A British Enterprise in Brazil: The St. John d'el Rey Mining Company and the Morro Velho Gold Mine, 1830-1960

A British Enterprise in Brazil: The St. John d'el Rey Mining Company and the Morro Velho Gold Mine, 1830-1960

by Marshall C. Eakin

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ISBN-13: 9780822382331
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 01/22/1990
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 4 MB

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British Enterprise in Brazil

The St. John d'el Rey Mining Company and the Morro Velho Gold Mine, 1830â"1960

By Marshall C. Eakin

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1989 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8233-1


Gold Mining in Minas Gerais

"in this the legendary land of gold"

The first rays of a brilliant orange sunrise have just begun to appear over the rugged mountain peaks to the east as the bus reaches the crest of the Serra do Curral, leaving the last view of Belo Horizonte behind it in the gray dawn light. For the next ten kilometers the highway twists along the ridges of low-lying mountains, gradually descending into the foothills to the southeast of the Serra. Very quickly the first blinding light of morning gives way as the bus passes into the thick fog and mist that blanket the valleys and hills, a fog that will slowly dissolve as the temperature rises at midmorning. Through the cool mist the passengers—some dozing, some chatting, others wrapped in their own thoughts—descend into the basin that surrounds Nova Lima and the Morro Velho mine. Straddling the steep hillsides, the community overlooks the converging Cristais and Cardoso streams as they flow westward emptying into the Rio das Velhas a few kilometers away. Except for the dense concentration of buildings, the area looks much as it did three centuries ago when the first Portuguese explorers entered these valleys. Houses now cover the once-green slopes above the streams, and today the ridge which separates the two valleys no longer divides the community physically or culturally as it once did.

Following traditional Iberian patterns, the community originally developed in the early eighteenth century around the central plaza on the southern flanks of the ridge facing the Cristais. The plaza with its cathedral, town hall, jail, and shops formed the political and social center of Nova Lima. On the northern side of the ridge facing the Cardoso sit the English-style cottages, where the British staff of the St. John d'el Rey Mining Company, Limited once resided. With its own school, Anglican church, and social life, the British community on these slopes stood apart from the rest of Nova Lima, a cultural enclave of England in the heart of the Brazilian interior. The growth of the town and the departure of the British in 1960 have blurred the old geographical and cultural distinctions between the two basins split by this ridge. Nevertheless, the southern basin remains the social and political center of the community, while the northern basin continues to provide Nova Lima with its economic sustenance; for in this northern basin an enormous industrial plant straddles the Cardoso and surrounds the entrance to South America's largest, and oldest, deep-shaft gold-mining operation.

Brazilian miners today continue to work the rich Morro Velho ("Old Hill") lode as their ancestors have done since the beginning of the eighteenth century. The amount of gold extracted in the eighteenth century remains undocumented, but after the British acquired the mine in the 1830s production rose steadily until the early twentieth century. Since the turn of the century the mine annually has produced over 3 million grams (100,000 ounces) of gold bullion. A mine with a long and productive past, the Morro Velho faces a promising future in light of high gold prices and large ore reserves. While still the dominant economic force in the life of the novalimenses, the mine today does not wield the influence of yesteryear. The once quintessential company town has become more diverse and less dependent on the mine in the past three decades. At the height of the British era the St. John employed more than 8,000 people in a community of 25,000. Since 1960 the Brazilian and (today) South African owners of the mine have modernized and reorganized the company, reducing the number of employees to around 4,000 in a town with some 35,000 inhabitants.

The lessening dependency of the town on the mine has been paralleled by the expanding influence of external forces on the community. A two-lane asphalt highway built in the 1950s winds through the peaks and valleys of the Serra connecting Nova Lima with the state capital, Belo Horizonte. Built in the 1890s as Brazil's first modern planned city, Belo Horizonte now boasts a population of two million and an industrial plant surpassed only by those of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Buses now leave Nova Lima three times an hour carrying novalimenses to jobs, stores, and schools in Belo Horizonte. As the booming capital of Minas Gerais radiates outward, housing tracts and light industry have begun to spring up through the Serra along the highway. Today Nova Lima forms a part of Greater Belo Horizonte, and the forested hillsides of the Serra are giving way to new suburbs and industry along this twisting roadway.

Geology and Geography

Although the influence of the mining company wanes as the years pass, the Morro Velho gold mine has always been the fundamental force in shaping the history of Nova Lima. Gold gave birth to the community, nurtured it, and molded it into the town one sees today. Without the mine Nova Lima would no doubt look just like any of the dozens of other small and historically insignificant towns which dot the landscape of Minas Gerais. The extraordinary nature of the Morro Velho lode has singled it out from other gold deposits in Brazil and has made possible the success and growth of the mine and the community. Unlike most gold deposits in Brazil, the Morro Velho lode thrusts deep into the earth's crust and the gold ore has shown little impoverishment with increased depth. On the surface the exposed lode crops out on the flanks of the Morro Velho across the Cardoso stream north of town. The lode plunges at a forty-five-degree angle to the east in a bed of quartz-ankerite-dolomite. Invisible to the naked eye, gold particles are distributed evenly throughout the dark gray ore. These particles occur in both free form and in association with arsenopyrites.

