Ouro Preto Brasil was the capital of the province, Minas Gerais, for over 150 years. Minas Gerais (translated as “general mines”) was exploited by the Portuguese for its mining wealth using slave labor. Although better off than their slaves, the Portuguese miners also felt hard done by the Portuguese government who taxed their profits heavily. When you are in the area, you can take a gold mine tour in Ouro Preto to better understand the conditions that made this area a UNESCO world heritage site.
Ouro Preto Brasil
Ouro Preto became incredibly wealthy from gold mining in the 18th century and the largest city in South America.
Mining & Slavery in South America
The history of slavery in South America isn’t as widely discussed as the history of slavery in the United States. Brazil was a major destination in the history of slavery in South America because there was lots of land to cultivate and natural resources to exploit.
Slavery in South America is all about the lack of manual labor needed to work the land. White European settlers could show up and buy land cheaply. The native Americans would escape back into the jungles or die of disease when Europeans tried enslaving them. Most African slaves, forcibly relocated across an ocean and divested off their family ties, had no choice but to work.
Some African slaves did escape though and went deep into the hinterland of Brazil. The Portuguese would hire slave hunters (bandeirantes) to search for and bring back runaway slaves. Ouro Preto was discovered by accident when the slave hunters went looking for slaves and found gold instead.
When the easy access to the gold in the streams ran out, the Portuguese brought in slaves to dig mines which was hard back-breaking manual labor. By the time that Brazil got its independence, half the population were slaves!!
The Portuguese directly transported slaves from Africa to work on the plantations and the mines. The Spanish hired other nationalities to be their slave traders.
Of the approximately 10 million slaves sent to the Americas, almost 40% went to Portuguese American colonies of which Brazil was the crown jewel. You could say that the majority of slavey in South America happened in Brazil.
The Discontent of the Miners
It wasn’t just the slaves who suffered under the Portuguese desire for gold. Ouro Preto was the site of a miner’s revolution which was an early attempt at independence for Brazil. The miners were angry at Portuguese taxes placed on their mining (sound familiar to Americans and the Boston Tea Party).
The mining revolt’s leader, Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier (popularly known is Tiradentes (or “tooth puller” for being an early day dentist) was brutally executed in the town plaza of Ouro Preto as a deterrent to other would-be revolutionaries. Tiradentes plaza is now a main square of Ouro Preto.
Taking A Gold Mine Tour in Ouro Preto
A gold mine tour will show you the conditions in which African slaves hacked away at rock by hand to create immense wealth for others.
Mina Chico Rei
Mina Chico Rei offers gold mine tours in Ouro Preto. There’s actually not much to see inside the gold mine but my children enjoyed the mine track ride down into the mine.
Mina Du Veloso
The Mina du Veloso offers another gold mine tour in Ouro Preto.
Mina da Passagem
Mina da Passagem near Ouro Preto is famous for being transferred for a century from Portugal to Great Britain to pay off its debts in the 19th century. The Passage Ouro Preto mine was opened in 1719 and is the world’s largest gold mine open to the public.