By Glenn Cheney
Here is the introduction to Glenn’s book Journey on the Estrada Real: Encounters in the Mountains of Brazil” which details a hiking trip along the Estrada Real, the oldest road in the Americas. It goes from Rio and Paraty to Diamantina, estrada de terra all the way, passing through not only the famous historic cities but scores of villages that were among the first settlements in the interior, back in the early 18th century. Along the way Glenn stopped in each village for a few days to write about the people, the local situation, the history, geography, good, and such. It’s close-up look at a part of Brazil that few non-Brazilians know about. We will serialise three excerpts from the book over the next few weeks.
In 1697 or so, the Crown of Portugal ordered a road built from the port of Praia dos Mineiros, where the Rio Inhomirim met the Atlantic, to Diamantina, where creeks were exposing diamonds to daylight. The Estrada Real, the Royal Road, was to surmount the Serra do Mar that stands steep, dark-green, and misty about Guanabara Bay, then probe north into the region known as Minas Gerais – General Mines. The Royal Road was to connect the cities producing gold and diamonds as nowhere else on earth. Tunnels dug into hillsides were turning up just about every type of gem known to man. São João del Rei, Tiradentes, Congonhas and Vila Rica were already thriving cities. Vila Rica was becoming the largest city in the Americas, and its name would some day change from Rich Village to Black Gold Ouro Preto. Diamantina, in northern Minas, was rising from the muck of a diamond mine in a gully to become a Portuguese outpost worth the wealth it was sending south to Praia dos Mineiros – Beach of Miners later to be called Rio de Janeiro. From there the wealth of Brazil sailed to Lisbon.
This winding dirt road connected some of the world’s most miserable people to some of the world’s wealthiest – the slaves in the mines of Minas Gerais to the Portuguese Crown, the ultimate beneficiaries of everything that could be stripped from the land of the brassy-colored brasa wood – Brazil.
The Estrada Real was to restrict as much as facilitate transportation into the interior. The Crown did not want Brazil to develop industrial capacity. It was to continue completely dependent on Portugal for food, metals, tools, nails, ammunition, equipment, and supplies. The Brazilian economy was to be based almost exclusively on the export of gems and gold. The Estrada Real, therefore, was to facilitate the inward delivery of manufactured goods to the interior while speeding the outward flow of mineral riches. The Estrada was also to remain the only route of transportation, making it possible for Portugal to control development and exploitation.
In a certain sense, the history of the Estrada Real is the history of Latin America. Unlike the settlers who came to North America from industrial nations, the colonizers of Latin America came from feudal lands. They came neither to build nor to stay. In Portuguese, the verb explorar means both explore and exploit. The language has no other word for either activity. As if by lingual necessity, the Portuguese did both at the same time, exploring a region so vast that even today it has not yet been fully mapped, exploiting the land and ungodly number of native and imported people. Once the gold and jewels were gone, the people who remained were left with magnificent churches and abandoned mines but no infrastructure for any but an agrarian economy.
That situation hasn’t changed much. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Estrada Real of the 17th century is still there. Most of the road is dirt, dust, or mud, though it becomes cobblestone as it passes through towns and villages. Many of the villages have a toehold on the 20th century – undependable electricity, a single phone, two television channels, visiting doctors with medical degrees – but the lives of the people there haven’t changed much since the 17th century. They still cook on open wood stoves, and they travel by horse, mule and foot. They treat their ills with roots and herbs, and they pray for rain. They live in houses built by their grandfathers and sing in churches built by slaves. They still have no infrastructure for any but an agrarian economy.
This is the cradle of Brazilian culture. It all started here, in the mountains of Minas Gerais. As urban Brazil struggles into modern times and the global economy, its slow, quiet past still lives along its first road. How has it survived? How long can it survive? Should it survive? What, if anything, can save it? The search for the answers – a walk down the road – turns up the seeds of an odd revolution. People who have yet to benefit from the global economy are already struggling against it. Some, poor as dirt, ignorant of the world, are satisfied with the happiness they’ve found in God. Others, more aware, appreciate the wealth of their ancient culture. And some, of course, want to trade their antiquated ways for the commerce and industry that brings the money that buys the stuff that promises to make life better.
This book is about the people, culture and history of the Estrada Real. The people are changing, some by resisting change, some by embracing it. The culture is in the balance. The history is there, as immutable as it is unfinished.
For more excerpts and some photos browse to www.cheneybooks.com. The book is available at Amazon.com and other online bookstores, and you can order it at any storefront bookstore. The publisher is Academy Chicago Publishers, ISBN 0-89733-530-9.“