Colonial Sugar Mills in Brazil

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Colonial Sugar Mills in Brazil

1 Introduction

In this chapter we will study the establishment in Brazil of the so-called colonial sugar mills or sugar mills in Colonial Brazil

The sugar mills set up by the Portuguese, mainly in the northeast and in the region of São Vicente, were to become a lucrative industry responsible for the manufacture of sugar, which was widely used in Europe as a culinary product.

In order to reflect on the importance of the engenho in Brazil’s colonial history, we will draw on the book “Casa Grande e Senzala”, by Pernambuco historian Gilberto Freire. This book is a landmark in the cultural historiography of Brazil and the world, as the author reflected on Brazilian history based on race relations.

Another important subject to be studied in this topic concerns religiosity in the colony.

The Catholic religion, introduced by the Portuguese, suffered great influence, not only from the indigenous religion, but mainly from the African religion. In many regions of Brazil, there was a true syncretism that mixed the three religious expressions into one.

Syncretism – The word syncretism means mixture! In Brazil, there was not only syncretism related to the religious aspect, but in many other forms of expression of the various peoples who contributed to the formation of the Brazilian people.

2. Sugar Mills

With the intensification of colonisation, which took place after the installation of the General Government in 1549, several colonial sugar mills were set up in Brazil.

O CICLO DO AÇÚCAR - Sociedade e Economia Colonial

However, Martim Afonso de Souza had already founded sugar mills from 1530 onwards, and the first sugar mill was set up in the region of São Vicente, in what is now the state of São Paulo.

In Brazil, sugar cane was introduced by Martim Afonso de Souza, who also owned the first sugar mill built in the country, in association with the Dutchman Johann Van Hielst (known as João Vaniste), a representative of the Schetz, wealthy shipowners, merchants and bankers from Amsterdam (BUENO, 2003, p. 44).

According to Mary Del Priore and Renato Venâncio (2006), sugar cane was already part of the colonial economy from the very beginning of colonisation.

There are signs that sugar cane came to Brazil in the early years of colonisation – it would have arrived in 1502 to 1503.

Its systematic exploitation, however, took another decade.

In 1516, the powerful House of India, the metropolitan body in charge of customs, was looking for sugar masters to work in mills that would have been established in areas close to the coastal factories. In 1518, slaves from Guinea and settlers from Madeira Island were already at work.

From 1520 onwards, the Lisbon Customs House began charging duties on sugar from the Land of Santa Cruz. When the Portuguese first arrived in Brazil in the 1500s, they called Brazil “Terra de Vera Cruz”.

Although sugar cane had already been planted in Brazil since the early days of colonisation, it would only become an economically viable product from 1530 onwards, with the stimulus of Martim Afonso de Sousa’s initiatives.

It’s important to note that even in the early days of Brazil’s colonisation, there was already an agreement between Portugal and the Netherlands regarding the production and marketing of the valuable product.

This partnership was jeopardised by the Iberian Union, which took place in 1580, when Portugal and Spain were ruled by the same king (King Felipe II).

This union gave rise to serious conflicts with Holland, as the Spanish were enemies of the Dutch, preventing them from maintaining trade relations with Brazil.

This led to the Dutch invasion of northeast Brazil.

Engenho de açúcar com roda d’água contida num trecho do mapa de Pernambuco pintado por Willem J. Blaeu, em 1635
Engenho de açúcar com roda d’água contida num trecho do mapa de Pernambuco pintado por Willem J. Blaeu, em 1635

With the intensification of colonisation, the Portuguese, in partnership with the Dutch, began to invest large sums of capital in the foundation of sugar mills and the consequent planting of large areas for sugar cane.

According to Eduardo Bueno (2003, p. 44-45):

From the arrival of the grantees, sugar cultivation acquired stupendous momentum in Brazil.

Unable by law to exploit brazilwood (a monopoly of the crown), the grantees – Duarte Coelho at the head – brought settlers from Madeira Island with them, began to cut down the coastal forests and set up their first mills.

The increase in population in Europe, the relative fall in the price of the product, the fertility of the northeastern massapé – all contributed to making sugar a product that was increasingly consumed in the cities and fought over on the market.

We have to be clear that the Portuguese were innovative colonisers by the standards of the time, as Gilberto Freyre mentions in his book Casa Grande e Senzala:

The Portuguese coloniser of Brazil was the first among modern colonisers to shift the basis of tropical colonisation from the pure extraction of mineral, vegetable or animal wealth – gold, silver, timber, amber – to that of local wealth creation.

