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Day 44: Ouro Preto

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With my excellent guide Ícaro beside the shrine to Santa Bárbara.
Michael Palin - BrazilWhen we're hauled back up to the surface the sun is struggling out and back in Ouro Preto the domed church towers and the red rooftops are sparkling after the overnight rain. The crowds are queuing up the long impressive steps of the old Chamber House and Jail, which is now one of the country's most significant historic monuments and a shrine to Brazilian independence. At the end of the eighteenth century the ideals that inspired the French Revolution were taken up by a group of leading citizens of Ouro Preto, or – to give it its full name at the time – Vila Rica de Nossa Senhora do Pilar do Ouro Preto, who were angry at having to pay taxes to Portugal for the wealth they themselves had produced. Their grievances became lumped together in a protest called the Inconfidência Mineira. Their leader was Joaquim Xavier, a dentist. In Brazil everyone has a nickname and his was Tiradentes (tooth-puller). The uprising he led was a failure but the Portuguese took it seriously enough to sentence all those who took part to death or exile in Africa. The death sentences were revoked at the last minute, but it was too late to prevent Tiradentes from being hanged, on 21 April 1792, at the exact spot where his statue now stands. His body was cut up and parts sent round to other mining towns as a warning.

Their leaders were dead or dispersed but their actions had set people thinking. The Portuguese crown's right to the quinto, its fifth-share of all the mineral wealth, and its tight control of local industries continued to be questioned. With Tiradentes the martyr as a figurehead the movement for change grew; and thirty years later Brazil at last won independence.

In 1942, the Vargas government, anxious to foster a spirit of national pride, gave the political equivalent of canonization to the Inconfidência, and now the tooth-puller and his fellow rebels – physicians, carpenters, soldiers, poets and lawyers – are remembered in rows of austere grey tombstones, beneath a solemnly lowered national flag, at the back of the museum that is dedicated to them.

And 21 April is now officially designated Tiradentes Day.
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Tunnels dug out over 277 years of gold-mining.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 44: Ouro Preto
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Ouro Preto
  • Book page no: 184

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