'Liberty, even if late.' Thank you, Tiradentes

  • 20 April 2015 | Roela Hattingh
Image courtesy of rosefirerising

“Dia de Tiradentes” (the day of the dentist), 21 April, is a national holiday in Brazil honouring the death of the hero of Brazil’s struggle for independence.

Joaquim José da Silva Xavier or Tiradentes, as he was later called, was born in 1746, when Brazil was still a colony of Portugal. His parents were poor farmers in the state of Minas Gerais  (literally 'general mines' – it was a state rich in gold and resources, which were mined extensively and shipped to Portugal). Tiradentes was orphaned before he turned 11 and was adopted by his godfather. He received little education but applied himself to a variety of occupations: a cattle driver, merchant, low-level civil servant, physician, dentist and miner.  He assisted in the transportation of cargo on the trade route to Rio de Janeiro for eventual export to Lisbon.

Tiradentes resented the exploitation of Brazil by Portugal (not only were riches taken from his country, but people were heavily taxed).

In Rio, he met world travellers and learned of the revolutions in France and the 13 American colonies that declared independence in 1776. In 1788, he met José Alvares Maciel (the son of a colonial governor in Brazil, who had visited England) and with nine others they later formed the Inconfidência Mineira (the Minas Conspiracy).

They planned to revolt by taking to the streets in Vila Rica on the day the governor was to collect taxes for the Crown. But their strategy was leaked to the authorities by a member of the group, Joaquim Silveiro dos Reis, who was consequently absolved from paying taxes and later became known as 'The Betrayer'.

Tiradentes managed to escape to Rio while the rest of the group was captured. Tiradentes, unaware of his treachery contacted Dos Reis, who betrayed his whereabouts and the dentist was arrested on 10 May 1789.

The 10 members of Inconfidência Mineira were sentenced to death, but Tiradentes assumed full responsibility for the revolutionary movement. Portugal’s Queen Maria extended mercy to all the members except Tiradentes. Their sentences were commuted from death to degradation.

On 21 April 1792, Tiradentes was hanged in Rio de Janeiro in a public square that now bears his name – Praça Tiradentes. His death was a warning would-be revolutionaries. 

Thirty years later, São José led Brazil to independence and Tiradentes was declared a national hero. Since 1963 the national flag and slogan of Minas Gerais proudly honour the leaders of the liberation movement of 1789.

The phrase 'Libertas quæ sera tamen' aptly translates to 'Liberty, even if late'. 

The Brazilian government promotes a reverence ceremony in Brasilia on the day of Tiradentes as do most primary schools. According to Jessíca Fagundes da Cruz, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, most people celebrate this day by spending time with their family and friends. It’s seen as a day off work.

Afterall, in the spirit of Tiradentes, they have earned their freedom to do with this day exactly as they like.

Statue of Tiradentes. Image courtesy of Márcio Vinícius Pinheiro