Although wealth – that created by them under the pressure of American circumstances – at the cost of slave labour: touched, therefore, by that perversion of economic instinct that soon diverted the Portuguese from the activity of producing values to that of exploiting, transporting or acquiring them (2003, p. 79).

Still quoting Freyre:

Colonial society in Brazil, especially in Pernambuco and the Recôncavo of Bahia, developed patriarchally and aristocratically in the shadow of the great sugar plantations, not in haphazard and stable groups; in large houses of rammed earth or stone and lime, not in adventurers’ shacks.

Oliveira Martins observes that the colonial population in Brazil, “especially in the north, was aristocratically constituted, that is, the houses of Portugal sent branches overseas; from the very beginning of the colony it presented a different aspect to the turbulent immigration of the Castilians in Central and Western America”.

And before him, Southey had already written that in the plantation houses of Pernambuco, in the first centuries of colonisation, the decency and comfort that would be sought in vain among the populations of Paraguay and the Plata were to be found (2003, p. 79).

Everything was conspiring to turn Brazil into the world’s largest sugar producer.

To give you an idea, in 1628 around 235 sugar mills had already been set up in Brazil, the vast majority in the Northeast.

When the Dutch invaded in 1637, production in Pernambuco, Itamaracá, Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte exceeded 1 million arrobas per year (BUENO, 2003).

Escravos na moenda - Debret 1835
Escravos na moenda – Debret 1835

We must emphasise that there were different types of sugar mills, depending on the purchasing power of their owners, from small manual sugar mills, as shown in the picture above, to large hydraulic-powered mills. Despite the differences, they all produced sugar and sugar cane derivatives.

price of white sugar

Despite the large number of sugar mills, we have to realise that the real profit for this activity came from the distribution and kingdom of sugar in Europe, an activity generally carried out by the Dutch, and not from the planting of sugar cane and the manufacture of raw sugar in the mills.

Still quoting Eduardo Bueno (2003, p. 45):

But the vigour and great profitability of the sugarcane plantation seem to have crossed only in passing through the casa-grande that housed the engenho lords.

O real profit went to those who shipped the sugar to Europe. These profits were used to make new loans to the plantation owners, who thus lived in “perpetual debt, from which they periodically clamoured for forgiveness”.

In any case, after one or two good harvests, many owners sold everything they had and returned to Portugal.

It is true that many of the Portuguese colonisers who chose Brazil as their capital investment did not bring their families with them.

In this sense, the engenho became a veritable Babylon, as the Portuguese would soon cross their bodies with black and Indian women, thus promoting the beginning of miscegenation.

According to Father Antônio Vieira (apud BUENO, 2003, p. 48):

Whoever sees in the darkness of the night those tremendous furnaces perpetually burning […] the noise of the wheels, of the chains, of the people all coloured the same night, and groaning everything, without respite or rest; whoever sees all the confusing and thundering machinery and apparatus of that Babylon, cannot doubt, even if he has seen Etnas and Vesúvios, that it is a likeness of hell.

The words of this famous Jesuit priest strengthen the idea that the slave was the social subject that did everything in the colony.

The importance of the sugar mill cannot be underestimated because the most lucrative activities were those of the kingdom and the distribution of sugar in Europe.

In fact, the importance of the engenho was not only economic, but above all social and cultural.

In the next section we will study the social and cultural importance of the colonial sugar mill.

3. Social and Cultural Importance of the Colonial Sugar Mill

The Portuguese colonisers of Brazil invented a structure called the colonial sugar mill.

It was a complex made up of various improvements ranging from the chapel to the purge house, boiler house, flour house, bagasse house, mill wheel, corral, orchard, cemetery and slave quarters, which were often next to the big house.

These were typically Lusitanian buildings, containing all the symbolism they might have had in Portugal, but the people who lived in them were from the most varied cultural backgrounds.

According to Gilberto Freire (2003, p. 79):

The Portuguese coloniser of Brazil was the first among modern colonisers to shift the basis of tropical colonisation from the extraction of mineral, vegetable or animal wealth – gold, silver, wood, amber, marim – to that of local wealth creation.

Although wealth – created by them under the pressure of American circumstances – at the cost of slave labour: touched, therefore, by that perversion of economic instinct that soon diverted the Portuguese from the activity of producing values to that of exploiting, transporting or acquiring them.

The engenho was very important because it represented a landmark of civilisation in the middle of the forest, and it was here that Afro-Brazilian culture developed. In this structure, whites and blacks lived together in a relationship of masters and slaves.

