Tiradentes was the nickname of Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, a national hero in Brazil. Though Brazilians know him as an independentist leader, history may beg to differ
Xavier lived in the state of Minas Gerais in the 18th-century. He received the nickname Tiradentes, which literally means “tooth puller,” due to the fact that he practiced several professions – cattle driver, miner, and dentist. Xavier was also a member of Minas’ Dragoon Regiment. However, he never rose above the rank of alferes (the equivalent of 2nd lieutenant).
(Minas Gerais Conspiracy)
The second half of the 18th century marked the decay of Minas Gerais’ gold mining economy. As a natural consequence, the Portuguese Crown started to receive less money from the colony. That led the then-province governor to order a forceful collection of all delayed tax payments. That led many families to lose everything they owned.
Members of the local elites began to revolt against the Crown and plotted a movement for independence of the province. At that time, Brazil was a highly divided territory, and the idea of a nation didn’t exist.
Tiradentes became a member of the conspiracy movement and, due to his social status, worked as the mediator between the rich leaders and popular classes. Among the independentists, he was the only one who wasn’t rich.
The revolution, however, never took place. Three men betrayed the movement, naming everyone involved in exchange for a pardon from the Crown. All conspirators were sentenced to death, but most were later pardoned. Authorities carried out only one execution – against Tiradentes, on April 21, 1792.
After hanging him, the Crown dismembered his body to set an example for its opposition.
Construction of a myth
Millions of Brazilians learn in school that Tiradentes was the leader of the Inconfidência Mineira, that he was an abolitionist, and that he wanted the independence of the entire Brazilian colony. Historians, however, dispute this accounts.
First of all, the real importance of the movement he was a part of is highly disputed. The inconfidência was a revolution that never occurred, and only one person died because of it. Meanwhile, other independentist movements took place in Bahia, Pernambuco, and Rio Grande do Sul. Those were violent and, in the latter case, successful.
So why did he go on to become the most renown hero of the Brazilian independentist movements?
The first Brazilian republican government created the myth of Tiradentes at the end of the 19th century. The military installed the republic in 1889 and struggled to legitimize themselves with the Brazilian people. They needed republican heroes, and Tiradentes was a natural choice.
First, because he was in the army – just like the political elite of the time. He was also a middle-class person, a “man of the people.” During his execution, authorities discoursed in favor of the monarchy and against the Republic. It therefore wasn’t difficult for the republicans to portray his case as the poor republican opposing the rich, oppressing Crown.
Even his image was altered to create a symbol. All paintings of Tiradentes feature him as a man with long hair and beard – a clear reference to Jesus. However, as a lieutenant in the Dragoon Regiment, he would never have been able to have a beard of that length.
Then, to consolidate his image as a hero, the republican government created a holiday on the day of his execution.