Atlantic History Minas Gerais
Douglas Libby
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 November 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0341


The territory known as Minas Gerais (General Mines), roughly corresponding to the highlands of the southeastern region of present-day Brazil, was designated as a separate captaincy of Portuguese America in 1720, became a province in 1815, retained that status during the empire, and was redesignated as a state after the proclamation of the Republic in 1889—dates that roughly coincide with the limits of the overall period under consideration here (occasionally the region will be referred to as simply Minas and the adjective mineiro will be used as a qualifier). Gold strikes in the final years of the 17th century attracted ever larger waves of settlers from Portugal and other European countries and from other parts of Portuguese America, as well as attendant African slaves. A network of urban areas sprang up to house and service a burgeoning population and concentrated stately public and private buildings with their rich interiors. The slave society that emerged from a complex interdependence of mining, agricultural, craft, and service sectors was often considered unruly by colonial authorities, although current interpretations tend to emphasize the relative stability that marked everyday life in Minas, not least owing to a certain prosperity born of that diversity. While imports of African slaves into Minas were massive—perhaps the largest in all the Americas during most of the 18th century—it was the constant intermixing (mestiçagem) of individuals of diverse origins that most stands out in historical terms. By mid-century Minas boasted the largest population of Portuguese America, including the largest slave force, the highest number of Africans, and, above all, the largest population of mixed origin: slaves, freedpeople, and freeborn. Social organization, culture, the arts, and religious practices reflected those admixtures. By the last quarter of the 18th century, gold yields were in decline, but population growth continued and Minas had the largest provincial population when independence arrived in 1822—a situation that would not change until the second or third decade of the 20th century. Characterized by a sort of bucolic diversity during the 19th century, the region nevertheless remained linked to the Atlantic world through the slave trade and thanks to the emergence of coffee production, as well as through its role as the virtual breadbasket of dynamic southeastern Brazil. As the abolition of slavery loomed larger and larger on the horizon, the basic contours of Minas remained in place, but the glow of a diversified prosperity began to grow dimmer.

General Overviews

No overall histories of Brazil have been produced in English since Burns 1993 in which Minas Gerais appears almost exclusively as the center of the 18th-century gold cycle – a myopic and outdated approach. Boxer 1969 contextualizes developments in Minas within the Atlantic world. Russell-Wood 1987 provides a competent survey of Minas during the so-called gold cycle. Dean 1995 contemplates the environmental history of the rainforest covering large swaths of coastal and inland Brazil—from the northeast to the south—a large part of which was situated in Minas where devastation was tragically widespread. In order to appreciate recent advances in historiography specific to Minas, one has to turn to works in Portuguese. For example, detailed and focused analyses of colonial Minas are found in Resende and Villalta 2007 and the same quality of interpretations relative to mineiro history during the Empire are found in Resende and Villalta 2013. Short essays on a wide variety of topics relating to Minas in the colonial period are found in Romeiro and Botelho 2003 in both the 18th and 19th centuries. Libby 2020 provides an overview of two centuries of Minas history by way of focusing intently on life in the São José do Rio das Mortes region with a deeper look at segments of the population of people of color. Although focused on family history, Libby, et al. 2015 provides insights into the history of Minas relative to both the colonial and provincial periods. Martins Filho 2014 is an invaluable guide to an enormous collection of titles with themes related to Minas Gerais.

  • Boxer, Charles. The Golden Age of Brazil, 1695–1750: Growing Pains of a Colonial Society. Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1969.

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    A classic study by a masterful historian who anticipated such current notions as Atlantic history and global history. In any event, the emergence of Minas Gerais as the dynamic core of the vast Portuguese seaborne empire is squarely placed in the context of wider historical processes, among them the enormous increases in the transatlantic slave trade and international trade. Seven of the twelve chapters deal more directly with Minas.

  • Burns, E. Bradford. A History of Brazil. 3d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

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    A panoramic history of Brazil that largely limits considerations on Minas Gerais to the period of prosperity induced by gold mining and to the Inconfidência conspiracy of 1789. Tellingly, given a reliance on traditional historiographical interpretations, the volume contains not a word on Minas during the 19th century when it was thought to have been mired in secular decline. First edition was printed in 1970, second edition 1980.

