Brazilian Gold Rush

An influx of gold seekers followed the discovery of extensive gold deposits in Brazil’s interior. The gold rush led to Portuguese settlement of the region and contributed to the stagnation of Brazil’s sugar economy. The gold riches helped monetize the world economy and facilitate European trade with East Asia.

Summary of Event

The discovery of gold and silver in Spanish America encouraged the Portuguese to explore the Brazilian interior in hope of finding mineral riches. Mixed-race bandeirantes, of indigenous Brazilian and Portuguese descent, had found a few small gold deposits but no major strikes. Brazil consequently developed as an agricultural economy, producing dyewoods (especially brazilwood), tobacco, and sugar for export. The Portuguese first bartered with the indigenous population for brazilwood, but after the introduction of sugarcane, the indigenous and then Africans were enslaved by the Portuguese, providing the labor for the plantations. Plantation system;Brazil Brazil’s sugar plantations and refineries were clustered along the coast, particularly in the northeast, and the early colonial capital was established in that zone at Salvador da Bahia. [kw]Brazilian Gold Rush (early 1690’)
[kw]Gold Rush, Brazilian (early 1690’)
Economics;Early 1690’: Brazilian Gold Rush[2960]
Geology;Early 1690’: Brazilian Gold Rush[2960]
Trade and commerce;Early 1690’: Brazilian Gold Rush[2960]
Exploration and discovery;Early 1690’: Brazilian Gold Rush[2960]
Expansion and land acquisition;Early 1690’: Brazilian Gold Rush[2960]
South America;Early 1690’: Brazilian Gold Rush[2960]
Brazil;Early 1690’: Brazilian Gold Rush[2960]
Portugal;Early 1690’: Brazilian Gold Rush[2960]
Gold rush, Brazil
Brazil;gold rush

In the early 1690’, the paulista prospectors (the bandeirantes from São Paulo) discovered bonanza after golden bonanza, first in the province of Minas Gerais (general mines) and later in Goiás, Mato Grosso, Ceará, Sergipe, and Bahia. With these rich strikes along the alluvial plains, thousands of hopeful miners rushed to the region. Many made the arduous trek across the mountains from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and others followed the São Francisco River south from Bahia into the mining zones. They took with them thousands of black slaves. As word reached Europe of the discoveries, men from Portugal and its Atlantic islands, such as the Azores and Madeira, also thronged to Minas Gerais.

The bandeirantes who had made the discoveries were frontiersmen, accustomed to the harsh conditions of the Brazilian interior, but many of the would-be miners were ill-suited and poorly equipped to survive at the diggings. They reached the mines with little food and even less intention of using their slaves to grow crops when the chattels could be panning for gold. It took two months for foodstuffs to be transported to the mining region from Bahia, and during the early years there were reports of starvation and widespread malnutrition. Eventually, entrepreneurs earned great profits by supplying the mine operators and their workers with basic necessities; gold was plentiful but food and clothing were scarce. Gold also caused inflation in the coastal areas by driving up the price for imports, foodstuffs, and other merchandise there. Mining;Brazil

It took several years for the Portuguese crown to recognize the significance of the discovery and respond to the gold rush. The monarchy initially assumed that the strikes would be of short duration, as had been the case with those made earlier. Indeed, the Crown began to respond in a significant way only when it received complaints from the sugar planters that they were suffering a labor shortage: Many slaves had been shipped to the mines and the miners had the gold to outbid the planters for chattels arriving from Africa. The monarchy worried that the drain of men to the mines would leave Brazil defenseless and that it would destroy the tobacco and sugar industries. In 1701, the Crown consequently prohibited further migration to the mines. Such decrees had little effect, however, and Lisbon had to revise its gold-rush policy. It eventually became clear that the bandeirantes had struck a fabulous bonanza and that the government needed to regulate the miners if it hoped to garner its share of the profits.

Yet oversight of the mining districts proved difficult. With its high value and small volume, gold was easy to smuggle, and the officials had trouble collecting the royal fifth on the miners’ production. The government’s reluctance to pay for officials to regulate the mining provinces added to the disorder and tumult that reigned on the frontier. The scarce royal officials could do little to prevent the civil war that broke out in October, 1708, between the paulistas and the emboabas, a derisive term for what the bandeirantes considered Portuguese and Bahian interlopers. Yet the numerical superiority of the bandeirantes enabled them to drive the paulistas out of many of their claims before royal officials managed to mediate a truce in December of 1709. By 1720, miners were exploiting the main gold deposits of Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso, and Goiás. Townships had emerged in the backlands, along with the basic institutions of government. Royal assay and smelting houses, established at Taubaté and Parati, lay some distance from the gold fields, however, impeding the efficient collection of mining taxes.

