brazil: where "the work is great and many die"-- 1/8/19

Today's selection -- from Early Latin America by James Lockhart and Stuart B. Schwartz. By far the greatest number of slaves from Africa were shipped to Brazil, some four million as compared to 390,000 that went to North America. The reason? Brazil's nascent economy was based almost entirely on sugar, and the brutal work of the sugar engenhos, where up to 10 percent of the slaves died each year:

"The economic basis of the northeast [Brazil] after the late sixteenth century was the bulk agricultural export sugar, rather than silver as in Mexico or Peru, and despite the efforts of the Jesuits to convince the Brazilian Indians to do intensive labor, or those of the colonists to force them to, a sedentary Indian labor force was simply lacking. The Indian base of the central areas of Spanish America was absent in Brazil, and the attention of the government was directed to stimulating and taxing the sugar trade, rather than collecting labor and tribute from the indigenous population. But export agriculture did create a viable basis for the growth of the northeast, and by 1600 a population of about 100,000, including large numbers of European women and some 30,000 Black slaves, sure signs of a region's wealth, were con­centrated at the ports and sugar mills.

"The failure of the Portuguese to create a dependable Indian labor force, coupled with population loss from epidemic disease and flight, made the significance of African workers all the greater. Faced with a growing demand for sugar in Europe, Portuguese planters increased the level of slave importation, so that rather than an auxiliary labor force as in most of Spanish America, Africans and their descendants became the majority of the population. This devel­opment of an agricultural export economy characterized by African slave labor and a Euro-African cultural fusion foreshadowed what would take place in the Caribbean and certain coastal areas of Span­ish America in the eighteenth century.

"Despite the strong European cultural and institutional overlay in the coastal agricultural areas that formed the core of the colony, Brazil was not Europe. The early missionary effort, the disastrous early contact with the Indians, and the rapidly expanding importa­tion of Africans created relationships and hierarchies that were dis­tinctly colonial, although always drawing on Iberian precedents whenever possible. On the northeastern sugar coast and around a few other port cities like Rio de Janeiro to the south and Belem or Sao Luiz to the north, an Iberian slave-based society developed, maintaining many European forms but resting on a population in large part composed of coerced Indians and even more of enslaved Africans. Although located on the coast, this was the core of Brazil. ...

Chief sugar region of Brazil

"The central social institution of colonial Brazilian life in the seven­teenth century was the engenho, that complex of land, coerced la­bor, technical skills, and capital that produced Brazil's primary ex­port commodity, sugar. As we have seen, the way in which these elements could be combined effectively had already been worked out in the Mediterranean and on the Atlantic islands, but the rich soils of coastal Brazil seemed to offer opportunities for an increase in scale and hence of output unknown up to that time. It should be made clear that the term 'plantation' was never employed to describe the unit of production in the sugar industry. Instead, Iberians used the word 'engenho' (Sp. ingenio, related to Eng. 'engine'), which strictly speaking meant only the mill itself but came to repre­sent the whole operation, including houses, slaves, land, and ani­mals. The term 'engenho' evokes images of the rural seigneur, of patriarchal dominance, of country estates, servants, and slaves, set among green cane fields and palms on the horizon. Although much of the image is true, there is also a heavy coating of romanticism that must be peeled away if we are to understand the nature of the engenho and its effects on the development of Brazilian society.

"Let us begin with sugarcane itself, for the nature of the crop and its product, sugar, determined much of the engenho's structure. Although there were regional variations, the process described here was basically the same throughout the Americas. The first crop usu­ally took some fifteen to eighteen months to mature, but thereafter for the next three or four years the same field would yield a new crop every nine months or so without replanting. The harvest, or safra (Sp. zafra), began at the end of July and continued for eight or nine months. During this period the engenho was alive with activ­ity. Slaves cut the cane and loaded it onto oxcarts that were then driven to the mill. There another crew of slaves produced sugar from the cane under the direction of technicians and with the help of artisans who might be either slave or free. The process was diffi­cult and complicated. First the cane was passed through vertical roller presses, which were usually powered on the big engenhos by waterwheels, and on the smaller ones by oxen. The syrup pressed from the cane was then passed through a series of kettles where it was boiled and clarified until finally it was sufficiently clean to make sugar. The liquid was poured into conical molds, which were then set on long rows of planks in a special drying shed. After further drainage, which required three weeks or a month, the molds could be opened, showing the crystallized sugar to have formed in its characteristic 'sugar loaf.' The best grade had the least impurities and was therefore white in color. Brown sugar (muscavado) sold for less, and the inferior grades were often used to make rum. The sugar was then dried, crated in large chests, and taken by boat or oxcart to Salvador, Recife, or some smaller port for shipment to Europe.

"As one can see, sugar was a special crop in that it demanded not only agriculture but also highly technical processing. The need to process sugarcane at the point of origin meant that each engenho was a combination of agricultural and industrial enterprise, needing large amounts of capital and credit, the specialized skills of black­smiths, carpenters, coopers, and masons, and the technical know­how of men who understood the intricacies of the sugar-making process. Moreover, the labor demands of cane cultivation and sugar production were great and terrible. During the harvest, the engenho operated eighteen to twenty hours a day, and many observers re­marked that the heat and fires of the cauldrons called up images of scenes of hell.

"The average mill had some sixty to eighty slaves, but a few large ones had more than two hundred. Although conditions might vary from engenho to engenho according to the personalities of owners or overseers, sugar imposed its own realities. In general, no matter what the intentions of the planters, the arduous working conditions, climate, and problems of food, housing, and care produced very high rates of disease and mortality. In a single year an engenho expected to lose between 5 and 10 percent of its slaves. Father Car­dim, a Jesuit observer, wrote simply in the 1580s that "the work is great and many die." But as contemporaries put it, from the bitter captivity of the slaves came the sweet sugar, and for the slave­owning sugar planters, profit and status were to be gained from the enterprise. To be called senhor de engenho (millowner) in colonial Brazil was to be respected and obeyed; it was a title that brought with it power and prestige. The Portuguese crown never created a Brazilian nobility of dukes and counts, but the title 'senhor de en­genho' often fulfilled the same function."



James Lockhart and Stuart B. Schwartz


Early Latin America


Cambridge University Press


Copyright Michael Bratton and Nicolas van de Walle 1983


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment