Tiradentes, National Hero of Brazil

In late April of 2008 I flew into Sao Paulo to be told that if I could be ready to depart within the next few hours I would have the opportunity to visit the little country town which has grown up at the birthplace of the eighteenth century Brazilian national hero Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier, better known as Tiradentes – the tooth puller. Dorothea’s tiny car was so full of furniture, household goods and pets that there was no room for a suitcase so I had to pack my clothes into plastic bags and squeeze them in wherever I could. Michael, the elderly terrier sat on my lap and a newly adopted black cat inhabited the basket beside me. I soon christened him Raoul for his persistant wail as the journey into the heart of Minas Gerais took over eight hours. Oh, and did I mention that we were giving a lift to a neighbour’s gardener who shared some of the driving? At least I think that was who he was. Everyone knows everyone else in Tiradentes as I was soon to find out.

Dorothea is the mother of the friend I was visiting; she is a delightful lady of Romanian origin who has been an actress, dancer, artist and poet in her day and was also, of course, a celebrated beauty. If all this sounds rather wonderful we must spare a thought for her three daughters who have to cope with such ventures as the building of a theatrical venue in the middle of nowhere, the completion of which was grinding to a halt over the failure of local workmen to correctly master the placing of traditional Romanian “eyes” in the roof. This is to say nothing of funding schemes that bring to mind the expression “a wing and a prayer”. The little town of Tiradentes, for it has been given the name of its most famous son, is tailor-made for such larger than life characters. Set in beautiful countryside, it is home to a number of fashionable artists and artisans whose works sell for equally fashionable prices in the big cities. It is also a popular weekend retreat with some quite smart restaurants but let’s introduce the great man himself.

Sr. da Silva Xavier was actually anything but great. He was born in 1746 to humble parents who died and left him to the care of an uncle, a medical man fortunate enough to be able to see to young Joaquim’s education. The young man seems to have become a bit of a misfit, working variously as a soldier, miner, horse doctor and (fatefully) dentist. The district of Minas Gerais contained some of the richest gold, mineral and gem mines in the world, in fact the name means “General Mines”. It was while working as a courier for one of them that he became aware of the degree of exploitation carried out by the Portuguese Government and fell in with a group of men with revolutionary sympathies. They called themselves the Inconfidencia Mineira and rather ineffectually plotted an uprising with the aim of turning Brazil into a Republic but were betrayed by one of their number, tried and sentenced to death.

It was 1789 but at that stage the Portuguese could not have known that it would take another thirty years for independence to reach Brazil and were made anxious by revolutionary stirrings in America and France. The trial dragged on for three years during which the pejorative nickname – tooth puller – and its owner’s steadfast insistence that he alone should bare the penalty succeeded in immortalising a man who otherwise would scarcely have merited a footnote. In 1792 he was hanged while the others had their sentences commuted, thereby earning himself a permanent place in the hearts of his countrymen. Later in my trip I visited the mining district capital of Ouro Preto (literally, black gold) and thought because of the large statue of Tiradentes with a rope around his neck that this was the place he had been put to death. It turns out that although he was imprisoned here, he was actually put to death in Rio. Not that it makes much difference, his quartered body was displayed in the various cities of the mining region, presumably just in case there was anybody who hadn’t yet heard of him.

Much of what I saw of Minas Gerais is now lovely countryside with some very pretty colonial style churches and there is scarcely a city or large town without some sort of commemoration to the Inconfidencia and their unlikely figurehead. I stayed with Dorothea for a week in Tiradentes before travelling on to Belo Horizonte to stay with my friends; I met the neighbours, walked the dog and rescued the cat from the rafters all the while soaking up the atmosphere which, if not uniquely Brazilian, was certianly unlike anything I have ever encountered anywhere else.

Categories: Latin America

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