According to Gilberto Freire (2001, p. 27):

No culture, no people, no people after the Portuguese, exerted a greater influence on the Brazilian than the black.

Almost every Brazilian bears the mark of this influence. From the black woman who cradled him and suckled him.

From the sinhama (wet nurse) who fed him, herself making the food ball with her fingers.

We have to be clear that the success of the sugar mill in Brazil was due to the cultural characteristics of the African, who was very different from the Indian.

The blacks imported from Africa – as has already been said – generally had a superior culture to the Indians.

In addition, blacks were better adapted to the tropics. Unlike the Indian or the caboclo, who were discouraged by the rigour of the sun.

In modern terms, the black was extroverted (cheerful, easy, fun, accommodating, confident) and the Indian an introvert (sad, difficult, bison-like, reluctant) (FREIRE, 2001, p. 27).

These characteristics explain why the black man was the white man’s greatest ally in the colonisation of Brazil.

Despite this, blacks from the most varied regions of Africa were brought to Brazil. In the words of Gilberto Freire (2001, p. 29):

The Angolas were Bantu; like those from the Congo, they were good for rough labour.

The “skilful” Angolas were good at starting the “boçais” in eito work (clearing a plantation with a hoe or hand tools).

The Ardas came from Dahomey. They were “so fiery that they want to cut everything in one fell swoop”, as Henrique Dias said of them.

The Minas (Nagô) from the Gold Coast. Dahomey and the Gold Coast were the centres of Sudanese culture.

The Sudanese black is one of the tallest people on earth. In Senegal, they even look like they’re walking on stilts; with their shirts, from a distance they resemble souls from another world.

The blacks of Guinea, beautiful in body, were excellent for domestic service, especially the women.

The blacks from Cape Verde were the best and most robust of all, and the most expensive.

The Bantu were, of all people, the most characteristic blacks; but they did not, as we have seen, comprise all the African elements imported into Brazil. Alongside the Bantu language, our blacks spoke other languages or dialects of the Sudanese group (Jeje, Hauçá, Nagô or Yoruba).

In this context of varied origins, the black man adapted to a hard life in Brazil, because we mustn’t forget that he was a slave and had to obey his master.

Despite this, the black man proved from an early age his strength and intention to survive in a strange land that deprived him of his freedom.

To illustrate this, we will introduce a fragment from the book “Casa Grande e senzala“, adapted into a comic strip (2001, p. 38), which problematises the daily life and relationship between the Portuguese and blacks in a colonial sugar mill in the north-east of Brazil.


What was life like on a 16th century sugar mill, what kind of food did they eat, what were their social relations like, how was their religiosity structured, and what kind of problems did they face?

According to Freyre, life on the sugar plantation, and especially food, was difficult, because despite all the wealth generated by sugar and the countless natural resources, the lords tried to imitate European habits.

The very plantation owners of colonial times who, through the chronicles of Cardim and Soares, we have become accustomed to imagining feasting on a rich variety of ripe fruit, fresh vegetables and loins of excellent beef, people with a bountiful table eating like bums – they, their families, their adherents, their friends, their guests; the plantation owners of Pernambuco and Bahia themselves ate poorly: Beef of poor quality and only once in a while, little and diseased fruit, rare vegetables.

The abundance or excellence of food that was surprising was by exception and not general among these large landowners (2003, p. 98).

He also states that:

A large part of their food they afforded themselves the foolish luxury of ordering from Portugal and the islands; as a result they consumed food that was not always well preserved: meat, cereals and even nuts, devoid of their nutritional principles, when not spoilt by poor packaging or the circumstances of irregular and lengthy transport.

Oddly enough, the table of our colonial aristocracy lacked fresh vegetables, green meat and milk. This certainly led to many of the diseases of the digestive system, common at the time and attributed by many caturra doctors to “bad air” (2003, p. 98).

The following image contradicts the above statement, revealing a bountiful and diverse table, which is certainly part of a romantic representation that is out of touch with the reality of colonial Brazil.

A Brazilian family in Rio de Janeiro by Jean Baptiste Debret 1839
A Brazilian family in Rio de Janeiro, by Jean Baptiste Debret, 1839

To deepen this discussion and make it easier to understand, we will present a fragment from the “Golden Book of Brazilian History” by historians Mary Del Priore and Renato Pinto Venâncio (2001, p. 57-60).

If we accept the opinion of the literati of the time, we can say that, despite the appearance to the contrary, even the richest farmers ate poorly, eating tough beef.