African and Afro-Brazilian slaves provided nearly all the labor for the gold mines. Masters particularly sought workers from the Bight of Benin, because many of them had experience in mining and refining gold in Africa. Indeed, they often had more expertise than their Portuguese masters. The gold rush provoked a large migration of Africans to the Brazilian interior. Migration;Africans into Brazilian interior By 1700, about 2,600 slaves arrived in Minas Gerais each year, and four decades later, the quantity had grown to 7,000 annually. This meant that Minas Gerais soon had more slaves than any of Brazil’s other provinces, including the old sugar regions.

The slaves were occupied in two main processes of gold mining. The first were large enterprises that handled relatively large amounts of earth on hillsides and rechanneled rivers to get at the gold-bearing alluvium. Sluices separated the gold from what had been dug up. Operations generally had gangs of slaves, laboring under a close supervision that kept the workers from stealing gold nuggets and ensuring that they kept working. The size of the operator’s claim generally depended on the number of slaves he had. Although inhumane and brutal, it often made economic sense to work the slaves as hard as possible, even if it endangered their health or their lives, in order to extract as much gold as possible before the arrival of competitors. Slavery;Brazil

The second principal method of gold production required less investment and fewer slaves. Prospector-slaves worked with considerable independence from their owners. Masters demanded that the prospector-slaves (faiscadores) produce a stipulated amount of gold, perhaps a few grams, each week. If they managed to pan more, they were allowed to keep the surplus. A number of faiscadores managed to save enough to buy their own freedom. Some masters agreed to free productive faiscadores after a specified number of years of service. Other slaves simply escaped to the quilombos (independent villages that were culturally African and made of runaway slaves) that grew in the interior. By the final decades of the eighteenth century, more than 75 percent of the population of Minas Gerais was Afro-Brazilian and 40 percent were free rather than slaves.

Gold production grew until the middle of the eighteenth century, reaching its high point probably between 1730 and 1755, with an annual output of 18 to 20 tons. The exact amount is impossible to ascertain, however, given the widespread smuggling and the Portuguese exchequer’s feeble control over the mining industry. It has been estimated that the state managed to tax only one-third of Brazilian gold output. During the 1700’, Brazil may have produced as much as one thousand tons of gold. By way of comparison, Europe’s entire stock of gold around 1500 amounted to around 3,500 tons. Brazil far surpassed the amount of gold yielded by Spanish America, whose mines chiefly produced silver.


The gold rush of the 1690’s opened the Brazilian southwest to settlement, eventually transformed social relations within the mining provinces, and played a major role in world economic development. It also stimulated economic activity in other parts of Brazil, which supplied the mines with foodstuffs and other daily necessities. The gold flowed out of Brazil as tax revenues and as payment for imported merchandise. Many of those goods were English, for the English had gained access to the Portuguese Empire under provisions of the Treaty of Metheun (1703) Metheun, Treaty of (1703) . In fact, Portuguese political economists complained that the English derived more benefit from Brazilian gold than did Portugal. Nonetheless, Brazil’s gold was crucial to monetizing the European economy, and it helped pay for the spices, silks, and porcelain imported from Asia.

Further Reading

  • Bethell, Leslie, ed. Colonial Brazil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Chapter 5, “The Gold Cycle, c. 1690-1750,” is an excellent survey of the economic implications of the gold rush and its effects on slave labor.
  • Boxer, Charles R. The Golden Age of Brazil, 1695-1750: The Growing Pains of a Colonial Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962. An early work with chapters on the gold rush and development of Minas Gerais by one of the most eminent historians of Portuguese expansion.
  • Cardozo, Manoel. “The Brazilian Gold Rush.” Americas 3, no. 2 (October, 1946): 137-160. A basic overview and narrative of the gold strikes in the Brazilian interior and the ensuing rush to exploit them.
  • Higgins, Kathleen J. “Licentious Liberty” in a Brazilian Gold-Mining Region: Slavery, Gender, and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Sabará, Minas Gerais. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. Higgins shows how conditions in the mining regions affected slavery and particularly how gender issues influenced the evolution toward greater autonomy for the slaves.
  • Russell-Wood, A. J. R. Slavery and Freedom in Colonial Brazil. Oxford, England: Oneworld, 2002. A new edition of the author’s The Black Man in Slavery and Freedom in Colonial Brazil (1982), which contains a wealth of information on the gold mines and labor system.

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