A fortuity of nature made Nova Lima possible, but the ingenuity and sweat of human beings made the community a reality. The same could be said for all of the mining region of Minas Gerais. Millions of years of geological history have laid down great mineral riches beneath the surface of the Brazilian highlands. The labor and technical resourcefulness of countless men and women, however, have made that geological potential into the history of Minas Gerais. To appreciate that history one must continually refer back to the geology and geography which limit and direct the story that begins to unfold in Minas Gerais in the seventeenth century. Human society in central Minas Gerais has taken shape on top of some of the oldest known geological formations. The bedrock which underlies most of the region dates back some 2.8 billion years. During the last billion years the geological structure has been alternately uplifted, heavily eroded, buried beneath the sea, covered with layers of sediment, crumpled and crushed by movements of the earth's crust. About 500 million years ago the intrusion of superheated magma from deep within the earth recrystallized minerals in the ancient bedrock, forming major deposits of iron, manganese, gold, and other valuable minerals.

During the hundreds of millions of years up to the present the forces of nature have heavily eroded the uplifted portions of Minas Gerais producing a rugged, mountainous terrain, and gradually exposing the deposits of gold. Heavy winds and rains have cut deep valleys, making access, except by river, exceedingly difficult. The highlands produced by uplifting and erosion rise up quickly from the Atlantic coast averaging between three hundred and one thousand meters in altitude, and reaching over three thousand meters at their highest point. The Serra do Espinhaço ("Backbone Range") forms the principal mountain range which runs roughly north to south on a line through Diamantina, Itabira, and Ouro Preto (see map 1). This range separates the two major river systems of the area. To the east the Rio Doce drains south and east into the Atlantic, and to the west the São Francisco and its tributaries (principally the Rio das Velhas) drain to the north and east. A number of small ranges branch off from the Serra do Espinhaço, crisscrossing the gold-bearing region of central Minas Gerais.

The inland location of this area has made it the battleground for contending air masses which shape its weather patterns. From September to March, warm, moist air from the equatorial Atlantic blankets the region, bringing with it heavy (sometimes torrential) rains and temperatures ranging from fifteen to thirty degrees Celsius. From April to August the dry, cool air of the South Atlantic pushes up into the area, dropping temperatures to as low as five degrees Celsius, and temporarily ending the heavy rains. In the low-lying valleys of the gold-mining region hot, sunny days are often sandwiched between cool, foggy mornings and evenings. The heavy summer rains and the cold of winter do not present the most hospitable environment for human settlement.

The Brazilian Gold Rush

Through these foreboding mountain ranges passed the first Europeans late in the seventeenth century. Before 1650 few Europeans had ventured inland from the Atlantic coast more than a few dozen kilometers. Colonists had concentrated primarily along the northeastern coast around the sugar-producing enclaves of Bahia and Pernambuco. Smaller population clusters took shape in the areas of the inland São Paulo plateau and the port of Rio de Janeiro (see map 2). Although the population of the São Paulo plateau numbered only a few thousand inhabitants, their impact was far-reaching. These hardy individuals, who could be compared to the mountain men of the North American West, opened up vast areas of the Brazilian interior north and west of Sao Paulo in search of Indian slaves and precious metals. Known as bandeirantes, these men and women explored the mountains and plateaux of the interior as far northwest as present-day Paraguay in pursuit of Indian slaves for the sugar plantations of the coast.

By the early seventeenth century the growing preference for African slave labor on the northeastern sugar plantations began to undercut the slave-hunting economy of the southeast and the bandeirantes turned increasingly to the hunt for mineral riches. At the same time the Portuguese Crown began to encourage the search for precious metals in the interior, hoping to duplicate the success of the Spanish in Peru and Mexico. Some gold had been found in the rivers of the Sao Paulo plateau in the sixteenth century, but in small quantities. By midcentury the bandeirantes had begun to focus their attention on the river basins of the interior to the north of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

Controversy surrounds claims to the first discovery of gold in the interior, but the pioneers from São Paulo (paulistas) had probably located gold first in the streams of the Rio das Velhas basin in the late 1680S. By the 1690s word of the gold strikes had filtered back to the coast and in the succeeding decades the mining region experienced an enormous influx of prospectors in search of instant wealth and success. The Brazilian gold rush of the eighteenth century stands out as the first truly significant gold rush in Western history in terms of the movement of people and the consequent social and economic consolidation. Never in the history of Western Europe had there been such a massive gold rush as that caused by the news of strikes in Brazil in the 1690s. Nothing comparable would be seen again until the gold rush in California a century and a half later.

