Demographic Change in a Post-Export Boom Society: The Population of Minas Gerais, Brazil, 1776-1821

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The social and economic history of Minas Gerais in the late 18th and early 19th centuries is extraordinary in comparative perspective. It is perhaps the only known example of a large-scale Latin American slave system which successfully made the transition from a slave-based export economy dependent on foreign markets, to a more diversified agricultural and cattle economy oriented almost exclusively to local or regional markets within Brazil. What makes the case of Minas Gerais so unique is that through this economic transition dependence upon slave labor remained central to Mineiro economy and society. Although there was a decline in the slave population in the immediate aftermath of the export economy's collapse in the mid 18th century, during the 19th century the slave population increased dynamically and Minas Gerais became the largest slave-holding province of the Brazilian empire. The documentary evidence suggests that this later renewed growth of slavery was based in part upon natural demographic increase rather than solely on imports from Africa or the inter-regional Brazilian slave trade, another phenomenon which may have been unique in the history of slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. In nearly every other Latin American slave system the demise of export-based economic cycles heralded the long-term decline of slavery as well. This article will consider the process of demographic readjustment occurring in Mineiro society in the aftermath of the 18th-century gold mining boom. This was a critical period in the history of Minas Gerais and it provided the foundations upon which the province's economic and social order would be built during the 19th century.

Aspects of Mineiro demographic history in the 18th and 19th centuries have been considered in a number of studies over the past twenty years.(1) These were undertaken as part of a broader historiographical consideration of the region's social and economic history, and a great many have logically focused on transformations occurring within the slave labor force. The large scale importation of African slaves followed the discovery of alluvial gold deposits and diamonds in the 1690s and early 1700s and their age and sex characteristics shaped the region's demographic evolution in the first half of the 18th century.(2)

Social and economic structures during the gold cycle were defined by the export of primary products and the importation of labor and essential manufactured goods. Minas was a classical export economy which developed in a frontier region lacking a population base to sustain economic growth, and without an industrial or agricultural infrastructure to provide the fundamental products needed to support the mining complex, although these gradually emerged. By the 1740s mineral production began to contract and after 1750 the boom was over, although mining activities did not entirely disappear. During the second half of the 18th and through the early 19th centuries a more diversified agricultural and animal raising economy emerged, supplemented by the growth of small-scale manufacturing which had appeared during the gold boom. Mining remained, but at substantially lower production levels. This changing economy initially had a large subsistence sector but it was also geared toward provisioning the region's urban markets which remained as a legacy of mining and the bureaucratic structures developed by the Portuguese Crown to administer mineral production and levy taxes. Southern regions in Minas not only provisioned the capitania's urban areas, but also began to forge commercial linkages with the large Rio de Janeiro market for foodstuffs.(3)

After more than a half century of gradual transformation, these post-mining boom social and economic realignments were in the process of consolidation when European political events forced the Portuguese Crown to flee Lisbon. The arrival of the Corte in Rio de Janeiro in 1808 heralded all kinds of changes for colonial Brazil. …