Beauty As Insurance
With the morning comes illumination. Yesterday, Ouro Preto seemed like a sleepy little town in the tropics and although it is still picturesque after today’s explorations, I have discovered that its history reveals a very different past. This town produced 80% of all the gold produced in the world between 1700 and 1820. In 1750 more people lived in Ouro Preto than in New York. The town was at one point the capital of Minas Gerais, one of the several states that today make up the federal republic of Brazil. The region is combed with mountain ridges and the isolation afforded by these barriers has produced a people (known as mineiro) that are commonly regarded as self-sufficient, stubborn, cautious, hardworking and thrifty with democratic expectations. In other words, my kind of people.
During its heyday, gold flooded out of the slave-dug mines of Ouro Preto and traveled along the mountain ridges to the sea at Rio de Janiero. From Rio it was sent to Portugal where inbred aristocrats frittered it away on fountains, stockings and Nintendos. Afterwards Portugal was just as poor, if not poorer than before. When diamonds were subsequently discovered in Minas Gerais, the Portuguese government tried to avoid the same result by refusing concessions to prospectors and installing a Governor to oversee the mines. This too failed as corrupt governors such as Joao Fernandes spent vast sums on follies such as an artificial lake, complete with a Portuguese sailing ship, for his slave-mistress Xica da Silva.
The scale of Ouro Preto’s economic output helps one to imagine the scale of the slavery that was used to produce it. This town must have heaved with that great sin and all the wealth poured into its 18 churches drips today as much with hypocrisy as devotion. It seems therefore just that a church built by African slaves, the church of Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos, is today widely acclaimed as the finest example of baroque architecture in Brazil. On a similar vein, I heard a great story today about a former slave who came to be known as Chico Rei. Chico was allegedly an African king sold into slavery and sent to work the mines of Ouro Preto. He swore that he would regain his crown in the New World. Thus, during his days spent deep in the hot dark bowels of the earth he managed to sequester enough gold to eventually buy his freedom and that of his friends. Today he is known as Chico Rei or King Chico and the streets here are named after him in the same way as they are after the Portuguese Emperors Pedro I and II.
But what of Ouro Preto today? I would not say that the people here are rich or even well-off, but one does not see the level of poverty that I am anticipating in Rio. Although you can buy a 4-unit apartment house for $US 40,000 it feels very safe and the ideal place to come and join Garcia Marquez and Borges in the pursuit of magical realism. There are more old cars from the 1970s than one sees in either the United States or Europe but there are also new cars, largely either FIAT or Volkswagen. Apparently 60,000 people live in the series of hills that compose this area but it certainly doesn’t feel like there are that many people around. The street outside the hotel is largely empty (though it is Christmas Day) and earlier a man rode by my window on a horse. Though modernity makes its presence felt in the occasional Direct TV satellite dish and the widespread availability of excellent high-speed internet and CNN, the people still live in the same houses as did their ancestors during the height of the gold rush. No doubt this may have something to do with the town’s categorization as a World Heritage site which probably limits the ability of its inhabitants to build modern homes. Ouro Preto seems to have successfully developed a tourist strategy as its remedy to the common fate experienced by formerly successful towns flanked by economic history. In doing so it was greatly helped by its rich architectural inheritance. This leaves one to think whether cities such as San Francisco should today impose architectural standards on real estate developers so that at some point in the future tourists will leave their lunar homes and spend some much needed currency in the city that was once the center of the internet boom.