On this day in 1792, Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier – better known as Tiradentes – was hanged in Rio de Janeiro, his body then chopped into pieces, which were displayed along the road between Rio and Vila Rica. His head was impaled on a pole and exhibited in Vila Rica’s public square. With his blood, a document was written denouncing his actions. After suffering such a violent death, it is little surprise that Tiradentes – the revolutionary leader of Brazil’s first organised movement against Imperial Portuguese rule – is remembered today as a Martyr for Independence and Brazil’s national hero. But beyond South America, he is virtually unknown. So just what did this revolutionary do to warrant such a particularly vindictive execution, deliberately designed to frighten off other would-be insurgents?
Since its colonisation in 1500, Brazil had been steadily raped of its natural resources and most of the workforce was comprised of African slaves. By the late 18th century, the once abundant goldmines were struggling to meet the strict quotas set by a greedy and needy Portugal to finance the Napoleonic wars. As a low-ranking officer, Tiradentes (meaning “tooth puller” – a nickname acquired through dabbling in dentistry) regularly travelled the route between Rio de Janeiro and Vila Rica – the main artery for transporting the rich mineral out of the mines of Minas Gerais. Witnessing the vast amounts of gold being pillaged by Portugal at the expense of the exploited Brazilians, an appalled Tiradentes sought inspiration and solutions from the French Enlightenment philosophers and the successful American Revolution of 1776. After a cynical attempt by Portuguese officials to collect back taxes from an already impoverished population, Tiradentes organised the so-called Inconfidência Mineira against the colonial oligarchs – the first-ever call for complete Brazilian independence from Portugal. Along with ten others, Tiradentes formulated a bold plan to provoke a riot in Vila Rica that would provide a cover for the assassination of the governor. An armed uprising would naturally follow. But, alas, they were betrayed by one of their own, who reported their meetings and intentions to Portuguese authorities in exchange for having his debts cleared. Tiradentes was seized while on a mission to Rio de Janeiro.
A special panel of judges was convened to handle the trial of the Inconfidência Mineira conspirators, which extended over a period of three years. Tiradentes nobly and eloquently defended the republican cause, and selflessly maintained before the courts that he was the leader of the movement, taking full responsibility for their actions. The judges called for clemency for all of the plotters except for one deemed “unworthy of royal mercy.” On April 18, 1792, Tiradentes’ final sentence was read in the high court chambers of Rio de Janeiro, decreeing that he be hanged, drawn and quartered. His home in Vila Rica was to be destroyed and the ground salted. Three days later, Tiradentes was escorted to the gallows. He faced his gruesome fate without a whimper.
Tiradentes acquired a more significant place in history than his failed plot merited; his particularly over-the-top execution backfired on the Portuguese, who inadvertently created a martyr. Word spread quickly of this hero – the first to stand up for Brazilian independence against the tyranny of Portugal, who was not afraid to die for a bold and just idea. By the end of the 1880s, Tiradentes had become the symbol of the struggle between monarchy and republicanism, and after the Old Republic was proclaimed in 1889, the anniversary of his death became a national holiday. Today, Brazilians regard him as their national hero and he is viewed as one of the precursors of independence throughout all of Latin America. And rightly so. Happy Tiradentes Day, Brazil!