Ouro Preto – 18th century Gold Capital and Cradle of Brazil’s Independence

Few cities in Brazil are as rich in terms of historical, architectural and artistic patrimony as Ouro Preto. This former capital of the state Minas Gerais, formerly called “Vila Rica” (Rich City) had a very important role in the early history of colonial Brazil, and its independence in 1822, when the colony became an empire.

It all began in the late 17th century, when the epic adventure of exploring the interior of Brazil led to the discovery of gold in the region where Ouro Preto would emerge.

The gold rush that followed brought thousands of fortune seekers and adventurersto the region. Various mining settlements were formed, which grew larger and eventually merged in what would become Vila Rica. (1711).

The gold seemed to be in endless supply, and for the colonizer (Portugal) it was a great source of income. No less than 20% (a quinta) of all the gold that originated in and around Vila Rica, but also in all the other regions in the captaincy, went into the treasury of the Portuguese court. On top of the 20%, each mine owner had to pay a fixed amount of gold every year.

The statue of the former revolutionary leader, Joaquin José da Silva Xavier (“Tiradentes”) in the middle of Praça Tiradentes, in the center of Ouro Preto. Tiradentes was executed and had parts of his body exposed along the Estrada Real. In the background to the right of the statue, the former Governor’s Palace, nowadays the School of Mines and Metallurgy .

To control the collection of these taxes, so called “melting houses” (casas de fundição) emerged in Vila Rica, where all the gold had to be taken to be molten into bars bearing the royal seal. The transport of gold in the form of nuggets or dust became prohibited and to prevent smuggling, it also became illegal to open new roads, other than the roads approved by the Court. (Estrada Real)

Vila Rica thus became the financial center of the colony and epicenter of the Estrada Real. Discontentment with the situation led to a first revolt in 1720, which was quickly repressed by the hanging of its leader, Felipe dos Santos. In 1720, Vila Rica also became the capital of the Captaincy of Minas Gerais.

From 1730 to 1760, Ouro Preto had its period of glory. The gold production was at its highest and the city flourished. Several great artists found their way to Ouro Preto and had a great influence in the further development of the city. Baroque and Rococo churches and other buildings, but also schools and theaters were built. In those days Ouro Preto was one of the most culturally developed cities in Brazil.

An example of how the urban layout of Ouro Preto seems to follow the contours of the landscape

Another advantage that was brought on by the gold mining industry, was that the wealthy citizens of Ouro Preto were able to send their sons to Portugal to study and return as lawyers or doctors.

On the other hand, studying in Europe also exposed these more or less isolated Brazilians to the revolutionary ideas and developments in France and North America.Most of them returned to Brazil with the seeds of revolution and independence planted in their minds.

From 1763 on, it was all downhill. Gold mines ran dry and the owners were no longer able to come up with the taxes for the insatiable Portuguese Court. A conspiracy movement, “Inconfidência Mineira” emerged, aiming at the separation from Portugal and the proclamation of independence.

In 1789, most members of the Inconfidência Mineira movement were arrested and its leader, Joaquin José da Silva Xavier (known as “Tiradentes”) was executed in Ro de Janeiro, his body quartered and the pieces exposed in different cities along the Estrada Realto serve as an example. Tiradentes later became one of Brazil’s most famous historical heroes.

Igreja São Fransico de Assis in the center of Ouro Preto. considered to be one of the “seven wonders of the world of Portuguese origin”

With the independence of Brazil in 1822, Vila Rica’s status was elevated to “Imperial City” and its name was changed to Ouro Preto. All was well until in 1897 Belo Horizonte, which was a brand new city, became the new state capital.

Ouro Preto, regarded by the then elite of Minas Gerais as outdated, nearly became a ghost town when almost 50% of its citizens fled to the new and modern capital.

Ironically, it was exactly this development that greatly favored the preservation of the city’s historical, architectural and natural patrimony, which in 1980 was recognized by UNESCO as world heritage centre.

And what a rich patrimony it is… with its 10 Baroque or Rococo churches and 6 chapels, one more beautifully decorated than the next, but also various museums(including the Aleijadinho museum), the countless houses in colonial style and the mostly originally paved streets Ouro Preto has one of the richest collections of colonial art and architecture in Brazil.

Walking around in the (sometimes very steep) cobblestone streets of the historical center is like taking a trip back in time and I highly recommend it. The fact that all this beauty and grandeur was created in what was clearly one of the most rugged landscapes to be found in this part of Brazil, makes this place even more remarkable.

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