Legend has it that a mulatto servant in an early bandeirante (a group of roaming adventurers who spent the 17th and 18th centuries exploring Brazil’s interior, searching for gold and Indians to enslave) expedition pocketed a few grains of an odd black metal he found while drinking from a small river near the current site of Ouro Prêto (Portuguese for ‘black gold’). It turned out to be gold, and within a few years, the local deposits were discovered to be the largest in the New World.
Gold fever spread fast. In 1711, Vila Rica de Ouro Prêto, the predecessor of the present town, was founded, and in 1721 it became the capital of Minas Gerais. The finest goods from India and England were made available to the simple mining town. The gold bought the services of baroque artisans, who turned the city into an architectural gem. At the height of the gold boom in the mid-18th century, there were 110, 000 people (mainly slaves) in Ouro Prêto, as contrasted to 50, 000 in New York and about 20, 000 in Rio de Janeiro.
In theory, all gold was brought to casas de intendéncias (weighing stations) to be turned into bars, and a quinto do ouro (royal fifth) was set aside for the Portuguese crown. Tax shirkers were cast into dungeons or exiled to Africa.
The greed of the Portuguese led to sedition by the inhabitants of Vila Rica. As the boom tapered off, the miners found it increasingly difficult to pay ever-larger gold taxes. In 1789, poets Claudio da Costa, Tomás Antônio Gonzaga, Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (nicknamed Tiradentes, meaning ‘Tooth Puller’, for his dentistry skills) and others, full of French-Revolutionary philosophies, hatched an uprising against Portuguese colonization known as the Inconfidência Mineira.
The rebellion was crushed in its early stages by agents of the crown. Gonzaga was exiled to Mozambique and Costa did time in prison. Tiradentes, the only man not to deny his role in the conspiracy, was abandoned by his friends, jailed for three years without defense, then drawn and quartered in Rio de Janeiro. His head was paraded around Ouro Prêto, his house demolished and its grounds salted to ensure that nothing would grow there.
In 1897 the state capital was shifted from Ouro Prêto to Belo Horizonte. This was the decisive move that preserved the city’s colonial flavor. The ensuing century has seen a steady increase in appreciation for Ouro Prêto’s unique cultural legacy, notably marked by Unesco’s 1980 decision to enshrine it as Brazil’s first World Heritage site.