Diamantina, in the state of Minas Gerais, was the diamond capital of 18th century Brazil. Today, its historical importance is only surpassed by the beauty of its buildings and the surrounding landscapes.
Native Botocudo indians guided the first group of explorers (known as “bandeirantes”) to the Diamantina region in the early 1700′s. The bandeirantes were looking for gold, but in 1714, they found the first diamonds around Diamantina. Until then, diamonds were only found in India, so the find was a major event.
Arraial do Tijuco, as Diamantina was called in that time, became the center of the Diamond District and the Portuguese Crown, interested in the diamonds, isolated the little town from the rest of Minas Gerais by introducing a special regime.
The free extraction of diamonds was abolished and replaced by a system by which the diamond mines could only be operated by official contractors, certified by the Portuguese crown. The contractors had great power and influence and they basically determined the pace of life of the people of the region.
Diamantina was the home of one of Brazil’s famous historical figures. Chica da Silva, a black slave women who had a relationship with the richest diamond trader of the city, João Fernandes de Oliveira. The relationship lasted for 15 years and produced 13 children, and Chica da Silva became one of the the richest women in Diamantina.
One interesting story about her, is that she used her influence during the construction of the Nossa senhora do carmo church. She managed to have the tower of the church built in the back, because she didn’t like the loud bells too close to her house. It was also a provocation from her part, because the church was mainly visited by white members of the local high society, who discriminated her.
Despite the status of her lover, who was eventually called back to Portugal, she was never accepted by the rest of the high society. After her death, all her possessions were destroyed and burned and she was buried in a church for lower class people.
Another famous son of Diamantina was Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira, who became the Brazilian president, responsible for the construction of Brasilia, the new capital of Brazil. He was born in Diamantina in 1902 and the house where he spent his childhood and adolescence is one of Diamantina’s touristic attractions.
Today, no more diamonds are found in Diamantina, but the riches that was brought to this city by the precious stones, can still be seen all over the place.
Diamantina is a city full of music, and a special treat that I was lucky enough to witness twice already, is the open air concert, held two Saturdays per month from April to October, called “Vesperatas”. What is so special about it is that the director is in the middle of the audience and the musicians are positioned all around, him in the windows of the houses surrounding the square.
On Fridays, there are the “Serrestas” (serenades), small groups of musicians playing in the streets all over the center of the city, while live music and food stalls draw people to the “mercado velho” – the old market. Saturday mornings there is the artisan’s market, also at the “mercado velho”, and more musical treats like Café no Beco and Sarau da Arte Miúda.
To really get to know the city, get a guide and let him give you a 3-4 hour walk around the center. For me, this is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in Brazil so far.
A definite “must see”.