Country Listing

Brazil Table of Contents


The Eighteenth-Century Gold Rush

As a result of the mineral discoveries, settlers flocked to the gold region, and growing numbers of slaves were transferred from the sugar areas and brought in from Africa. Gold mining was mainly alluvial panning, a labor-intensive activity. The extraction of gold increased rapidly until the 1750s when gold exports peaked. After the gold deposits became depleted and exports declined sharply in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Brazilian economy entered another long period of stagnation.

The gold surge did not establish a basis for economic expansion after the depletion of the mines. The economic regression was especially bad because of the restrictions Portugal had imposed on the establishment of manufacturing in the colony. However, the gold rush had an important impact in shaping Brazil's territory. First, the various exploratory expeditions led to the incorporation of large areas originally belonging to Spain. In addition, the demand for food and animals for transportation and meat had major repercussions outside the mining region. The mines were located in inhospitable, mountainous terrain, and the movement of goods to and from the mines depended heavily on mules. Agricultural activities were expanded elsewhere in order to feed the miners. Thus, the gold rush brought about the occupation of, and interaction among, different geographical areas. Moreover, the colony's economic and administrative center of gravity moved to the Southeast Region. Gold was shipped through ports in or near Rio de Janeiro, prompting the transfer of the colonial administration from the Bahian town of Salvador to Rio de Janeiro.

The difficult period resulting from the depletion of the mines lasted well into the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The mainstays of the economy were in decline, and the colony fell into a state of depression and decadence. In the late eighteenth century, Brazil experienced a brief surge in cotton exports to Britain, as the War of Independence in America disrupted American trade temporarily; however, Brazilian cotton lost its place in the world market by the early nineteenth century.

The Economy at Independence, 1822

Despite Brazil's economic troubles, the early nineteenth century was a period of change. First, the Napoleonic Wars forced the Portuguese royal family to flee to Brazil in 1808, and for a short period the colony became the seat of the Portuguese empire (see The Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil, 1808-21, ch. 1). Moreover, in 1808 Britain persuaded Portugal to open the colony to trade with the rest of the world, and Portugal rescinded its prohibition against manufacturing. These events paved the way for Brazil's independence on September 7, 1822.

Brazil's early years as an independent nation were extremely difficult. Exports remained low, and the domestic economy was depressed. The only segment that expanded was the subsistence economy. Resources (land, slaves, and transport animals) made idle by the decline of the export economy were absorbed into mostly self-consumption activities.

Data as of April 1997