- Arraiais e Vilas Del Rei: espaço e poder nas Minas setecentistas by Cláudia Damasceno Fonseca
Without a doubt, for many years to come Arraiais e Vilas d'el Rei will be considered the definitive study of the emergence and continuity of the urban network that so singularly marked colonial Minas Gerais. Professor Damasceno Fonseca has produced a masterful analysis of multiple aspects of the urbanization process sparked by the gold strikes of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. She has done so on the basis of a truly impressive research effort, leaving few stones unturned among the vast holdings of archives in Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, and Minas Gerais itself, as well as among numerous published primary sources. The final result is an extremely well written and eminently readable text. The fact that the author herself worked along with the translator, Maria Juliana Gambogi Teixeira, certainly contributed to the quality of the translation from the French - an unfortunately rare occurrence in terms of Brazilian academic publications, whatever the original language.
Damasceno Fonseca takes readers through the normally very humble, early eighteenth-century beginnings of what was to become a multitude of towns dotting the landscape of the vast mining region. There has long been a cherished notion that, in hopes of controlling a turbulent population and securing the means for extracting outrageously high levels of tax revenues, a heavy-handed colonial administrative apparatus forced people to settle into well defined urban centers. However, the author's findings make it quite clear that early settlements formed in a spontaneous fashion, often linked to commercial activities. Skillfully navigating through the nuanced language of the settlement process, this study sheds very welcome light on the meanings of a number of terms, some of which defined either the degree of settlement or wilderness of regions, while others referred to the dimensions and measure of consolidation of individual locations. A thorough investigation of the erection of chapels and the creation of parishes during the early decades of eighteenth century when ecclesiastical [End Page 256] administrators were generally several steps ahead of their civil counterparts allows for a fairly reliable reconstitution of the chronology of settlement and growth in Minas. This should somewhat allay tiresome and amateurish contentions among historians as to which localities either were first settled or to become sizable population centers. In the end, the choices of which localities were to become towns (vilas) during the decade of 1710 corresponded to those places which effectively had the largest populations or were situated at crucial or strategic points on the commercial network that had already sprung up to sustain local markets and maintain vital links to coastal ports - above all Salvador and Rio de Janeiro. As time passed, however, in terms of the size of populations or the development of commercial and service centers, it would become increasingly difficult to distinguish among the formally designated towns and many outlying districts that were to grow far beyond their initial dimensions as hamlets.
Given the sheer vastness of the territory that came to constitute the captaincy of Minas Gerais and the fact that, by the 1730s or 1740s, it almost certainly overtook all other captaincies of Portuguese America in terms of population, the number of vilas created was extremely reduced. Indeed, it is in examining the intricate politics of the formal creation of towns and the single city Mariana1 that Damasceno Fonseca makes her most important contribution to a better understanding of the complexities of the colonial history of Minas Gerais and - indeed - of Brazil as a whole. In the event, local elites serving on governing councils and occupying various municipal offices jealously guarded the privileges afforded by the status of vila or cidade and repeatedly proved capable of elaborating convincing arguments against any dismemberments of their respective territories. Some of those arguments reveal a great deal about the prejudices and rigid color and social hierarchies of the colonial past and, in this reviewer's...