Going for the Gold

book cover

Photo © Michael Sommers.

“If you want to understand Minas Gerais, read this,” said my boyfriend. He handed me a thick paperback tome on whose front cover an ornate golden crown perched sumptuously above the title: Boa Ventura!: A Corrida do Ouro no Brasil (1697-1810) (“Good Fortune: The Brazilian Gold Rush (1697-1810)”).

I have to (shamefully) confess that I’m a little on the lazy side when it comes to working up the motivation to plow through fat historical epics penned in Portuguese. Yet, at the time, the fact that I was actually in Minas Gerais, and surrounded by the legacy of one of the world’s greatest gold rushes, coupled with the fact that I wanted to impress upon my boyfriend that I was no literary slouch, caused me to open the book and start reading.

From the outset, the saga proved pretty gripping. It helps that author Lucas Figueiredo, a prize-winning journalist from Belo Horizonte, weaves countless juicy historical facts into a narrative that combines larger-than-life figures, operatically tragic (and comic) situations, and non-stop adventure that can’t help but inflame even the most lethargic imaginations.

The book begins in 1876, with the introduction of Dom Luís I, third last king of Portugal.

The book begins in 1876, with the introduction of Dom Luís I, third last king of Portugal. Desperate to find a stash of wealth to help pay off the monarchy’s eternal debts, the king is plundering through the Royal Treasury in search of hawkable royal riches. In the midst of his search, he uncovers a 20-kilo (44-pound) nugget of gold the size of a melon. The largest chunk of gold ever extracted from Brazil, the nugget is one of the few surviving remainders of the century-long gold rush that, for a while, made Portugal the wealthiest country in the world, and which transformed Brazil from a sparsely populated outpost of 300,000 (in 1697) to a country of 3.6 million (in 1810).

The giant gold nugget provides the symbolic, and spectacular, starting point for Figueiredo’s yarn, which then flashes back to Lisbon in 1495, to the moment when Dom Manuel I has just inherited the Portuguese crown along with the debts of his royal ancestors stretching back 100 years.

Yes, it seems that even back in the day, Portugal had a serious debt problem. In fact, extricating itself from penury was a prime motivating factor in the nation’s decision to undertake its great navigational expeditions. Ultimately, Portuguese dreams of empire were much less focused on establishing colonial settlements in places as far-flung as Macau, Goa, Mozambique and Angola than on encountering riches with which to fill up royal coffers and indulge royal extravagances.

Viewed these priorities, Portugal’s “discovery” of Brazil in 1500 was met with an almost comical lack of enthusiasm by the kingdom’s avaricious authorities and adventurers who, as evidenced by choice documents provided by the author, were singularly unimpressed by the “brutal tropics” with their mosquito-filled rainforests, fierce, flesh-hungry natives, and dismal lack of any notable big ticket treasures.

This prevailing attitude is encapsulated by the experience of Martim Afonso de Sousa, an explorer and childhood friend of Dom João III. Sent to Brazil in 1531 with the joint mission of establishing a colony and uncovering an Eldorado, tales of which had been passed on to early explorers by Indians, Martim Afonso spent two years exploring the colony. During this time, the Spanish uncovered their Eldorado in the form of the Inca Empires of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, but the Portuguese, green with envy, had nothing to show for their efforts aside from being decimated by disease and Indians.

After multiple failed treasure hunting expeditions, by 1533, Martim Afonso was thoroughly fed up with Brazil and took off for India where riches were guaranteed. Wanting nothing more to do with the territory gifted to him by the king – encompassing both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo – Afonso was only too happy to give them away for free, adding that whoever took them off his hands would be doing him “the greatest mercy and greatest honor in the world.”

Nevertheless, fueled by myths of a mountain of gold in the Brazilian interior known as Sabarabuçu, the Portuguese persisted in their fortune seeking. After almost 200 years of false starts and failed expeditions, intrepid (not to mention barefoot) bandeirantes – roving groups of Portuguese, Indians and mestizos from São Paulo who forayed into the interior in search of precious metals and Indians to enslave – finally stumbled across their own Eldorado in the savage mountains that stretched north from Rio de Janeiro up to Bahia. There was so much gold in the area that came to be known as Minas Gerais (General Mines) that the riverbeds glittered and one could pull a plant out of the ground and find gold sprinkled amongst its roots.

Despite the Portuguese Crown’s desire to keep the gold mines a secret, by the early 1700s the cat was out of the bag and the first gold rush of the modern era was on. Hundreds of thousands of fortune seekers left Portugal’s other colonies not to mention Portugal itself (so many farms were being abandoned that the king had to pass a law prohibiting farmers from moving to Brazil at the risk of the country going hungry). Meanwhile, in Brazil’s coastal settlements, everyone from sailors and soldiers to plantation owners and priests abandoned their lives and land (not to mention their ships and fortresses) for the interior, spurred on by dreams of fabulous fortunes.

Many early fortune seekers did indeed strike it rich. Many others died trying, often of starvation. In their lust for instant wealth, most adventurers ignored the fact that while Minas Gerais was filled with gold, food was in very short supply. As a result savvy merchants often made more of a killing than miners blinded by dollar signs. A cow that cost 10 grams of gold in Salvador, for example, would be sold to desperately hungry miners for 359 grams (an amount of gold obtained by one man working an average of 1 year and 9 months in the mines).

Some of the gold was used to finance the construction of burgeoning mining towns such as Ouro Preto, Mariana, São João del Rei, Tiradentes, and Diamantina, whose streets were lined with stately palaces and sumptuous baroque churches. However, the bulk of it was sent off to Portugal where the royals went to town; in the case of many Portuguese monarchs, the expression “shop ‘til you drop” can be taken quite literally.

Ironically, while 80 percent of all the gold mined in Brazil found its way to Europe, the majority of it didn’t end up in Portugal. No sooner would ships from Brazil anchor in Lisbon when collectors would start to swarm. In truth, much of the gold in the ships’ holds went to acquit foreign debts, fund extravagant building projects (which made use of the most expensive imported artists and materials of the day), and pay for ostentatious commemorative events intended to put other European courts to shame. (Figueiredo’s detailed descriptions of kings’ and queens’ shopping sprees are one of the high points of the book). Ultimately, the majority of Brazil’s gold ended up in the coffers of Portugal’s major ally and trading partner, England, which instead of blowing it on frivolities, used it to fund the Industrial Revolution.

As for Brazil, while the gold rush didn’t make the colony rich, it did result in the exploration, consolidation, and creation of the modern nation that exists today. By the end of the book, I didn’t just understand Minas Gerais a lot better, but Brazil itself (not to mention Portugal).

Published in 2011, Boa Ventura! lacks an English-language edition. However, those with a decent knowledge of Portuguese will find the short chapters in unencumbered, lively prose, supplemented by ample notes and illustrative graphics, a pleasure to read, not to mention a gold mine of information.


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