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chapter six A Commonwealth within Itself The Early Brazilian Sugar Industry, 1550–1670 Stuart B. Schwartz Brazil did not generate much interest for the Portuguese so long as that distant shore was seen only as a place to obtain dyewood or tropical curiosities. By the 1530s, however, the introduction of sugarcane and the beginnings of a sugar industry had begun to transform Brazil, especially its northeastern coast, into a colony of settlement. The sugar estates, because of their organization, and because of their socially and ‘‘racially’’ segmented populations, eventually determined much of the structure of the colony and of its society. Cuthbert Pudsey, an Englishman who visited Brazil in the early seventeenth century, captured the social character of the sugar mills, the political authority of their owners, and the way in which the mills themselves served as the poles of colonization: ‘‘Now they invent mills to grind the sugar reed, their slaves to plant and preen their reed that need be planted once in seven years. Founders to cast their kettles, masons to make furnaces, carpenters to make chests, another part is busy to erect churches. Every mill [has] a chapel, a schoolhouse, a priest, a barber, a smith, a shoemaker, a carpenter, a joiner, a potter, a tailor, and all other artificers necessary . That every mill is as a Commonwealth within [it]self and the lord of the mill Justicer and Judge within himself.’’∞ Pudsey, like other earlier observers, saw the sugar mills as determinants of the colony’s character and its social trajectory, and believed that the health of the sugar industry set the parameters of the colony’s success. This essay examines the basic contours of the Brazilian sugar economy in the period from ca. 1550–1670, when it became the Atlantic world’s primary producer of sugar. It begins in broad focus by placing Brazil within the context of the Atlantic trading system, and then narrows that focus to examine local conditions as well as the specific challenges of land, labor, and capital that confronted the early Brazilian industry and gave it its particular character and contours. early brazilian sugar industry 159 Second, it shows how this industry expanded rapidly until ca. 1620, and explains why that expansion slowed down even before the rise of new competitors in the Caribbean after 1650. Brazilian Sugar and the Atlantic Trading System The Brazilian coast presented excellent conditions for the production of sugar. Sugar could be grown in a variety of soils, but large areas of dark clay soil, the famous massapé, were accessible along the rivers near the coast. Sugarcane is a perennial, but its yield of juice diminishes with each cutting. It was said that cane planted in massapé could be cut for seven to ten years without replanting, and some mill owners (senhores de engenho) even bragged of cane cut for thirty or even sixty years, but such conditions were rare. Eventually, by the late seventeenth century much cane was planted in the sandier upland soils away from the coast, but massapé was always the preferred land for sugarcane before 1650. The Recôncavo of Bahia and the várzea (riverside lowlands) of Pernambuco had both the appropriate soils with large areas of massapé and the advantage of rivers such as the Capibaribe, Ipojuca, and Berberibe in Pernambuco and the Subaé, Cotegipe, and Sergimerim in Bahia that supplied water to power the mills and provided for easy transport to the port. Access to water transport was particularly important because in the rainy months the massapé became an impassable quagmire. The coast of northeastern Brazil also had appropriate rainfall, receiving between one and two milimeters a year for sugarcane cultivation and the region was not subject to freezing. Thus, while good conditions for sugar production had existed on Madeira or São Tomé, Brazil offered an unequalled combination of location, climate, soils, water, forests to supply firewood, and other supplies. The Brazilian colony needed only to resolve the problems of capital and labor in order to become a major producer. While there is some evidence that sugar was being produced in Brazil by the 1510s, and that Brazilian sugar was reaching the market in Antwerp in those years, it was during the period of the lord proprietors or donatários after 1534 that the sugar industry began to flourish. By the 1540s, Portuguese colonists and government officials had constructed engenhos along the coast. Technicians and specialists, some of them probably slaves, were brought from...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781469603667
Related ISBN
9780807828755
MARC Record
OCLC
652280205
Pages
368
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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