Ouro Preto - Encyclopedia

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OURO PRETO (" Black Gold"), a city of the state of Minas Geraes, Brazil, 336 m. by rail N. by W. of Rio de Janeiro, and about 300 m. W. of Victoria, Espirito Santo, on the eastern slope of the Serra de Espinhago and within the drainage basin of the Rio Doce. Pop. (1890) 17,860; (1900) 11,116. Ouro Preto is connected with Miguel Burnier, on the Central of Brazil railway, by a metre-gauge line 31 m. in length. The city is built upon the lower slope of the Serra do Ouro Preto, a spur of the Espinhago, deeply cut by ravines and divided into a number of irregular hills, up which the narrow, crooked streets are built and upon which groups of low, old-fashioned houses form each a separate nucleus. From a mining settlement the city grew as the inequalities of the site permitted. R. F. Burton (Highlands of Brazil, London, 1869) says that its shape "is that of a huge serpent, whose biggest end is about the Praga.... The extremities stretch two good miles, with raised convolutions.. .. The ` streeting ' of both upper and lower town is very tangled, and the old thoroughfares, mere ` wynds'. .. show how valuable once was building ground." The rough streets are too steep and narrow for vehicles, and even riding on horseback is often difficult. Several rivulets follow the ravines and drain into the Ribeirao do Carmo, a sub-tributary of the Rio Doce. The climate is sub-tropical and humid, though the elevation (3700-3800 ft.) gives a temperate climate in winter. The days are usually hot and the nights cold, the variations in temperature being a fruitful cause of bronchial and pulmonary diseases. Ouro Preto has several historic buildings; they are of antiquated appearance and built of the simplest materials - broken stone and mortar, with an exterior covering of plaster. The more noteworthy are the old government house (now occupied by the school of mines), the legislative chambers, municipal hall and jail - all fronting on the Praga da Independencia - and elsewhere the old Casa dos Contos (afterwards the public treasury), a theatre (the oldest in Brazil, restored in 1861-1862) and a hospital. There are 15 churches in the city, some occupying the most conspicuous sites on the hills, all dating from the more prosperous days of the city's history, but all devoid of architectural taste. Ouro Preto is the seat of the best mining school in Brazil.

The city dates from 1701, when a gold-mining settlement was established in its ravines by Antonio Dias of Taubate. The circumstance that the gold turned black on exposure to the humid air (owing to the presence of silver) gave the name of Ouro Preto to the mountain spur and the settlement. In 1711 it became a city with the name of Villa Rica, a title justified by its size and wealth. At one period of its prosperity its population was estimated at 25,000 to 30,000. In 1720 Villa Rica became the capital of the newly created captaincy of Minas Geraes, and in 1823 the capital of the province of the same name under the empire of Dom Pedro I. When the empire was overthrown in 1889 and Minas Geraes was reorganized as a republican state, it was decided to remove the capital to a more favourable site and Bello Horizonte was chosen, but Ouro Preto remained the capital until 1898, when the new town (also called Cidade de Minas) became the seat of government. With the decay of her mining industries, Ouro Preto had become merely the political centre of the state. The removal of the capital was a serious blow, as the city has no industries to support its population and no trade of importance. The event most prominent in the history of the city was the conspiracy of 1789, in which several leading citizens were concerned, and for which one of its less influential members, an alferes (ensign) of cavalry named Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier, nicknamed "Tira-dentes" (teeth-puller), was executed in Rio de Janeiro in 1792. The conspiracy originated in a belief that the Portuguese crown was about to enforce payment of certain arrears in the mining tax known as the "royal fifths," and its object was to set up a republic in Brazil. Although a minor figure in the conspiracy, Tira-dentes was made the scapegoat of the thirtytwo men arrested and sent to Rio de Janeiro for trial, and posterity has made him the proto-martyr of republicanism in Brazil.

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