  • Dean, Warren. With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

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    A masterful study of the occupation of the Atlantic rainforest, the devastation of which was greatly accelerated by the gold and diamond booms of the 18th century, most especially in Minas Gerais. Mining practices certainly contributed to eliminating forest lands, but so did the agriculture and ranching that fed populations concentrated around the mines; these destructive effects would continue as coffee cultivation spread in the 19th century.

  • Libby, Douglas, José Newton Coelho Meneses, Júnia Ferreira Furtado, and Zephyr L. Frank, eds. História da família no Brasil (séculos XVIII, XIX e XX): Novas análises e perspectivas. Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Fino Traço, 2015.

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    Ten of the twelve essays that comprise this collective work deal with Minas in the 18th and 19th centuries. The “traditional” mineira family, long considered as having been mostly extensive or nuclear and strictly as the fruit of Church-sanctioned unions, is examined through diverse prisms—social network reconstitution, microhistory, gender studies, among others—revealing an institution of remarkable complexity and flexibility throughout the two centuries in focus.

  • Libby, Douglas. Nos limites de seu estado: A vida em família, rumos econômicos e jogos indentitários em São José do Rio das Mortes (séculos XVIII e XIX). Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Miguilim, 2020.

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    A broad historical study of the territories and peoples comprising the varied jurisdictions making up old São José. Initial growth connected to gold mining was accompanied by the development of farming and ranching and complimented by solid craft and services sectors. Careful attention is paid to representational identities, to overall tendencies in the growth and composition of regional populations, almost inevitably leading to an examination of family history, including that of seven generations of an Afro-Brazilian clan.

  • Martins Filho, Amílcar Vianna. Livraria Mineira: Catálogo do notável e preciosa biblioteca Mineiriana do Instituto Cultural Amílcar Martins contendo mais de dez mil referências bibliográficas sobre a história e a cultura de Minas Gerais. Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Instituto Cultural Amílcar Martins, 2014.

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    A catalogue of over ten thousand titles belonging to the Instituto Cultural Amílcar Martins library, considered to be the largest and most complete collection of works pertaining to the history and culture of Minas Gerais, among them rare books published during the 18th and 19th centuries, travel accounts written by foreign visitors to the region, reference works, and others.

  • Resende, Efigênia Lage de, and Luiz Carlos Villalta, eds. As Minas setecentistas. 2 vols. História de Minas Gerais. Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Autêntica: Companhia do Tempo, 2007.

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    Comprehensive reader in the colonial history of Minas Gerais organized in eleven thematic sections covering multiple topics and including sixty-three essays prepared by qualified specialists in each area.

  • Resende, Efigênia Lage de, and Luiz Carlos Villalta, eds. História de Minas Gerais: A província de Minas. 2 vols. Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Autêntica: Companhia do Tempo, 2013.

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    Collective reader in the history of Minas Gerais during the Brazilian Empire (1822–1889). Divided into eight sections with a total of forty-six topical essays written by top scholars in their respective fields.

  • Romeiro, Adriana, and Angela Vianna Botelho, orgs. Dicionário histórico das Minas Gerais: Periodo colonial. Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Autêntica, 2003.

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    A compilation of 129 encyclopedic entries written by sixteen scholars and dealing with diverse topics relating to the colonial history of Minas Gerais. Each entry includes a useful list of primary and secondary sources.

  • Russell-Wood, A. J. R. “The Gold Cycle, c. 1690–1750.” In Colonial Brazil. Edited by Leslie Bethell, 190–243. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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    Notwithstanding a somewhat outdated historiographical framework, an informed synthesis of the occupation of Minas following initial gold strikes, its rapid population growth, its urbanization, and the elevated purchasing power of free residents, all leading to the emergence of the region as the dynamic center of the Portuguese Empire. The extremely robust economy and concentration of wealth in Minas are seen having come close to reversing the established colonial order.

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