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Sugar: Brazil’s “Gold”

April 27, 2009


Written by Stephen Guild

It was Christopher Columbus who first brought sugar cane to the New World. Europeans quickly realized the potential of the production of sugar cane, especially in the Portuguese and Dutch colonies, and thus the economy and the society of Brazil were forever shaped by the plantation system, the slave trade and the sugar refining industry.

Sugar Comes to Brazil
Sugar cane is said to have been first planted in Brazil in 1516 by the Portuguese, and very early in the settlement process the colonial office requested a sugar technician. By 1518 the first plantation was in operation, but it was not until the 1530’s that sugar agriculture was firmly established in Brazil. The earliest large-scale production of sugar was in place in 1550, along the Atlantic coast from Bahia and Pernambuco.

Even if sugar was a profitable product, it was not grown in all parts of Brazil. Since the sugar plantations were mainly in the northeast, this part of Brazil became the center of the Brazilian economy during the period between 1550 and 1660. This hundred-year period significantly altered Brazil and its culture.

The Plantation System
The first sugar cane plantations adopted the production techniques the Portuguese had perfected in the Madeira and Canary Islands. The plantation system of Brazil and the Caribbean and the introduction of slavery combined to make sugar production one the drivers for European expansion, colonization and control in the New World.

enghenoThe plantations were called engenhos (mills), but the term refers to the entire complex of sugar cane fields, the mill and the factory. The estates were large tracts, often granted by the crown or colonial governors, and only a part of them were cultivated in sugar cane. It was a hierarchical society from the slave at the bottom to the owner, the senhor de engenho, at the top. Part of the land was leased and cultivated by lavradors (tenants), and in return for their efforts, they received a certain percentage of the sugar from the cane they had grown.

By the middle of the seventeenth century the Brazilian sugar industry had expanded rapidly with support of the Dutch East India Company, which had seized Pernambuco from the Portuguese in 1630, and with the Dutch importation of slaves from equatorial Africa.

Producing Sugar
The actual processing of the sugar was accomplished by crushing, processing and refining the sugar through a system of mechanical and human labor. An innovation in sugar production, the roller mill, reduced the time and labor needed to prepare the sugar cane, thereby increasing the mill’s capacity. The invention of the three-roller mill was a breakthrough that provided the most efficient way of milling sugar in the early 1600’s. This technology, combined with the production process and a large labor force, made the system work.

It wasn’t long, however, before the early settlers realized they lacked sufficient manpower to plant, harvest and process the backbreaking crop.

The Slave Trade
Sugar became the base of Brazilian economy and society with the use of black slaves on large plantations to make sugar production for export to Europe. At first, settlers tried to enslave the Indians as labor to work the fields. However the Indians were found to be unsuitable as slaves, and so the Portuguese land owners turned to Africa

The first slave ships arrived in 1505 and continued for more than 300 years. Most came from western Africa, where Portuguese colonies had already established trading outposts. By the middle of the 19th century, more than 10 million Africans had been forcibly removed to the New World and distributed among the sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean. In fact, 40% of the slaves who were uprooted and transported to the New World came to Brazil.

The Decline of Sugar
In the1660s, the focus of sugar production began to shift from Brazil to Barbados and other islands of the West Indies. The expulsion of the Dutch from Pernambuco in 1654 and the disruption in trade led the Dutch to focus their capital investments in the West Indies. Sugar production in these islands soon surpassed those in Brazil, and they became the largest sugar producers in the world. As a result, many farms in Brazil changed their product from sugar to tobacco or wine. Cotton also became a big industry that was nicknamed “White Gold,” and in João Pessoa there is a hotel called Ouro Branco. In the 19th and 20th Centuries, coffee took the place of sugar as Brazil’s most important product.

Sugar in Brazil Today
Brazil is among the world leaders in the production of sugarcane, sugar, and ethanol (fuel alcohol). It is among the most efficient of all major sugar producers and exports a diverse number of sugar products. Since Brazil can produce either sugar or ethanol from sugarcane, it is one of the few countries that can adjust rapidly to potential world sugar shortfalls and high international prices.

With a long tradition of high per capita sugar consumption, Brazil ranks fifth as a sugar-consuming nation. In 2000, a little less than half of its cane production was ground for sugar. Today more sugar is produced in Brazil than anywhere else in the world.

The Sugar Legacy
The Portuguese settlers frequently intermarried with both the Indians and the African slaves, and there were also mixed marriages between the Africans and Indians. As a result, Brazil’s population is intermingled to a degree that is unseen elsewhere. Most Brazilians possess some combination of European, African, Amerindian, Asian, and Middle Eastern lineage, and this multiplicity of cultural legacies is a notable feature of current Brazilian culture.

Many of the sugar plantation owners lived in Olinda, where they had fine homes and were part of urban life. Most often, the actual running of the plantation was done by the New Christians and other Jews. In some cases, they were owners and had political, economical, and social influence on Brazil. Sometimes, these Jews were given the titles of nobility, but these positions were not hereditary because the sugar industry was quite unstable.

Joaquim Nabuco, the first Brazilian ambassador to the United States, was the son of a wealthy plantation owner, so he was no stranger to the system and the plantation life. He was also one for the campaigners who eventually brought an end to slavery.

monestarySome of the religious orders that were centered in Olinda were supported by income from the sugar industry. A small plot of land in Olinda was donated by a wealthy local woman, but her donation of a much larger tract of land sustained the Franciscan monastery and their missionary work. The monetary still stands and, one of its chapels is especially ornate because it was largely financed by money from the sugar merchants.

feijoadaThere is even a culinary link to the sugar cane industry. Feijoada, the Brazilian national dish, was originally created by slaves who used the leftover parts — ears, feet, tail — of beef or pork animals, the better parts having been consumed by the managers and owners of the engenhos. Today’s feijoada still is served, even in the finest restaurants, with a choice of these different animals parts, along with the traditional black beans and rice.

The author gratefully acknowledges the many sources that were consulted in the writing of this article. While they provide the foundation, the interpretation and opinion are entirely those of the author.

Stephen Guild is Executive Editor of Recife Guide.

Brazil and its connection with sugar are deeply ingrained in the history and culture of the country in general, and the northeast in particular, as the article suggests. The people and places are features in many Recife Guide Walking Tours.  And soon we will be adding a Short Adventure (2-3 day trip), which will includes trips to plantations and the old engenhos that are still intact.

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