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Colonial Brazil, Discovery of Gold and Diamonds

Treaty of Madrid, Brazilian economy, Portuguese Empire, diamond production, colonial capital

In the late 17th century, Brazilian explorers known as bandeirantes began to find gold in the mountain streams to the north of Rio de Janeiro. Word of the discovery of gold filtered back slowly to the coast and to Lisbon. By 1700 the western world’s first great gold rush had begun. Thousands of colonists and slaves poured into the rugged mountains north of Rio de Janeiro. The rush eventually spread on a smaller scale to the west, to present-day Goias and Mato Grosso. It received new stimulus in the 1720s with the discovery of diamonds in the region north of the gold fields. Gold and diamond production rose dramatically until 1760. Probably 80 percent of the gold circulating in 18th-century Europe came from Brazil. The discovery of gold revitalized Brazil’s economy, which had been stagnating since the decline of the sugar plantations, although the increase in available cash also caused prices to rise in the colony. In Lisbon, the Portuguese monarchy grew rich from collecting its one-fifth share of the gold that was mined in Brazil. Sugar, gold, and diamonds established Brazil as the economic heartland of the battered and reduced Portuguese Empire.

For the first time, the Portuguese established effective colonization in the interior. The area of Minas Gerais became the most populous in Brazil. The bandeirantes and prospectors had extended the reach of Portugal far into the interior, creating a Brazil of continental dimensions. The Treaty of Madrid signed by Spain and Portugal in 1750 moved the old Tordesillas line westward to reflect the lands effectively occupied by the two major colonial powers in South America. The present boundaries of Brazil roughly follow that line.

The flow of goods and people into the southeast also drained an already weak northeastern plantation economy. In 1763 the king moved the colonial capital from Salvador to the booming city of Rio de Janeiro, which served as the main entry and exit point for colonists, slaves, and goods to and from Minas Gerais. The result of the gold rush in Brazil is evident in the dozens of beautiful baroque churches and hundreds of statues and paintings, principally in Minas Gerais.

In Portugal the wealth from Brazil made the monarchy very powerful. The dictatorial Marquis of Pombal, the chief minister of King Joseph Emanuel of Portugal, used this power to modernize the imperial system. In 1755 he abolished slavery in Portugal and prohibited the enslavement of Native Americans by declaring them free citizens of Brazil. Pombal wanted to outlaw African slavery in Brazil as well, but he realized that slavery formed a central part of Brazil’s plantation-based economy. Recognizing the importance of Brazil to the economic well-being of Portugal, Pombal tried to improve the efficiency of the Brazilian economy and administration and to lessen tensions between colonists and their Portuguese rulers. He involved Brazilian-born individuals in the colonial government, promoted new crops, and expelled the Jesuits, who had opposed his economic programs.

Article key phrases:

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