Episode 7 – Gold in Them Thar Hills (Quick History #4)

The 18th century brings unforeseen prosperity to the Portuguese Empire and Brazil in particular. People, political power, economic power and attitudes would all soon be on the move.

Gold and diamonds spill from the backcountry. Much is smuggled, but much makes into the crown’s coffers. The crown takes barely a look at the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution and conservatively buries its head in precious minerals.

The riches are in the southeast, until this point little more than a hinterland. But they would draw people and slaves not only from Portugal and its empire, but from within Brazil itself. The shift was seismic and Brazil would be forever altered. As if to counter this, Lisbon used the windfall to remain as much the same as it could.

But change is the only constant.

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1692 – first gold finds in the hinterlands of the captaincy of Rio de Janeiro.
1709 – a new captaincy, São Paulo and the Mines of Gold, is split off from the captaincy of Rio de Janeiro.
1711 – São Paulo and the Mines of Gold is divided into two captaincies: that of São Paulo and that of Minas Gerais (General Mines).
1718-1725 – gold is found in Bahia and Mato Grosso.
1720 – São Paulo and the Mines of Gold is divided into two captaincies: Minas Gerais and São Paulo.
1720s – diamonds are discovered in Minas Gerais, but not reported to the crown until 1729.
c1750 – gold production peaks.
1763 – Rio de Janeiro replaces Salvador as the capital of Brazil.

Maps and Borders

Old maps are fascinating and frustrating things. I considered posting several from this time period, but in order to keep the post size down, I opted for just one. In addition, I included a map of modern Brazil to help you orient yourselves.

The map I chose was created in London in 1744. As you can see it puts the border of Brazil much farther east than the present day one. As you know from previous episodes, this map’s border was at odds with what had been explored and settled. Mato Grosso, where the Luso-Brazilians were mining gold for their motherland (at least in theory), was wholly in the area labeled “Part of the Amazones”.

At the time, the partitioning of South America into Spanish and Portuguese zones was still governed by the Treaty of Tordesilhas. However, it was over 250 years old and made at a time when no one had any idea of the extent or geography of the Americas. Worse still, the treaty’s vague wording made determining the line’s precise position impossible. As a result no two maps agree on the political boundaries. And when maps were made by cartographers with a stake in the area the differences were substantial.

The bottom line is that the Portuguese and Brazilians had explored and settled – and were mining – far to the west of the line. This had started when Spain and Portugal were united under the Spanish crown and Tordesilhas was moot. But that union had broken up 200 years ago. The Portuguese and Brazilians were not going to pull back east, but surely Spain would not continue to tolerate the situation. What was to be done?

Not to worry! The resolution of these issues will be covered in the next episode.

Given the above, I’m sure you’ll find the title of the map amusing: “A New & Accurate Map of Brasil”. Note that the captaincy of São Paulo is labeled São Vicente, which was the case on many maps as São Vicente was the first settlement in the area.

A New & Accurate Map of Brasil - 1744
“A New and Accurate Map of Brazil” made in London in 1744.

Brazil,_administrative_divisions_(states)_-_en_-_colored - cities

Present day Brazil with the cities of Vila Rica (Ouro Preto today), São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro indicated

Brazil,_administrative_divisions_(states)_-_en_-_colored - cities crp

A close up of southeastern Brazil from the above map.


Açores – the Portuguese name for the Azores, a group of islands in the Atlantic colonized by the Portuguese in early 15th century.
emboaba – roughly translated, “greenhorn”. The name given by the Paulistas to the first outsiders who came seeking gold to what was then the captaincy of Rio de Janeiro, but would later become the three captaincies of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais.
luso – a prefix meaning “Portuguese”. E.g. Luso-Brazilian, a Brazilian of Portuguese descent.
Minas Gerais – a new captaincy, controlled by the crown, formed from part of Rio de Janeiro to administer the area with the richest gold and diamond deposits.
mineira – an inhabitant of Minas Gerais. Lit. “miner.”
Paulista – an inhabitant of the São Paulo area.
quilombo – a large settlement or collection of settlements of escaped slaves and other marginalized peoples.
quinto – the 20% tax levied on many colonial products, including gold.
royal fifth – the English translation of “quinto.”
Salvador – the capital of Brazil until being replaced by Rio de Janeiro in 1763. Today it is the capital of the state of Bahia.
São Paulo (captaincy) – the captaincy formed in 1709 from part of Rio de Janeiro. Two years later the majority of it would be split off to form another new captaincy, Minas Gerais. Marked on some maps as São Vicente, which was the name of the first settlement in the area.
Tupí – a family of more or less mutually intelligible Indian languages, a standardized version of which was the lingua franca in some parts of Brazil.
Vila Rica – “Rich Town” in English. The first capital of Minas Gerais, today called Ouro Preto (Black Gold). Later the capital would be moved to Belo Horizonte.
War of the Emboabas (Greenhorns) – Guerra dos Emboabas in Portuguese. A war to control the gold fields in southeastern Brazil, fought between the local Paulistas and internal and external immigrants – the emboabas.

Artistic depictions

Slaves washing diamonds
Slaves washing diamonds

Indians visiting a Brazilian farm plantation in Minas Gerais, 1824.

Indians visiting a Brazilian farm plantation in Minas Gerais, 1824.


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