The First Plantation Colony
Early Latin America
Author: Stearns, Peter
Date: 1999

The search for gold and silver was a constant theme in overseas
expansion, but there were other European demands the New World could also
satisfy, which contributed to its growing involvement in the Western-dominated
world economy. While Spanish America seemed to fulfill dreams of mineral
wealth, Brazil - Portugal's American colony - became the first major
plantation zone, organized to produce a tropical crop - sugar - in great
demand and short supply in Europe.

Although the Portuguese had already set up small plantation colonies on
the little Atlantic islands of Madeira and Sao Tome, the move toward
plantation agriculture in Brazil was gradual. The first official Portuguese
landfall on the South American coast took place in 1500 when Pedro vares
Cabral, leader of an expedition to India, stopped briefly on the tropical
Brazilian shore, celebrated a mass, and bartered with the Indians. There was
little at first to attract European interest except for the dyewood trees that
grew in the forests, and thus for 30 years the Portuguese crown paid little
attention to Brazil, preferring instead to grant licenses to merchants who
agreed to exploit the dyewood in return for tax benefits and services.
Pressure from French merchants also interested in dyewood finally moved the
Portuguese crown to military action. The coast was cleared of the French and a
new system of settlement was established in 1532. Minor Portuguese nobles were
given strips of land along the coast to colonize and develop. The nobles who
held these capitaincies combined broad, seemingly "feudal" powers with a
strong desire for commercial development. Most of them lacked sufficient
capital to carry out the colonization and some had continual problems with the
local Indian population. In a few places, towns were established, colonists
were brought over, relations with the Indians were relatively peaceful, and,
most importantly, sugar plantations were established using first Indian, and
then imported African, slaves.

The limited success of the captaincies caused the Portuguese crown in
1549 to send a governor general and other royal officials and to create a
royal capital at Salvador. The first Jesuit missionaries also arrived. By 1600
Indian resistance had been broken in many places either by military action,
missionary activity, or by epidemic disease. A string of settlements extended
along the coast, centered on port cities such as Salvador and Rio de Janeiro.
These served the roughly 150 sugar plantations, a number which would double by
1630. The plantations were increasingly worked by African slaves. By 1600 the
Brazilian colony had about 100,000 inhabitants: 30,000 Europeans, 15,000 black
slaves, and the rest Indians and people of mixed origin.

Sugar And Slavery

During most of the next century, Brazil held its position as the world's
leading sugar producer. Sugar cane had to be processed in the field - cut,
pressed in large mills, and the juice then heated before it would crystallize
into sugar. This combination of agriculture and industry in the field demanded
large amounts of capital for machinery and large quantities of labor for the
backbreaking work. While there were always some free workers who had skilled
or artisan occupations, slaves did most of the work. During the 17th century,
about 7000 slaves a year were imported from Africa. By the end of the century,
Brazil had about 150,000 slaves - about half its total population.

Based on a single crop produced by slave labor, Brazil became the first
great plantation colony and a model that would later be followed by other
European nations in their own Caribbean colonies. Even after the Brazilian
economy became more diverse, Brazil's society still reflected its plantation
and slave origins. Slavery and the plantation system imposed a strong social
hierarchy. The white planter families became an aristocracy that controlled
local social and political life. Linked by interest and marriage to resident
merchants and to the few Portuguese bureaucrats and officials, this class
dominated local institutions. At the bottom of society were the slaves,
distinguished by their color and their servile condition as property. There
was, however, a growing segment of the population composed of people of mixed
origins, the result of miscegenation between whites, Indians, and Africans who
- alongside poorer whites, freed blacks, and free Indians - served as
artisans, small farmers, herdsmen, and free laborers. In many ways, society as
a whole reflected the hierarchy of the plantation.

Like Spain, Portugal created a bureaucratic structure that integrated
this colony within an imperial system. A governor general ruled from Salvador,
but the governors in each captaincy often acted with independence and reported
directly to the overseas council in Lisbon. The missionary orders were
particularly important in Brazil, especially the Jesuits. Their extensive
cattle ranches and sugar mills supported the construction of churches and
schools as well as a network of missions with thousands of Indian residents.

