At the end of the 17th century, after nearly 200 years of hacking through the brush and forests of the interior of Brazil, Portuguese adventurers found what they were looking for: gold. They also found emeralds, diamonds, aquamarines, turmalines, amethyst, and just about every other gem known to man.
The most productive mines were in Vila Rica – Rich Town – in the mountains of the region known as Minas Gerais, or General Mines.
Three years later, in 1697, the Portuguese Crown ordered that the path from the port of Paraty, just south of Rio de Janeiro, to Vila Rica be widened into a road that could handle a two-way traffic of mule trains.
The Estrada Real, or Royal Road, made it possible to transport gold from Vila Rica – later known as Ouro Preto – to the sea in 70 to 90 days, depending on weight, weather, Indians, bandits, and mosquitos. Three months was too long to leave gold on the backs of mules, so in 1701, the Crown ordered the building of a new road- the Caminho Novo – a national and projected road from Rio de Janeiro, which was still known as Miners’ Beach, to Ouro Preto.
A high-speed mule train could then make the trip in 25 days. When diamonds were discovered further north in Minas Gerais, the Estrada Real was extended to Diamantina.
Travelling through Minas Gerais has been likened to navigating a choppy sea. The geography of the region seems a solidified series of waves, swells, and troughs.
The Estrada Real was to restrict as much as facilitate transportation into the interior. The Crown did not want Brazil to develop industrial capacity.
By royal policy, the vast colony was to depend on tiny Portugal for food, metals, tools, nails, ammunition, equipment, and supplies. The Brazilian economy was to be based almost exclusively on the export of gems and gold.
The Estrada Real was travelled by adventurers willing to risk everything for the chance to become wealthy beyond anyone’s capacity to spend. The flow of wealth inevitably led to the traffic of smugglers. Military squads watched for them. African and Native American slaves, either marching to the mines or hauling goods and people through the hills, also populated the road.
In a certain sense, the history of the Estrada Real is the history of Latin America. Unlike the settlers who came to North America from industrial nations, the colonizers of Latin America came from feudal lands. They came neither to build nor to stay. In Portuguese, the verb explorar means both explore and exploit. The language has no other word for either activity.
As if by linguistic necessity, the Portuguese did both at the same time, exploring a region so vast that even today it has not yet been fully mapped, exploiting the land and ungodly number of native and immigrants.
Once the gold and jewels were gone, the people who remained were left with magnificent churches and abandoned mines but no infrastructure for any but an agrarian economy.
That situation hasn’t changed much. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Estrada Real of the 17th century is still there. Most of the road is dirt, dust, or mud, though it becomes cobblestone as it passes through towns and villages.
This is the cradle of Brazilian culture. It all started here, in the mountains of Minas Gerais. As urban Brazil struggles into modern times and the global economy, its slow, quiet past still lives along its first road.
This book is about the people, culture and history of the Estrada Real. The people are changing, some by resisting change, some by embracing it.
The road departs from Brazil’s flashier attractions – beaches, bossa nova, Carnaval, and soccer – as it leads to a quieter economy based on history, culture, cuisine, and ecology.
All are in the balance, the culture under insidious attack from corporate values, the cuisine threatened by fast food and foreign dishes, the ecology cringing with the approach of open pit mines, dirt bikes, pavement, litter, and automobiles. Deep history is there, too, immutable and unfinished.