Minas Gerais, a mountainous, landlocked state in southeastern Brazil, encompassing some 225,000 square miles, roughly the size of France. It is the second most populous state, and traditionally one of the three most powerful states in Brazil. To the south, it borders on the other two traditional powers in national politics, the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
The Tupi people, probably in sparse numbers, inhabited this densely forested region for several thousand years before the arrival of the first Europeans in the seventeenth century. In the 1690s the discovery of gold in the mountain streams of the interior set off the first great gold rush in the Western world. Thousands of colonists and their African slaves poured into the region during the next fifty years, traveling overland from the port of Rio de Janeiro, or moving down out of northeastern Brazil along the São Francisco River.
The area soon became known as the "General Mines" (Minas Gerais in Portuguese), and in 1720 became a new captaincy of Brazil. The mining camps of Sabará, Mariana, and Vila Rica (present-day Ouro Prêto) were named imperial vilas (towns), and became the major population centers in the mining zone. Diamonds were discovered in 1729 to the north of the gold-mining zone, and Tejuco (present-day Diamantina) became the major center for the diamond fields.
The enormous wealth generated by gold and diamond production made the Portuguese monarchy one of the richest in Europe in the eighteenth century, and provided the European economy with 80 percent of its gold supply. Wealthy miners financed the construction of churches, homes, and public buildings in Minas Gerais in a distinctive baroque style. Colonial Brazil's most famous artist and architect, Antônio Francisco Lisboa (1730–1814), better known as Aleijadinho (the little cripple), produced some of Brazil's greatest artistic treasures in the late eighteenth century.
With the exhaustion of placer gold deposits in the 1770s, Minas Gerais entered a period of economic stagnation. But in the mid-nineteenth century coffee production boomed in the southern part of the province, while cattle ranching and dairy farming emerged as major economic activities in the central, northern, and western regions. Gold mining experienced a small revival in the 1820s and 1830s, and even today plays a part in the state's economy.
Despite falling behind the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in economic growth in the nineteenth century, Minas Gerais maintained a very powerful role in national politics. From the 1890s to the 1930s it dominated presidential politics along with São Paulo.
Since the 1940s the state has become a major manufacturing center, with most of its heavy industry located around the state capital, Belo Horizonte. Production and processing of raw materials such as iron ore, bauxite, and manganese remain vital to the state economy. Minas Gerais is also famous for its beef and dairy products.
The state continues to play a central role in national politics. Mineiros are known for their conservatism and commitment to traditional social values.
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Charles R. Boxer, The Golden Age of Brazil, 1695–1750 (1969).
John D. Wirth, Minas Gerais in the Brazilian Federation, 1889–1937 (1977).
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Kiddy, Elizabeth W. Blacks of the Rosary: Memory and History in Minas Gerais, Brazil. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.
Langfur, Hal. The Forbidden Lands: Colonial Identity, Frontier Violence, and the Persistence of Brazil's Eastern Indians, 1750–1830. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.
Maxwell, Kenneth. Conflicts and Conspiracies: Brazil and Portugal, 1750–1808. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Paiva, Eduardo França. Escravidão e universo cultural na colonia: Minas Gerais, 1716–1789. Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Editora UFMG, 2001.
Marshall C. Eakin