Brazilian Mining

Date: 1812
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images


These illustrations by an early nineteenth century traveler show some of the modern technologies introduced into Brazil's gold and diamond mining industry. The diagrams include water-powered machines and a tumbler meant for sorting precious minerals from cascalhos (pebbles). Along with plantation agriculture, mining generated tremendous wealth for the Portuguese empire from the late seventeenth century to the mid eighteenth century, especially in Minas Gerais. In fact, between 1700 and 1770, Brazil produced more than half of the quantity of the gold mined in the entire world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries combined. By the closing decades of the eighteenth century, however, the mines had seemed to run dry.

In this same period, Portugal was undergoing its own distinctive version of the Enlightenment, one that drew heavily on the ideas of more modern European nations in order to stay on par with them, yet only co-opted those elements that fit into traditional aspects of the Portuguese culture of empire. Portugal's Enlightenment emphasized modernizing both agriculture and mining in Brazil by introducing new methods and technologies learned from England, France, and Germany. Brazilian mineralogists thus traveled to Portugal to learn modern practices, and were sent from thence to Germany to attend lectures at Freiberg and other known centers of mineralogical excellence.

It is interesting, however, that while Portugal actively disseminated Enlightenment notions in Brazil, these ideas did not give rise to independence movements as in Spain's American colonies.  Brazilians continued to consider their interests to be the same as Portugal's, and useful arts like mining and agriculture were not meant to benefit the Brazilian people on the whole.

Enlightenment science had, at best, mixed success in Brazil. Portuguese trained modernizers did manage to introduce the Royal Iron Works and some machines like those seen here, but no mining academy would exist until 1876, much later than such institutions developed in Spanish America. The lack of enthusiasm for Enlightenment reforms among elite Brazilians had much to do with the prevalence of slavery; elites felt no need to introduce novel technology when slaves could be made to do the work instead. In Brazil, the Enlightenment was used to reify the social status of the elite, a far cry from the principles espoused by Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau or Francisco Caldas.

Reference: Figueiroa, Silvia and Clarete da Silva. "Enlightened Mineralogists: Mining Knowledge in Colonial Brazil, 1750-1825." In Osiris, 2nd Series, Vol. 15, Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise (2000), pp. 174-189.

CITATION: Machinery Used in Brazil. In: Mawe, John. Travels in the interior of Brazil, particularly in the gold and diamond districts of that country. London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, Paternoster-Row, 1812. Accession no. 05673. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.