JOHN’S JOURNEYS: TREASURE HOUSE OF HISTORY
John Burke goes back to Brazil’s gold-rush
Approach to Ouro Preto © JOHN BURKE
Nowhere in Latin America is the colonial era preserved better than in Ouro Preto. Founded just before the stampede for gold and gems in the eighteenth century, Brazil’s onetime boom-town remains a rich store of art and architecture that is protected as a World Heritage site.
Originally known as Vila Rica (wealthy village), Ouro Preto lies 61 miles south of Belo Horizonte which, in 1889, succeeded it as the capital of Minas Gerais, the second state by size and wealth. “The name means general mines and the region came under the military in 1720 because it was honeycombed with diggings for precious metals and diamonds” explained Thais Ferreira, my guide from EMBRATUR, “Ouro Preto translates as black gold, because the yellow metal was found in iron oxide”.
After two hours’ drive along the rolling highway, we spied Ouro Preto, nestling amid the hills some 3,300 feet above sea level. This makes for cold nights during the months of June and July, but during the southern summertime – November to February – there is heavy rain.
The approach to town allows a vista of houses in pastel cololurs with red tiles and terraced gardens. Before the road has dipped far, several of the 13 baroque or rococo churches are visible, either in valleys or on hilltops. No less than six were named after the Virgin Mary, the most remarkable of them being the aristocratic Carmel whose museum of sacred art vies with that of the Pillar church.
Church of St Francis © JOHN BURKE
The finest in all Brazil is lofty St Francis’s (1766) which has vast ceiling frescoes and a sumptuous main altar. Outside is a market in ornaments of soapstone, but nothing can compare with the sculpture by Aleijadinho, the mulatto Michaelangelo of Brazil, who is commemorated in an adjoining museum.
Yet there is more to Ouro Preto than churches, chapels and convents that belie how it was a sink of vice during its get-rich-quick heyday. Wealth beyond the dreams of avarice endowed it with mansions, fountains and bridges in the narrow and steep cobbled streets. One can easily get lost amid the twists and turns, as there are few street-signs, and locals ignore the long-winded names in favour of their own, short versions.
House of Betrayal © JOHN BURKE
We started in Tiradentes square at the top of the town where the former governor’s mansion is now the School of Mines, housing a mineral collection. On the far side of the cobbled square stands the old town hall that is known as the Casa de Inconfidência (house of betrayal).
Filled with furniture and furnishings from the eighteenth century, it brings to life the turbulent history of Ouro Preto between its foundation in 1711 and the imperial status of 1822. The trouble was that the Portuguese crown demanded at least one-fifth of the gold, although much was lost to smugglers, tax-dodgers and bandits. The official total sent to Lisbon was 800 tons, but after 500 tons had been extracted, royal greed outdid the yield, provoking an uprising.
They hanged the leader, Tiradentes, whose defiant statue faces the steps up to the baroque palace. Sadder to see than Queen Maria I’s proclamation of punishment is the dungeon where slaves were chained to iron rings when off duty. The title of a book published in Lisbon in 1801 testifies to the colonial prejudice: Observations on the infirmities of Negroes.
Church of St Ephigenia © JOHN BURKE
During a stampede as great as the Klondyke’s, the bulk of Ouro Preto’s 110,000 citizens were Africans. They included a whole tribe whose chief, Chico-Rei, eventually bought their freedom through working a mine, and held court as of old. The slaves built their own church, St Ephigenia’s, in 1749 and it should be visited not just for its carved wood but also because the whole of Ouro Preto is stretched out below.
Yet it was Aleijadinho again who worked on St Joseph’s whereas the Pillar has the distinction of being Brazil’s second costliest church with half a ton of gold and silver, some of its used to depict scriptural scenes. In the valley between the churches is a favourite eating-place for regional dishes, Café & Cia, whose rear offers a view of houses rising up a cliff. The staple ingredient in Minas Gerais is a range of milky cheeses, while Brahma brews Brazil’s biggest group of pale and dark beers.
View from Café & Cia © JOHN BURKE
Before returning uphill, we visited the old station where a steam locomotive is displayed. Then we climbed back up the uneven flagstones to see the ornate theatre of 1769, the oldest surviving in Latin America. Brazil is not noted for opera, but Ouro Preto did develop its own version of contemporary music.
It was part of Mineiro Barroco, a spectrum of arts that also included prose and poetry. For the eighteenth century was also Brazil’s golden age, and despite the corruption and licentiousness in Ouro Preto, it was a metropolis that attracted both colonial and European intelligentsia, although sons of the rich still crossed the Atlantic to study in Coimbra.
Do not forget to buy some rare or even semi-precious stones at the shop to the left of the grim Betrayal museum. Before leaving this town frozen in time, the brave will go down the disused Chico Rei goldmine in the centre. There are more deserted diggings in the region as well as other historic towns such as Diamantina, Mariana and São João dei Rei, while horse-riding is available from Tropa Serrana in Belo.