As in the Spanish American empire, the Crown demanded its royal fifth (quinto). Unlike the Spanish, the Portuguese were hard-pressed to collect it from fiercely independent and widely dispersed miners. As the Spanish had two centuries earlier, the Portuguese immediately acted to construct a political and fiscal apparatus to control the mining region. Unlike the silver mines of central Mexico and upper Peru, the gold mines of central Brazil were widely scattered and separated by rugged terrain, which made policing of the area practically impossible. Consequently, attempts by the Crown to establish central mints and to regulate production and circulation met with much less success than in Spanish America. The shifting and transitory nature of placer mining demanded solutions radically different from those of the centralized, deep-shaft mines of the Spanish empire in the New World.

In the early decades of the eighteenth century the lack of an effective political and military presence in the region led to battles between the paulistas, who viewed the area as rightfully theirs, and the Europeans who descended upon the area. The Crown at this point made a concerted effort to impose its authority and soon quelled the conflict. In the aftermath of the dispute, basic political structures took shape under Crown guidance. The political authority accorded to the principal towns merely recognized the social and economic consolidation which had taken place by the second decade of the century. These towns had become important commercial foci with diverse and stratified social groups. In 1711 royal decrees elevated several of the mining settlements to the status of towns. Vila Rica, Sabará, and Mariana received royal sanction, and in the 1720s the area of the mines was officially separated from the captaincy of Sao Paulo. By the 1730s royal correspondence regularly referred to the new captaincy as Minas Gerais (General Mines).

The towns of Sabará and Mariana sit roughly on the northwest and southeast corners of an imaginary rectangle which encompasses the principal gold-bearing deposits of Minas Gerais (see map 1). The early prospectors followed the rivers of the region upstream tracing the alluvial gold back to its origins in search of the mother lodes. Mining in this manner consisted of little more than placer washing techniques. The prospector would gather up the gravelly sands (cascalho) of the rivers in a wooden bowl (batéia), and then, by gently rotating the bowl, the lighter material would be tipped out, leaving the heavier gold particles on the sides of the batéia.

As the alluvial gold gave out and the colonists reached the hillsides from which the gold had been weathered and washed down, they adapted their techniques. Employing groups of slaves, mining empresaários cut trenches and terraces in hillsides and then diverted streams and rivers to wash down and through the cuts. The slaves kept the loose gravel and water moving across the cuts until the cascalho reached either crude wooden stamps and sluices or workers using batéias. Waterwheels powered the stamps (sometimes with iron heads), which crushed the cascalho into finer particles for the sluices or the washers with batéias. Animal hides (or fleece) caught the heavy gold particles and the washing of these hides removed the accumulated gold. Essentially, this type of hydraulic mining comprised a more highly evolved form of alluvial panning. Unlike the labor-intensive, low-technology panning process, hydraulic mining required more capital investment, more machinery (stamps, tools for excavating hillsides and terraces, and aqueducts), and the management of collective labor. From this standpoint, hydraulic mining represented a large step forward in mining technology. A century later the same techniques and organization would play a prominent role in the California gold rush.

The third major type of mining to develop in Minas Gerais was the least common: shaft mining. Deep-shaft mining had been under way in Mexico and Peru for over two centuries. The Portuguese had little mining experience and apparently knew little about deep-shaft technology. The Spanish Hapsburgs controlled the silver-rich mining regions of central Europe and, with the discovery of silver in the New World, the Spanish Crown merely transferred its German experts and their expertise to the overseas colonies. Two factors hindered the development of shaft mining in eighteenth-century Brazil. First, few well-developed lodes exist in Minas Gerais, making the possibilities for shaft mining in the region limited, especially for eighteenth-century miners with scant knowledge of shaft-mining techniques. Second, the lodes that did exist could be developed on an economically viable scale only when the mining techniques of Europeans (especially the Cornish) became readily available to Brazilians. Until these techniques became widely available in the nineteenth century, the typical lode in Minas Gerais consisted of a shallow cut or open pit worked by slaves using crude tools. For as yet unexplained reasons, Brazilian mining entrepreneurs showed little interest in shaft-mining technology and received little encouragement to employ new technology. Consequently, mining went into a long-term decline as soon as the miners had exhausted the sources of alluvial and surface gold. After midcentury, gold production began to fall off dramatically, and the "Golden Age" of Brazil fell victim to technological backwardness.


Excerpted from British Enterprise in Brazil by Marshall C. Eakin. Copyright © 1989 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Tables
Preliminary Notes
1 Gold Mining in Minas Gerais
Part I The Company
2 The St. John d'el Rey Mining Company, Limited
3 The Politics of a Foreign Enterprise
4 Technology and Labor in the Workplace
Part II The Community
5 From Rural Village to Industrial City
6 From Slave Society to Working-Class Community
7 British Society in the Tropics
8 British Enterprise in Brazil
1 Original Directors, St. John d'el Rey Mining Company
2 Chairmen of the Board, St. John d'el Rey Mining Company, Limited, 1830–1960
3 Description of the Morro Velho Estate, 1834
4 Superintendents, St. John d'el Rey Mining Company, Limited, 1830–1960
5 Lima Family
6 Ribeiro Family
Bibliographical Essay

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