It all started in Ouro Preto.
“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, tourmalines, 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 mosquitoes. 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.” ©¹
In the 1720s, the rush suffered another stimulus with the discovery of diamonds and the two mining industries grew fast. By the 18th century, perhaps 80 percent of the gold in Europe originated in Brazil. ©²
As a result of the gold trade, Ouro Preto, then known as Vila Rica, took a significant place in Brazilian history, being the site of the Inconfidência Mineira, the first attempted uprising in the cause of independence from Portuguese colonial rule. The revolt was led by Brazilian cultural hero Tiradentes in 1789 after he realized how much of the region’s gold was going straight onto boats bound for Portugal. Influenced by the writings of Rousseau – and French liberal philosophers – and by the American Revolution, Tiradentes joined with a number of like-minded citizens in the Inconfidência. The revolt failed however, and after Tiradentes was tried and executed, he was dismembered and various body parts were displayed along the road between Ouro Preto and Rio de Janeiro to discourage his followers. His head was placed in what is now known as Praça Tiradentes, at the very center of town.
By the end of the 19th century, the gold had run out, growth had slowed to a halt. The population plummeted when the capital was moved to the newly founded Belo Horizonte in 1897. Lack of new construction provided for the preservation of the colonial architecture, and Ouro Preto was forgotten in time until dictator Getúlio Vargas began having some sites restored in the 1950s. Since then it has gradually become more of a tourist destination as one of the best-preserved colonial cities in Brazil. It is particularly noted for its churches, which are special not only for their architecture but also for the carved sculptures of Aleijadinho, one of Brazil’s most celebrated artists. Ouro Preto was the first Brazilian location to be declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1980.” ©³
Today, Ouro Preto is one of the most popular travel destinations in Brazil.
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©² History of Portugal (1578-1777)
©³ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page – The Free Encyclopedia