Brazilian Heroes #4 – Tiradentes

Tiradentes is the father of Brazilian independence and a martyr who was killed during the suppression of the Minas uprising. He was the only rebel to die as a result of the Imperial crack-down, and is honored with a large square in the centre of Rio.

Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, known as Tiradentes (August 16, 1746–-April 21, 1792), was one of the first Brazilian revolutionaries, and a leading member of the “Inconfidência Mineira”, a group aimed at full Brazilian independence. Although the plot failed, and the aims of the group were ill-defined, Tiradentes has become a symbol of Brazilian independence, resurrected by the nationalist movements that eventually caused the formation of the modern Brazilian republic.

Tiradentes was a born into relative poverty in the village of São Jose (today the city is called Tiradentes), in the state of Minas Gerais. Orphaned at an early age, and reportedly raised by a tutor, Tiradentes was engaged in several professions, including military service and dentistry. The latter career gave rise to his nickname ‘Tiradentes’, which means tooth-puller.

The background to the Inconfidência Mineira is complex, but essentially, Minas Gerais was suffering from excessive exploitation of its mineral resources by the colonial elite. Initially, tensions were raised when the Minas Gerais governorship was given to Luis da Cunha Meneses, who proceeded to grant influential positions to his friends and family, alienating the members of the previous administration. Tiradentes was personally affected by the loss of his command of the military detachment that patrolled the strategic highway running through the Mantiqueria Mountains. The situation was exacerbated when, in an attempt to secure the royal quinto (tax), the Portuguese minister in charge of regional taxation sanctioned a controversial derrama. This was a discretionary tax that could be levied per capita if gold production failed to produce sufficient quinto.

Rather than accept these impositions, the intellectual elite of Minas Gerais formed a resistance movement, with constitutional ambitions modelled on that of the United States. These novel concepts were further buoyed by political ideas imported from Europe, particularly France, where several members of the group had studied. There were also more conservative elements of the groups aims, which appeased the realities of the Brazilian economy, including freedom for only those slaves born in Brazil. Although the group’s radical ambitions eventually came to fruition, at the time, the chance of success was very limited.

In 1788, as the Inconfidência Mineira were making preparations for a rebellion, the derrama was suspended, and the conspirators denounced. It was reportedly Joaquim Silverio dos Reis, sometimes known as the Brazilian traitor, who betrayed the group, in exchange for tax relief. Despite fleeing to Rio, Tiradentes and other members of the group were arrested and prosecuted in a public trial in Rio. The proceedings lasted 3 years, and it was only Tiradentes that was executed, with other members having their sentences commuted by Queen Maria.

Tiradentes’ body was dismembered, and his head was put on public display across Brazil, as a warning to potential revolutionaries. He began to be considered a national hero by the republicans in the late 19th century, and after the republic was proclaimed in Brazil in 1889 the anniversary of his death (April 21) became a national holiday. In Rio, he is commemorated by Praça Tiradentes, a large square in downtown Rio.