Minas Gerais, Conspiracy of
Minas Gerais, Conspiracy of
This conspiracy, known in Brazilian history as the Inconfidencia Mineira, took place in Minas Gerais in 1788 to 1789, and involved members of the region's wealthy and cultured elites, most of them Brazilian-born. It occurred at a time of difficulties in the region's economy, connected to the decline of its previously opulent gold mining industry, and of resentment toward the Portuguese government for its oppressive system of taxation, especially the onerous tax on gold. However, while the conspiracy began as a protest against the policies of the metropolitan government, it became an anticolonial movement. Its intellectual authors, many of whom had studied at the Portuguese university of Coimbra or in France, were inspired by the American Revolution and dreamed of following its example by eliminating Portuguese rule, making Minas Gerais independent, and installing therein a republican form of government. Although it was thwarted before being put into operation, the conspiracy is generally considered the first attempt to overthrow the colonial order in Brazil.
The conspiracy failed when, at the start of 1789, Joaquim Silvério dos Reis went to the governor of Minas Gerais and reported to him a conspiracy against the colonial government. The governor, the viscount of Barbacena, and the viceroy of Brazil, Luis de Vasconcelos e Sousa, ordered an investigation, in which the leading suspects were duly imprisoned, tried, and found guilty. In April 1791 the new viceroy, the Count of Resende, presided over a trial at which eleven conspirators were sentenced to the gallows and seven others banished to Africa. The only one executed was Joaquim José de Silva Xavier, a junior army officer who had been very active in plotting rebellion, and who was known as "Tiradentes" (Toothpuller), a name that is sometimes given to the movement. He was hanged, beheaded, and quartered in Rio de Janeiro on April 21, 1792. The sentences of the others were commuted to banishment through a pardon granted in October 1791, which became public under the agreement of April 18, 1792.
The mainspring of the plot was the decline in gold mining in Minas Gerais in the second half of the eighteenth century, a decline that generated tensions of all kinds. It led among other things to a steady rise in the number of quilombos (settlements of runaway slaves) and of poor freedmen. This process was aggravated by the incessant growth of Minas Gerais's debt to the Royal Treasury and the imminent collection of the derrama—the tax assessed on the inhabitants' income, paid by the captaincy into the Royal Treasury. A new dimension to political protest came, however, from the successful overthrow of the colonial order in British North America in 1776 to 1783. The North American experience offered a new model to those who opposed Portuguese policies and sharpened perusal of Enlightenment writings like those of the abbé Raynal, the contemporary French critic of the European colonial system.
The conspirators' plans envisaged an end to control by the metropolis and an alternative form of government, either a republic or a constitutional monarchy; they also had schemes for improving economic life that included the removal of constraints on diamond mining, establishment of a mint and a gunpowder mill, and promotion of local initiative. On certain points there was disagreement, however. Some favored a general emancipation of the slaves, as they believed the new freedmen would be eager to defend the new regime; others feared the resultant loss of labor in the fields and mines. Yet others desired freedom only for slaves born in Brazil, not for the great majority who were born in Africa.
The principal actors in the conspiracy came from the upper echelons of regional society. According to the final report of the official investigation, the principal landowners, cattle breeders, mine owners, contractors, judges, and military officers of the region joined the movement, in addition to some of the prominent Brazilian intellectuals of the time. Among the conspirators were the poet Cláudio Manoel da Costa; Tomás Antonio Gonzaga, a poet and magistrate of Vila Rica; Inácio Alvarenga Peixoto, magistrate and landowner; the army officers Francisco de Paula Freire de Andrade, military commandant of the captaincy, and ensign Joaquim José de Silva Xavier; the clerics Luís Vieira da Silva, owner of one of the colony's best libraries, Carlos Correia de Toledo, and Oliveira Rolim; the young José Álvares Maciel, who had studied in Europe; and the contractors and merchants João Rodrigues de Macedo and Domingos de Abreu Vieira.
The Minas conspiracy was for many years ignored or mythologized, and historians have treated it in very different ways. The first mention of the episode occurs in the English writer Robert Southey's History of Brazil. Southey belittled the conspiracy, characterizing it as merely the first appearance of revolutionary ideas in Brazil and repudiating any similarity to the independence movement in the British colonies of North America. In the História Geral do Brasil (1854–1857), Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagem, the quasi-official historian of the empire during the reign of Pedro II, disparaged the plot. Concerned with stressing his era's continuity with the colonial period, he played down Brazil's conflicts with Portugal, especially in connection with the Braganca dynasty. At the beginning of the twentieth century, in a reaction against the acclaim showered on Tiradentes by the Republic (established 1889), Capistrano de Abreu attributed scant importance to the Minas Conspiracy in his chapters on colonial history, stressing its parallels to the Pernambuco uprisings of 1710 to 1711 or 1817. However, the discovery of new documents allowed Joaquim Norberto de Souza e Silva to offer a new interpretation of the movement in his História da Conjuração Mineira (1873), emphasizing Tiradentes's deeply mystical religious ardor. The Minas Gerais historian Francisco Iglesias later also upheld the importance of the movement, stressing that use of the term "conspiracy" was appropriate.
However, the most original contribution to the subject comes from Kenneth Maxwell. On the one hand, Maxwell paid great attention to the influence of European politics on the plot. On the other, he argued that the Minas Conspiracy was based more on economic than ideological issues and reconstructed the complex panorama in which the conspiracy arose, by analyzing internal divisions within the colonial administration, disputes between elites and administration, and the unique character of Tiradentes's career.
More recently, Laura de Mello e Souza has argued that the conspiracy was part of a tradition of protest in Minas Gerais that resurfaced throughout the nineteenth century. Examining common elements among the dissenting movements of the captaincy—the Emboabas war (1707–1709), the Pitangui (1717) and Vila Rica (1729) rebellions, the Curvelo "conspiracy" (1761)—she proposes a reconsideration of the Minas conspiracy as an intertwining of different protests against crown regulations, while downplaying its anticolonial character.
Maxwell, Kenneth. Conflicts and Conspiracies: Brazil and Portugal, 1750–1808. Rev. ed. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Silva, Joaquim Norberto de Souza e. História da Conjuração Mineira. Rio de Janeiro: Garnier, 1873.
Southey, Robert. History of Brazil. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1810–1819.
Souza, Laura de Mello e. Norma e Conflito: Aspectos da história de Minas no século XVIII. Belo Horizonte, São Paulo: Editora UFMG, 1999.
Varnhagem, Francisco Adolfo de. História Geral do Brasil. Belo Horizonte, São Paulo: Itatiaia/EDUSP, 1973. (Originally published in 1854–1857.)