Mention the name of Tiradentes to many Brazilians and they will probably tell you with great pride about one of their national heroes. Tiradentes is considered the first significant player in the fight for independence from Portugal, a struggle that would last over 30 years before the ultimate prize was won. So what is the story of a man who is now revered and commemorated across Brazil and throughout Latin America?

Tiradentes sounds like one of those people who was never going to let minor obstacles (poor family, no prospects) get in the way of his dreams. Born as Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, he was adopted at a very early age and was tutored by a surgeon who passed on to him the art of extracting people’s teeth. This was a skill that would earn him his eternal nickname. He also worked as a miner and eventually entered a modest administrative local government role in the state of Minas Gerais, from which gold flowed freely out to the Portuguese motherland.

It was here that Tiradentes became angry at the mineral resources and wealth pouring out of Brazil and began to plot a course of resistance. This was the time of Napoleon’s revolution in France and of the American revolt against British rule. Indeed his own plans mirrored that of the Boston Tea Party, where the local population refused to pay the required taxes to their colonial rulers.

Sadly for Tiradentes his rebellion was easily crushed and he was soon arrested. After a two year trial he was convicted and hanged in Rio de Janeiro on April 21 1792. He body was quartered, his head displayed publicly in his home town of Vila Rica, and his body parts displayed on the road between the two cities to serve as a warning to others who might think of rebellion.

It was to be another 30 years until the Portuguese kind granted Brazil its freedom and another 67 years until Tiradentes would be formally recognised as a national hero. A town in his home state of Minas Gerais was renamed in his honour in 1889 while the date of his execution, April 21st, was proclaimed as a national holiday.

The town of Tiradentes is now a popular tourist town, with visitors drawn to its old cobbled streets and photogenic wooden houses. Local vendors sell their wares to visitors from all over the world who come to marvel at this pretty little town or to indulge during the annual food festival held here. Of those who do pass by, relatively few pause to consider the life of a humble man some 250 years ago and his desire for change that helped bring about the eventual freedom of one of the world’s largest, most diverse nations.

Photo: Leopoldino de Faria [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons