentiates it from the other prominent rushes is that hundreds of thousands of indigenous Indian and African slaves were employed to undertake the physical toil of recovering the gold from the streams and their muddy banks.

The mother country was most enthusiastic about the discovery of gold in its South American colony and, inevitably, attempted to extract maximum financial benefits. Thus, in exchange for the right to dig for gold, the Portuguese authorities stipulated that one-fifth of all gold extracted from the diggings be paid to the colonial government as tribute.

The gold paid as tribute was sent to Portugal and was mostly used to pay off debts (which had accumulated as a result of years of war against the Spanish and the Dutch), to pay for industrialised goods and to build magnificent baroque monuments in the prominent Portuguese city centres.

The gold rush endured for much of the eighteenth century, with gold production peaking in 1750. However, as with every other nonrenewable resource, the gold eventually began to peter out and the diggers and their slaves gradually drifted northwards or to the coastal areas.

After the gold deposits had depleted and exports had declined sharply in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Brazilian economy entered a long period of stagnation.

By 1807, gold ceased to be a source of tax revenue for the Portuguese State.

It has not been officially recorded how much gold was extracted from the operations in Minas Gerais, but it has been estimated that, at the height of the gold rush, some 350 000 oz of gold was produced each year.