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Minas Gerais - History
After Brazil was found, in 1500, the intentions of Portugal were primarily to explore as much as possible of the natural resouces available; however, the Portuguese didn´t find any prompt source of wealthiness, like the gold that the Spaniards found in their American colonies (the natives of Spanish America, like incas and maias, were at a more developed cultural stage, and were already used to explore gold and precious stones) or even the speciaries that the same Portuguese had found in their Eastern colonies.
During almost two centuries, Brazil was a producer first of pau-brasil, and then of sugar cane; the former was already available, the latter had its culture estimulated by the Portuguese, given the high value of white sugar in Europe. All the cane farms were established on the coastal zone, not only because the lands were more adequated, but also because the exploration of the interior lands were much more costly and risky. The area of Minas Gerais, which is separated from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro by hard to transverse mountain chains (read about
geography of Minas Gerais), remained unexplored for that long time.
bandeirantes, stimulated by the Portuguese Crown, were the first ones to reach Minas. Expeditions date back to 1674, but only around 1693 were the first discoveries of gold mentioned; Fernão Dias Paes was the bandeirante who most explored the region (today, the main road of Minas Gerais pays a tribute to him).
In the first years of the 1700s, Minas Gerais saw a gold rush. People from Brazilian areas (particularly Bahia and Rio de Janeiro) flocked to the mines; the central government in Lisbon had to legislate to stop the Portuguese from immigrating.
From 1708 to 1710, there were fierce combats between the bandeirantes from São Paulo, who claimed rights over the discovered mines, and the Portuguese and other Brazilians (that the bandeirantes referred to as emboabas), who wanted to get a share of the gold; the episode was known as War of Emboabas (Guerra dos Emboabas), and in the end the paulistas were defeated.
From 1693 to 1720, the population grew very quickly; in 1720, the Portuguese created the capitany of Minas Gerais, with capital in the city of Vila Rica (today, the city is called Ouro Preto).
Portugal faced unexpected troubles with the new situation. The sugar cane structure was concentrated on hands of few farmers, who usually had good relationship with the officials; these facts simplified sensitive processes, like taxation and foreign trading control.
In the mines, the situation was completely different. Lots of people had the chance to strike gold, which, in turn, could be easily hidden and smuggled. Portugal sent to Brazil a bureaucratic army to control the influx of tools, the output of gold, the taxation of the production; seeing how difficult it was to gauge the actual production from the mines, Portugal established other parameters to calculate taxes: by number of employees, by amount of tools, and, eventually, a fixed amount of gold per mine, which, being determined unilaterally by the Crown, had a higher value each year. The day when taxes were due (the Collector of the King would come in person) became known as derrama. In 1763, the administration of Brazil moved from Salvador, Bahia, to Rio de Janeiro; besides being closer to the mines, Rio was the port through which the gold was sent to Europe.
The Portuguese never had preocupation with the productivity of the gold prospection; if loads of tax collectors came to Brazil, Portugal never sent a geologist. Only the gold near the surface was explored; because of the poor techniques employed, a large proportion of the gold was lost forever; Portugal was much more concerned with taxation than with rationally exploring the gold. By 1760, reports indicate that the production of gold was in rapid decline.
For a short period, the production of diamonds surpassed the production of gold; during the period, the region around the city of Diamantina flourished. However, Portugal showed the same lack of care, and the diamond production soon vanished.
To the decline in production, Portugal responded with an increase in taxation; rebelions became more and more common.
With the financial progress brought by gold, several Brazilians had the chance to go to study in European universities; by that epoch (second half of 18th century), the libertarian revolutions (notably the American, in 1776, and the French, in 1789) were spreading ideas against the totalitarian monarchies.
In 1789, Vila Rica saw the eclosion of the Inconfidência Mineira: a movement organized by members of the elite, including judges, priests, militaries and, of course, all those people who felt over-taxed by the Crown. The figure of
Tiradentes, who claimed responsibility, was forever carved into Brazilian History. This movement was important, above all, because showed that there was already a strong nativist sentiment (not only economic rebelions) demanding independence from Portugal; this sentiment kept building up until 1822, when Brazil became an independent country.
After 1822, the combination of more political freedom with the sharp fall in gold production promoted radical changes in the life of Minas.