Only once in a while did they taste fruit. Even more rarely, vegetables.

The lack of good food was compensated for by an excess of sweets: guavas, marmalades, cashew sweets and sugar cane honey, alfenins and cocadas.

When a priest passed through, the larders were opened with effort and farm animals were killed: ducks, piglets and goats.

In Pernambuco, a chronicler tells us, “fishing slaves” were tasked with fetching “all kinds of fish and shellfish” on these occasions.

The abundance recorded in some mills was not the norm. Those who had the luxury of ordering food from the Kingdom consumed poorly preserved food.

The mill owners suffered from stomach ailments, which doctors of the time attributed not to the poor diet, but to the bad air of the tropics. The saúva, the floods or the drought made the supply of fresh food even more difficult.

Syphilis marked their bodies, leaving them scarred with sores.

Most of the sugar mills were nestled in the forest, not far from the port centres, which can be explained by the greater fertility of the land, which was well-dressed in green, and by the abundance of firewood needed for the hungry furnaces, which were fed by labour that sometimes lasted eight or nine months, day and night.

And they didn’t have to move too far from the coast, otherwise, since the price of export goods was the same, they wouldn’t be able to compete with the farmers closer to the market, whose product wouldn’t be affected by transport costs.

In Pernambuco, they settled along the rivers that centre on the Atlantic side of the Borborema plateau, in the Mata zone, where rounded hills and hillsides predominate.

The corollary of the land was water. If irrigation was unnecessary thanks to the rich massapé, both cattle and people needed fresh water. They also used it in the mills, presses and mills.

Not surprisingly, most of the mills were located on the banks of rivers such as the Paraguaçu, Jaguaribe and Sergipe in Bahia, and the Beberibe, Jaboatão, Uma and Serinhaém in Pernambuco.

Inside the real fortresses of adobe and rammed earth, which were the big houses, there was simplicity and even discomfort.

The furniture was poor and scarce: chests of drawers, chests of drawers, chests of drawers and hangers. All rough pieces made by the mill worker.

Some preferred the sweetness of hammocks, a refreshing solution on hot nights. Balconies in the middle of the main façade and small porches gave the mill owner a view of his land, sugar cane and people.

Hirsute ground floors, veritable closed warehouses, illuminated by portholes, allowed them to better defend themselves against the enemy.

However, there was no shortage of observers at the time, who were able to enthuse about the grandeur of the complex: “a water mill very adorned with buildings”, “a mill with large buildings and a church”, “a mill adorned with buildings with a very concerted chapel and beautiful cane fields”, said the Portuguese chronicler and mill owner Gabriel Soares de Souza, describing them in 1587.

The rigidity of the house was opposed, on feast days, by the exaggeration of the clothing: “They dressed themselves, their wives and their children in all sorts of velvets, damasks  and other silks, and in this they had a lot of excess […] the scripts and saddles of the horses were made of the same silks that they were dressed in,” commented an elevated Cardim, during the sugar cane expansion phase.

According to Cardim, weddings were celebrated with banquets, bullfights, cane and ring games and wine from Portugal.

Many named their engenhos after patron saints: São Francisco, São Cosme, São Damião and Santo Antônio.

Others had African names – Maçangana. Still others were named after fruits and trees: Pau-de-Sangue, Cajueiro-de-baixo, Jenipapo;

At the centre of his family, the engenho lord had to radiate authority, respect and action.

Under his command were children, poor relatives, brothers, bastards, godchildren, confectionery, embroidery – alternated with pious devotional practices. In her absence, however, she took on her work responsibilities with the same vigour as her husband.

At the centre of his family, the engenho lord had to radiate authority, respect and action.

His children, poor relatives, brothers, bastards, godchildren, servants and slaves were all under his command.

A wife, sometimes much younger, moved in his shadow. She lived to bear children, carrying out domestic activities in the meantime – sewing, confectionery, embroidery – alternating with pious devotional practices. In his absence, however, she took on her work responsibilities with the same vigour as her husband;

Her family was the outer formulation of a society, but not the domain of sexual pleasure. The possibility of using female slaves created a racial division of sex in the masters’ world.

The white wife was the housewife, the mother of the children. The indigenous, and later the black and mulatto, were the pleasure territory.

Disputes over access to land also marked the occupation of the sugar lands, and there was no shortage of those who “infiltrated slyly and stealthily” – as one observer put it in 1635 – into virgin lands in the hope of getting rich by setting up sugar mills.

