Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, also known as Tiradentes, was the leader of Brazil’s first rebellion, the Inconfidência Mineira, against Portugal. The rebellion failed but Tiradentes has become recognised as a national hero and martyr to the cause.
He was born into a poor farming family near São João del Rey in 1746. Our Tiradentes guide told us he was baptised in São José, current day Tiradentes, although it is possible he was born in São José and baptised in São João as both claim his birth and baptism.
When his parents died in 1757 he moved to Vila Rica to live with his god-father, a Dental Surgeon. Lacking formal education he worked as a cattle driver and miner before studying dentistry. Again, our guide told us he studied his dentistry in Tiradnets, rather than Vila Rica, in a building now housing the Museu Padre Toledo. (Closed for Carnival) The word Tiradentes means Tooth Puller and was a derogatory term for dentists; Xavier was given this name at his trial.
At twenty one Xavier joined the Minas Gerais Dragoons, being appointed as an Alferes or Second Lieutenant. He was engaged in patrolling the Estrada Real network supervising the flow of gold and precious minerals to the coast. The Estrada Real was also referred to as the ‘Open Vein’ as the colony haemorrhaged it’s wealth via the road. And as wealth flowed out imports travelled in the other direction.
Of the gold mined in Minas Gerais the Crown took 20% in tax. The Church took a further 10% and most of that was likely removed to Portugal or Rome. The majority of the remaining 70% was necessarily spent on imports. In order to ensure the colony remained dependent on Portugal the Crown banned manufacturing and much farming.
Additionally, as the gold began to run out and tax revenues dropped the Crown assumed theft and corruption was the cause and continued to demand an annual tax levy of 150 tons of gold. This was to be collected from the populace if the gold revenue was not sufficient.
Xavier, not being of noble or priviledged birth, was never destined to rise through the officer ranks and would seem to have spent some 20 years patrolling the Estrada Real enforcing this system. Visiting the coast he would have become familiar with news from America and Europe and the growing independence movements abroad. America declared it’s Independence in 1776 and the French revolution would follow in 1789.
The causes of the Colony’s discontent were obvious and with revolution sweeping America and Europe it easy to see how the idea could take root in Brazil. The Inconfidência Mineira, the Miner’s Revolt, was born. Xavier wasn’t alone. His co conspirators were senior members of the army, his own Colonel was amongst them, as were local business men and clerics. The problem for the conspirators appears to have been that they had as many agendas as revolutionaries.
The revolt was planned for the day of the tax collection, or Derrama, in February 1789, figuring support would be better amongst the people. According to our guide the Museu Padre Toledo building was used to plan the rebellion. But Xavier was betrayed by one of his group who alerted the Govenor to the insurrection with predictable results. The Derrama was cancelled, the conspirators were arrested and the conspiracy collapsed. The informer was rewarded with an entirely appropriate lifting of his tax obligation.
Our guide told us Xavier was incarcerated in a place called the Island of Snakes during the trial. This took three years to complete and the testimony and transcripts are preseved in the Museu da Inconfidência in Ouro Preto. By the end of the trial Xavier had confessed all and stated that he was solely responsible for the rebellion. He and his co – conspirators we sentenced to death, although the others had their sentences commuted to ‘degradation’.
In 21 April 1792 Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, now known as Tiradentes, was hung, drawn an quartered in Rio de Janeiro. His head was mounted outside his house in Ouro Preto until it was demolished and the remaining body parts were sent around the state as a warning. Just for good measure his children and grandchildren were disinherited.
During the Napoleonic Wars the Portuguese Royal family moved to Brazil for their health. Upon Napoleon’s defeat the family returned and the King left his son, Pedro, in charge. That worked well because in 1822 Pedro declared himself Emperor of an independent Brazil.
The Empire lasted until the Republic was founded in 1889 when Tiradentes was finally elevated to the status of national hero. The town of São José was renamed in his honour and 21 April was declared a National Holiday.
In the 1930s a national monument to Tiradentes and the Inconfidência Mineira was established in the Museu da Inconfidência. The remains of the leaders were reinterred in the museum in front of a memorial to Tiradentes himself.
The symbol of the Inconfidência was a green triangle surrounded by the words “Libertas – Quae Será – Tamen”, Latin for ‘Liberty even if late’. The colour of the triangle is now red but it forms the insignia of the State of Minas Gerais.