As in Spanish America, royal officials trained in the law formed the core
of the bureaucracy. Unlike the Spanish Empire, which was, with the exception
of the Phillipines, almost exclusively American, the Portuguese Empire
included colonies and outposts in Asia, Africa, and Brazil. Only gradually in
the 17th century did Brazil become the predominant Portuguese colony. Even
then, Brazil's ties to Portugal were in some ways stronger and more dependent
than those between Spanish America and Spain. Unlike Spanish America, neither
universities nor printing presses existed in Brazil. Thus intellectual life
was always an extension of Portugal, and Brazilians seeking higher education
and government offices or hoping to publish always had to turn to the mother
country. The general economic dependency of Latin America was matched by an
intellectual subordination more intense in Brazil than in Spanish America.

[See Sugar Plantation In Hispanola: Sugar was introduced to the Caribbean in
1493, but Brazil became the greatest producer by the next century. Sugar
plantations using enslaved workers characterized Brazil and the Caribbean.
This early European engraving is wrong in some details, but it does convey an
image of the almost factorylike conditions in the sugar mills.]

Brazil's Age Of Gold

As overseas extensions of Europe, the American colonies were particularly
susceptible to changes in European politics. For 60 years (1580-1640), Spain
and Portugal were ruled by the same monarchs, a situation that sponsored their
cooperation and gave the Habsburg kings of Spain and Portugal a worldwide
empire. From 1630 to 1654, as part of a global struggle against Spain, the
Dutch seized a portion of northeastern Brazil and controlled its sugar
production. Although the Dutch were expelled from Brazil in 1654, by the 1680s
the Dutch, English, and French had established their own plantation colonies
in the Caribbean and were producing sugar, once again with slave laborers.
This competition - which led to a rising price for slaves and a falling world
price for sugar - undercut the Brazilian sugar industry, and the colony
entered into hard times. Eventually, each European nation tried to establish
an integrated set of colonies that included plantations (the Caribbean,
Brazil), slaving ports (Africa), and food producing areas (New England,
southern Brazil).

Although Brazil's domination of the world sugar market was lost,
throughout the 17th century Paulistas, hardy backwoodsmen from Sao Paulo (an
area with few sugar plantations), had been exploring the interior, capturing
Indians and searching for precious metals. These expeditions not only
established Portuguese claims to much of the interior of the continent, but
were eventually successful in their quest for wealth. In 1695, gold strikes
were made in the mountainous interior in a region that came to be called Minas
Gerais (General Mines), and the Brazilian colony experienced a new boom.

A great gold rush began. People deserted coastal towns and plantations to
head for the gold washings, and they were soon joined by waves of about 5000
immigrants a year who came directly from Portugal. Labor in the mines, as in
the plantations, was provided mostly by slaves. By 1720 there were over 35,000
slaves in Minas Gerais, and by 1775 there were over 150,000 (out of a total
population of 300,000 for the region). Wild mining camps and a wide-open
society eventually coalesced into a network of towns like the administrative
center of Ouro Preto, and the government, anxious to control the newfound
wealth, imposed a heavy hand to collect taxes and reign in the unruly
population. Gold production reached its height between 1735 and 1760 and
averaged about three tons a year in that period, making Brazil the greatest
source of gold in the Western world.

The discovery of gold was a mixed blessing in the long run. Further
discovery of gold - and later of diamonds - opened the interior to further
settlement, once again with disastrous effects on the Indian population and
with the expansion of slavery. The early disruption of coastal agriculture
caused by the gold strikes was overcome by government control of the slave
trade, and exports of sugar and tobacco continued to be important to the
colony. Mining did stimulate the opening of new areas to ranching and farming,
to supply the new markets in the mining zone. Cattle ranches appeared in the
interior of northeast Brazil, while large herds spread over the grassy plains
of the south. Rio de Janeiro, the port closest to the mines, grew in size and
importance. It became capital of the colony in 1763. In Minas Gerais a
distinctive society developed in the mining towns, where the local wealth was
used to sponsor the building of churches, which in turn stimulated many
artisan activities and the work of artists, architects, and composers. Like
the rest of Brazil, however, the hierarchy of color and the legal distinctions
of slavery marked life in the mining zones, which were populated by large
numbers of slaves and free persons of color.

Finally, gold allowed Portugal to continue economic policies that were
detrimental in the long run. With access to gold, Portugal could purchase the
manufactured goods it needed for itself and its colonies. Few industries were
developed in the mother country and, with pressures from Portuguese wine
producers, a treaty was signed with England in 1703 that guaranteed a trading
arrangement with that country. As a result much of the Brazilian gold flowed
from Portugal to England to pay for manufactured goods and to compensate for a
trade imbalance, since the value of English manufactures was greater than that
of Portuguese wine. After 1760 as the supply of gold began to dwindle,
Portugal was again in a difficult position, in some ways an economic
dependency of England.

 

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