Geologists and other scientists were sent; they couldn´t restore the gold reserves, but their studies on the potential of the iron launched the basis of what would become the modern metal industry.
The masses who depended on the gold had to look for new economic activities. There were villages and cities spread around an extensive area of the State; people had settled wherever gold veins had been found, but the spaces between unhabited places had been little explored. Also, the population of Minas was more used to migration movements (something very rarely seen in the sugar cane areas), and was ready to move to occupy new horizons.
These factors determined the new profile of Minas. The ample areas around the São Francisco were occupied by cattle farms; during the peak of the gold production, the animals necessary for transportation of goods and for feeding of the population were supplied by the southern States (notably Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul), but now there was a progressive movement of replacement. This area, until today, is one of the largest cluster of livestocks breeding in Brazil.
Likewise, the areas between cities which had remained unexplored, were progressively turned into agriculture farms. Initially, spaces were taken by ex-miners who cultivated only for their own subsistence; however, as it became clearer that the golden times would not return, more and more resources were directed towards commercial plantations (sugar cane farms were established, but had tough times competing with the large farms of the northeast). Besides being able to choose which products would be most accepted by the consumer markets, Minas had the extra advantage of having created over the decades channels of distribution with several parts of Brazil (two features that the monocultures which predominated along the coast couldn´t afford).
By the middle of the 19th century, Minas was again one of the most important provinces of Brazil; by this same time, a new product would give an extra boost to the economy, and would help the State to gain also political relevance: the coffee.
During the Empire, the Brazilian economy was much dependant on coffee. Minas Gerais had large areas of fertile land (in the south, across the border from São Paulo and Rio, where the plant was first introduced), plenty of people looking for an alternative to the gold, and some capital looking for investment. These combined factors caused the coffee to thrive in Minas.
There were some attempts, now that the Portuguese were gone, to restore the gold production, with incentives to national companies, but to no avail; even some specialized British companies, to whom some areas were offered, failed. The exploration of iron remained incipient, and only in 1888 was the first iron processing plant opened.
Like the other States where coffee was successful, the farmers tried to find skilled manpower. The government of Minas tried to create colonies of Germans (near Juiz de Fora), Italians (near São João del Rei) and others, but most Europeans had a better adaptation to the colder climates of southern Brazil. Today, it´s noticeable that the culture of Minas had a major influence of the Portuguese settlers, and a smaller influence from the immigrants who came later; Minas is still seen in Brazil as a conservative State; several religious (catholic) traditions are maintained in the smaller cities; the figure of the "mineirinho", the naive looking hillbilly who turns out to be smarter than the smart guys is recurrent in Brazilian jokes and anedoctes.
When Brazil became a Republic, in 1889, Minas Gerais was the most populated Province.
The old capital, Ouro Preto, had no longer the importance of the golden times. A new capital, called Belo Horizonte (that´s the Portuguese for "Beautiful Horizon"), was planned and inaugurated in 1901.
Because of the economic power brought by the coffee, two States dominated the political scene in the first decades of the 1900s: São Paulo and Minas Gerais. Until 1926, Afonso Pena, Venceslau Brás, Delfim Moreira and Artur Bernardes were the mineiros politicians who became
President of the Republic.
In 1908, huge reserves of iron ore were found in the State; the fact attracted immediate attention from international capitalists, and the Itabira Iron Ore Co., with British capital, was the first to be granted a charter, in 1910; in 1918, an American capitalist, Percival Farquhar, took over the company. Itabira Iron Ore Co. would eventually become
Vale do Rio Doce, one of the largest mining companies in the world.
In 1921, with capitals from France, Belgium and Luxembourg, the
Companhia Siderurgica Belgo-Mineira
was founded in Sabará; this was the first conglomerate of heavy industry in Brazil.
During World War II, President Getulio Vargas took advantage of the interest of American government in having Brazil as an ally, and negotiated fundings for the construction of the
Companhia Siderurgica Nacional; for political reasons, the company was based in Volta Redonda, Rio de Janeiro, but was entirely dependant on the iron from Minas.
In 1938, the city of Contagem, near Belo Horizonte, was given the status of industrial center; the initiative attracted many enterprises, and Belo Horizonte became the economic center of Minas Gerais.
Minas Gerais was ready to become of the most important Brazilian States.
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