Here in Brazil, Dia de Tiradentes is a national holiday honoring a hero of our country’s struggle for independence. But what does the date signify to Brazilians? And who was Tiradentes? The meaning of both has changed over time.
Depending upon who you talk to you, Tiradentes was either a revolutionary like Che Guevara, a noble martyr for the cause of liberty from colonial rule, or an unwitting scapegoat whose death was transformed into a piece of national propaganda. In his book, The Formation of Souls, the historian José Murilo de Carvalho writes about the origin myths of the Brazilian Republic:
To consolidate itself as a government, the Republic needed to eliminate the edges, be reconciled with its monarchist past, and incorporate distinct strands of republicanism. Tiradentes should not be seen as a radical Republican hero, but as a civil-religious hero, as a martyr… an image bearer of the whole people.
How was Tiradentes turned into an icon of martyrdom? By equating his sacrifice to Jesus Christ. In most images of his death, Tiradentes is shown long-haired, bearded, and draped in white as if a part of Christian iconography. But, in truth, we know that prisoners at the time were kept bald and clean-shaven to stop the spread of lice and other maladies. The various artists who depicted his death were not presenting a literal event, but an emotional one.
No matter what the truth is — or what may have been inflated for the history books — Tiradentes has a very interesting personal story that’s key to understanding the founding of Brazil. Let’s unravel what we do know about this historical figure.
the Story of Tiradentes
The man we honor today by the name of Tiradentes was born Joaquim José da Silva Xavier in 1746 — when Brazil was still under the colonial rule of Portugal. He was the son of poor farmers in the state of Minas Gerais; but, by the age of 10, he had lost both parents. As he grew to be a man, Tiradentes worked many trades to earn a living, including cattle driving and dentristy. (In fact, his nickname Tiradentes is a derogative term for ‘tooth puller’.)
At that time, the hills of Minas Gerais were richly laden in gold and other precious resources. So Tiradentes found work as a miner, and helped transport the cargo along an established trade route to Rio de Janeiro for eventual export to Portugal. He directly witnessed the riches of Brazil being taken with little in return, and resented this exploitation by a distant European power.
While in Rio, he mingled with world travelers and learned of freedom revolutions in the American colonies and in France. With ten others, he discussed similar ideas; today these men are called the Inconfidência Mineira (Minas Conspiracy). The group’s strategy was to take to the streets in revolt on Portugal’s tax day in order to maximize the resentment against colonial rule. However, their plan was betrayed by one of their members (in exchange for him not paying his taxes), and the rest of the rebels were imprisoned.
Tiradentes fled to Rio, but was arrested there. He assumed full responsibilty for the revolutionary movement, and the nine others implicated had their sentences commuted by Portugal’s Queen. Only Tiradentes suffered a terrible fate. On April 21, 1792, he was hung in Rio de Janeiro in a public square that now bears his name, Praça Tiradentes.
Afterwards the body of Tiradentes was cut into pieces, and a document was written in his own blood denouncing his crime. From there, his body parts were exhibited in many towns and cities along the trade route between Rio and Vila Rica (the former name of today’s Ouro Preto) to keep the population terrified in order to prevent further separatist movements.
I think it’s a beautiful and tragic story. It is the vision of Tiradente’s sacrifice that impressed upon the Brazilian people their desire to seek independence.
Dia de Tiradentes in Brazil today
Tiradentes is thought of as a hero, and April 21, the day of his death, became a national holiday in 1889. But today the Brazilian people don’t keep this day with any reverence; they just want time off from work. In my opinion, Dia de Tiradentes has become an empty holiday while the historical story has fallen by the wayside. It’s a pity, because in Brazil our pre-colonial culture was devastated, and we know very little about our own history — even from colonial times.
In Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro, there are streets and plazas named after him. The mining town of Sao Jose do Rio das Mortes was renamed Tiradentes in his honor. But beyond these tributes, I fear that we have no great memories or celebrations of the Day of Tiradentes.
You will find some solemn ceremonies around the country held by the Polícia Militar (Military Police) honoring Dia de Tiradentes with dignitaries such as a state governor attending. But it seems to me more of an event to decorate their own officers with medals rather than to remember the importance of Tiradente’s death fighting for Brazilian independence.
One final thought: this article features a painting titled “Tiradentes Esquartejado” (Tiradentes Quartered) by Pedro Américo. It depicts Tiradentes after he was hung and his body mutilated. It’s a powerful image. The full painting is reproduced below, so you can see its deeper meaning.
Do you notice the shape of Tiradente’s remains? They are deliberately placed to echo the outline of Brazil as if seen on a map. I think it’s an important symbol; one that makes a potentially gruesome image transcendent. The significance is clear: from the sacrifice of Tiradentes, from his body, the Brazilian nation was born. Is this a historical fact, or a modern fairy tale conjured to invigorate a young nation? I don’t know, but the scholars will continue to deliberate.
“Tiradentes Esquartejado” (Tiradentes Quartered) by Pedro Américo
“A Prisão de Tiradentes” (The Arrest of Tiradentes) by Antônio Diogo da Silva Parreiras
“Resposta de Tiradentes” (Response of Tiradentes) by Leopoldino Joaquim Teixeira de Faria