Posts Tagged ‘Gold’

Sugar, coffee, cotton, rice and tobacco, silver and gold, cocoa… and slavery

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

Tea, coffee, rice, salt, silver, gold, cotton, cocoa

Tea, coffee, rice, salt, silver, gold, cotton, cocoa

Sugar, coffee, cotton, rice and tobacco, silver and gold, but also tea, salt and diamonds, and today cocoa.

For many of us, all of these commodities are part of our regular daily life. The early history of their production is however a somber one. To extract, grow, or harvest each of these products, slave labour has been and sometimes continue being used.  

In 1926, the Slavery Convention (article 1.1) defined slavery as “…the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised….” In 1930, the definition was expanded to include forced or compulsory labour.

The main reason for the Transatlantic Slave Trade was the need for a cheap labour force that could be put to work in the sugar cane, rice, cotton or tobacco plantations, or in the diamond, silver or gold mines.

Pelourinho in Mariana, Minas Gerais

Pelourinho in Mariana, Minas Gerais

Conditions in the plantations of the new world were harsh, and a tight control was exercised over the slaves. Attempts to rebel or escape were severely punished. And punishment had to be public in order to serve as an example that would discourage any such attempt. The most frequent punishment for re-captured slaves was public flogging and branding. To this day, evidence of this harsh treatment has survived and is being displayed in museums and other institutions commemorating the history of slavery.

In Brazil, in addition to the sugar cane plantations that required a high number of slaves endured to hardship, slaves also were put to work to extract precious metals from the mines. Minas Gerais started playing a central role in the economy of the Portuguese colony after gold, silver and diamonds had been discovered there.

Traces of the slave presence can still be found in various parts of Brazil. To bear testimony to this phase of the national history, Mariana, one of Minas Gerais colonial cities, decided to restore its pelourinho, the pillory where slaves were punished. In most cities, including in Salvador and its famous Pelourinho neighborhood, this somber reminder has been removed.

On one of Mariana’s most picturesque squares, flanked by two churches of competing orders, stands the pelourinho. At the base of the pillory, under a scale and a sword symbolizing justice and force, the chains to which slaves were attached while receiving punishment can still be seen.

Chico Rei old gold mine, Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais

Chico Rei old gold mine, Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais

There were a number of reasons for a slave to be punished. In some cases, in the mines, slaves would hide small flakes of gold in their hair. If found, the punishment would be certain. A few churches in Minas Gerais and other parts of Brazil were built by slaves with the gold they were able to bring out for themselves. These churches, far less decorated than the rich churches open to the upper strata of society, were places where they could worship, as they were not allowed in the other churches in this heavily structured and segregated society.

Some of the Brazilian slaves were able to claim their freedom. Chico Rei is one of them. According to the tradition, around 1740, Congolese tribal leader Galanda was captured with many other members of his tribe. The authority he had over his fellow tribesmen awarded him the nickname of Chico Rei (small king). Working in the Minas Gerais gold mines, he managed to hide enough flakes of gold to buy his son’s freedom and then his own. In Ouro Preto (then Vila Rica), he bought a gold mine the profits of which were used to buy other slaves’ freedom.

On gold, toothpullers and attempted revolutions

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010
 

Inconfidência Museum, Ouro Preto

Inconfidência Museum, Ouro Preto

 While a number of people will know that July 1789 marked the beginning of the French revolution, fewer may be aware of the Inconfidência Mineira (the Minas Gerais conspiracy), a rebellious movement which attempted to proclaim a Brazilian republic in February, that same year. 

Following the landing of Pedro Alvares Cabral at Porto Seguro in April 1500, Brazil became a Portuguese colony. Sugar rapidly ranked first of the colony’s exports, but once gold was discovered in Minas Gerais some time around 1693, gold mining soon replaced sugar as the main economic activity. A number of towns were built around this activity, such as Vila Rica, known today as Ouro Preto.

The extraction of gold was totally controlled by the Portuguese Crown. It was allowed on the condition that a payment of one fifth (the quinto) would be made to the colonial government. To ensure better control over the gold production, goldsmiths were driven out of the region, and foundries where established where the gold was cast into bars, and marked with the royal seal. Gold could only circulate in that form. As happened in other parts of the world, the heavy control and taxation eventually led to rebellious movements, such as those we have seen in the case of tea or salt.

A first rebellion took place in 1720: the Levante de Vila Rica (the Vila Rica uprising) demanded the relaxing of the drastic measures. The movement was fiercely repressed by the Governor, who ordered the arrest of the leader, Felipe dos Santos, and the burning of hundreds of houses in Ouro Podre where he owned many houses. The hamlet is now called Morro da Queimada. Dos Santos was eventually sentenced to death, hanged and his body quartered.

Tiradentes, proto-martyr

Tiradentes, proto-martyr

More than sixty years later, inspired by the 1776 American independence from yet another colonial power, as well as by the French philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, the Inconfidência Mineira took place in 1789, also in Vila Rica. While books and other publications were being banned in the colony, the Inconfidência Museum in Ouro Preto displays clandestine editions of forbidden books, including a Recueil des loix constitutives des Etats-Unis, 1788, which is known in Brazil as Tiradentes’ book.

As gold mining was decreasing in the Minas Gerais captaincy, the Crown had asked for an additional tax on gold, the derrama. The plan was to start the rebellion on the day the derrama was to be instituted. The movement brought together a number of liberal thinkers who wanted to create a Republic, open harbours to stimulate trade with other nations, create a university.

Tiradentes, Brasilia

Tiradentes, Brasilia

The movement lacked cohesion however, with some of the members being republicans, while others were monarchists. Members of the conspiracy eventually denounced the proposed uprising. A long trial ensued in Rio de Janeiro. Joaquim José da Silva Xavier decided to assume responsibility of leader of the movement.

Here was his head..., Ouro Preto

Here was his head..., Ouro Preto

A dentist, he was given the nickname of Tiradentes (toothpuller) during the trial. While 11 of the conspirators, including famous Brazilian poet, Tomás Antônio Gonzaga, were banned to Mozambique and other Portuguese colonies in Africa, Tiradentes was sentenced to death. He was hanged in Rio de Janeiro in 1792, and his body, like Felipe dos Santos, quartered. To ensure proper publicity to the strong reaction of the Portuguese Crown to any rebellion, Tiradentes’ body parts were displayed in several towns. His head was placed in Vila Rica, while his house was torn down and salted.

Praca Tiradentes, Belo Horizonte

Praca Tiradentes, Belo Horizonte

Minas Gerais State flag, Tiradentes' house, Ouro Preto

Minas Gerais State flag, Tiradentes' house, Ouro Preto

Tiradentes has survived his execution to become a symbol of the struggle for Brazilian independence. The anniversary of his death is a national holiday and many Brazilian cities, including Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, or Ouro Preto have named a square after him, or display his statue.

The members of the Inconfidência Mineira had planned for a whole new way of life after independence, and had even designed a flag, which has since been adopted by the State of Minas Gerais. The motto reads: Libertas Quae Sera Tamen (Freedom, even if it be late).