Gold Rushes, Brazil

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Gold Rushes, Brazil

The quest for gold has been a significant part of Brazilian history, driving much of Portuguese and Brazilian penetration into the interior of the country. Large deposits of gold were discovered at the beginning of the eighteenth century in Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso, Goiás, and Bahia. The subsequent gold rush transformed the Portuguese colony, stimulating extensive immigration from Portugal, further exploration of the remote interior, and a substantial increase in African slave importations. Extracted primarily by slave labor, gold became the principal Brazilian export for more than half a century, supporting the Portuguese Empire worldwide and probably financing the foundations of the industrial revolution in Britain. Perhaps as much as one-half of production left the colony illegally. With the subsequent exhaustion of these deposits, gold's share of the Brazilian economy declined precipitously, even with the entry of foreign mining engineers and technology in the mid-nineteenth century. Gold mining came to be dominated by small-scale, informal placer operations (Garimpos).

The discovery of substantial gold deposits in the Amazon Basin in the 1960s and 1970s dynamized the mining sector, provoking the most extensive gold rush of the twentieth century in the Americas. Throughout the Amazon, hundreds of garimpos have competed with large mining companies for access to deposits. Gold mined in the late 1980s contributed more than $1 billion annually to the legal Brazilian economy, as well as fueling a lucrative black market. Nearly 90 percent was supplied by garimpos. At the same time, deforestation, burning, the use of mercury to amalgamate with gold, and the invasion of aboriginal lands have caused severe environmental and social disruption. Most notably the conflictive situation resulting from the miners' invasion of Yanomami lands in Roraima and Serra Pelada in Pará has provoked both international and Brazilian condemnation of the unregulated nature of the gold rush, an issue only partially addressed by Brazilian governments to date.

See alsoBahia; Goiás; Industrialization; Mato Grosso; Minas Gerais; Mining: Colonial Brazil.


Boxer, Charles The Golden Age of Brazil, 1695–1750. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.

Cleary, David. Anatomy of the Amazon Gold Rush. Iowa City: University of Iowa Perr, 1990.

Eakin, Marshall. "The Role of British Capital in the Development of Brazilian Gold Mining." In Miners and Mining in the Americas, ed. Thomas Greaves and William Culver, pp. 10-28. Dover, NH: Manchester University Press, 1985.

Higgins, Kathleen J. "Licentious Liberty" in a Brazilian Gold-mining Region: Slavery, Gender, and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Sabará, Minas Gerais. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Rocha, G. A., ed. Em busca do ouro: Garimpos e garimpeiros no Brasil. São Paulo: Editora Marco Zero, 1984.

Santos, Márcio. Estradas reais: Introdução ao estudo dos caminhos do ouro e do diamante no Brasil. Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Editora Estrada Real, 2001.

                                           Robert Wilcox