The sugar mill was an extremely complex structure. A structure that expanded in the Northeast of Brazil in its classic form, i.e. associated with large plantations and slave labour, in the 16th and 17th centuries or so.

Although based on large capitals capable of guaranteeing large-scale production, the sugar business also relied on small entrepreneurs who supplied the sugar mill with their sugar cane.

A Dutch report from 1640 states that only 40 per cent of the mills in Pernambuco milled their own cane, and the rest depended on the raw material brought in by these farmers.

The sugar business didn’t just involve masters and slaves. It required a diverse group of specialised workers and aggregates, who orbited around its fringes, providing the landlord with their services. They were sugar masters, purgers, wholesalers, caulkers, boilermakers, carpenters, bricklayers, boatmen, among others.

They were joined by other groups who animated the economic and social life of the coastal areas: merchants, farmers, artisans, subsistence and sugar cane planters and even unemployed people made up a complex fragmentation of small or large landowners.

The number of slaves they owned (from two to dozens) allowed us to infer the diversity of social origins and economic situations.

In the 18th century, with the decline of the activity and the increase in freedmen, some freedmen also became owners of sugar cane farms.

Carregadores de caixas de açúcar. Jean Baptiste Debret, Voyage Pittoresque et Historique au Bresil (Paris, 1834-39). O açúcar era, desde o século XVI, embalado em caixas de madeira, as quais eram marcadas com ferros. As marcas, elaboradas por artesãos especialistas nesta atividade, eram específicas de cada engenho.
Sugar box loaders. Jean Baptiste Debret, Voyage Pittoresque et Historique au Bresil (Paris, 1834-39)

Sugar society was a watertight society, in other words, there was no social mobility. There were basically two social groups: that of the plantation owner and his family and that of his dependents, aggregates and slaves.

In the mining society, which will be studied in the next unit, there was greater social mobility, as there were at least three social classes: the rich miners and crown officials; the small miners, traders, muleteers, soldiers, liberal professionals and priests; and finally the slaves.

See the image below which represents the two social pyramids. How was colonial sugar and mining society in Brazil composed?

sociedade açucareira
sugar society

Regarding the sugar society, Gilberto Freyre states that:

Sugar cane began to be cultivated in São Vicente and Pernambuco, later spreading to Bahia and Maranhão. Wherever it succeeded – mediocre as in São Vicente or maximum as in Pernambuco, the Recôncavo and Maranhão – it led to a society and a way of life with more or less aristocratic and slave-like tendencies.

Consequently, they had similar economic interests.

Economic antagonism would later emerge between men with capital, who could afford the costs of sugar cane farming and the sugar industry, and those less favoured with resources, who were forced to spread out into the hinterlands in search of slaves – a kind of living capital – or to stay there as cattle breeders.

An antagonism that the vast land could tolerate without upsetting the economic balance.

The result, however, was a Brazil that was anti-slavery or indifferent to the interests of slavery, represented by Ceará in particular, and in general by the sertanejo or cowboy (2003, p. 93).

Analysing Gilberto Freyre’s view, we can conclude that the sugar cane economy was exclusionary, based on slavery, a factor that made it difficult for free men to move up the social ladder, forcing them to look for other economic activities in the backlands.

In the next chapter, we will study the Dutch invasion of northeast Brazil. The study of this invasion is very important, as it changed the colonial structure and introduced a new reality into the history of colonial Brazil.

4. In this chapter you have seen:

  • The importance of the colonial sugar mill in the history of Brazil
  • The main socio-cultural characteristics of the colonial sugar mill

Discover the periods of colonial Brazilian history below:

  1. Portuguese Maritime Expansion and the Conquest of Brazil
  2. Occupation of the African Coast, the Atlantic Islands and the Voyage of Vasco da Gama
  3. Pedro Álvares Cabral’s expedition and the Conquest of Brazil
  4. Pre-colonial period in Brazil: “The Forgotten Years”
  5. Installation of the Portuguese Colony in Brazil
  6. Installation of the General Government in Brazil and the Founding of Salvador
  7. Monoculture, Slave Labour and Latifundia in Colonial Brazil
  8. Colonial sugar mills in Brazil
  9. The Iberian Union and the Dutch Invasion of Brazil
  10. Foundation of the city of São Paulo and the Bandeirantes
  11. Between the colonial regime and the establishment of the Empire in Brazil
  12. Transfer of the Portuguese court to Brazil
  13. The Portuguese Empire in Brazil
  14. Independence of Brazil – Breaking of colonial ties in Brazil
  15. Historical Periods of Brazil

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