Statue of Tiradentes outside the Palacio Tiradentes in Rio de Janeiro.
Photo by Edmund Gall.
Every country has its national heroes.
Much of Spanish South America lionizes Simon Bolivar, and his birthday is a national holiday in Ecuador, his native Venezuela and Bolivia, which is named for him. The French take Bastille Day to commemorate major figures of their late 18th and early 19th century history, including Napoleon and Lafayette, though both are remembered more ambivalently. And in Brazil, many people will take a day off from work today to head to the beaches and perhaps devote a moment to the memory of the man known as Tiradentes, “the tooth-puller.”
Tiradentes is Brazil’s version of George Washington, but with a difference. Washington won his revolution and became the leader of a new nation. Tiradentes, who was Washington's contemporary, became the fall guy for a revolution against the Portuguese crown that failed before it even began.
Tiradentes’ real name was Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier. He was something of a jack-of-all-trades, including dentistry, which led to his nickname. The son of poor farmers in what was then the province of Minas Gerais - now a Brazilian state of the same name - Tiradentes eventually made his way to Rio de Janeiro, the colonial capital, where he saw the contrast between the wealth the province produced and the little it got back from the colonial power of Portugal. He became involved in founding the Inconfidencia Mineira, a group that planned to start a revolt on the day a new and unpopular tax on gold was due to the Portuguese. The conspirators were betrayed from within before the plan could be set in motion, and most of the rebels were imprisoned. Tiradentes fled, but was arrested and assumed full responsibility for the attempted revolution.
Over the course of several years of judicial proceedings, some of the conspirators were acquitted outright. Most of the others had their sentences of capital punishment commuted to banishment by Queen Maria I of Portugal. Tiradentes alone was hanged on April 21, 1792. His body was quartered and the pieces set out for display as a warning to other would-be rebels.
April 21 has been celebrated as a national holiday in Brazil since 1889, though to foreigners, Tiradentes may seem an unlikely figure to celebrate. Even apart from the fact that his revolution failed before it truly began, accounts of his full confession to the Portuguese authorities would lead us to think that he told practically everyone he met about the secret plan to mount a rebellion. Some historians have suggested that Tiradentes served as a scapegoat for the conspiracy, willingly or otherwise, because of his relatively lower wealth and status. Others believe he was a willing martyr to the cause of Brazilian independence.
It is not difficult, however, to understand why Tiradentes and others believed their revolt could succeed. The Americans had recently evicted a European power from their shores. The upheaval in France would lead the French proletariat to overthrow their country’s aristocracy just months after the Inconfidencia Mineira conspirators were arrested. Surely Brazilians were ready to seize their own destiny, not to mention the aging gold mines that the Portuguese were rapidly depleting to fill their Treasury across the ocean.
As it turned out, the Brazilians were not yet ready to evict the Portuguese. They did not get around to achieving independence until the 1820s. And it was not until a republican movement gained traction in the late 19th century that Tiradentes achieved widespread recognition as a national hero. Today, Brazil continues to honor the tooth-puller for his dream of creating a free country from the mineral-rich hills of his native region, and for the sacrifice he made in the name of that cause.