History of the sugar mills of Pernambuco – Beginning and end

Sugar mill with water wheel contained in a section of the map of Pernambuco painted by Willem J. Blaeu, in 1635. Blaeu, in 1635
Sugar mill with water wheel contained in a section of the map of Pernambuco painted by Willem J. Blaeu, in 1635

From the beginning of Brazilian colonisation, Portugal sought to use the experience gained in sugar production on the islands of Madeira and the Azores to implement white gold, as sugar was then known, in the vast Brazilian lands due to its high value on the European market.

The official establishment of the sugar industry in Brazil took place after the division of the colony into hereditary captaincies in 1535.

Pernambuco was the most prosperous captaincy, developing rapidly in a few years with the production of sugar, cotton and tobacco for export.

Its rapid development was due to the commitment and entrepreneurial character of its grantee, Duarte Coelho, as well as to natural factors favourable to the cultivation of sugar cane: fertile soil, regular rainfall, hot humid climate and strategic geographical location, being the closest captaincy to the European market.

It was up to the grantee to bear the necessary expenses for the colonisation of the captaincy, to assist in the defence of the territory and to pay taxes to the crown. In turn, the grantee, within his captaincy, was the legal and administrative authority and exercised the right to donate land (sesmarias) to those who had the resources to install sugar mills.

“It was the private initiative that, competing for the sesmarias, was willing to come (to Brazil) to populate and defend militarily, as was the royal requirement, the many leagues of raw land that black labour would fertilise” (FREYRE, 2006, p. 80).

The settlers who received sesmarias were subjugated to the authority of the crown and the grantee, however, in the domains of their lands, they enjoyed full powers over their relatives and slaves.

In the colonial period “[…] to be a rural landowner and even a mill owner meant much more than having a certain source of reasonable income.

It meant a title that in Brazil came to be valid as a certificate of nobility.” (GOMES, 2006, p. 53).

The engenho lord was a landowner, holder of prestige, wealth and power.

The lands where these wealthy men built their sugar mills were donated to them in exchange for loyalty to the Portuguese crown, tax payments and military support.

In addition to serving economic interests, the sugar mills played an important role in the defence and domination of Brazilian territory.

Farmhouse, by Frans Post (1651).
Fig. 1 – Plantation house, by Frans Post (1651). In addition to its function as a residence, the 17th-century plantation house also embodies the functions of a strong house and a surveillance centre for the work carried out by indigenous and African slaves.

Veja History, Biography and the Paintings of Frans Post in Dutch Brazil

For the cultivation of his lands, the milleries’ owners relied on the labour of the ploughmen, free men without the resources to set up their own mills, who rented small or large portions of land from the mill owners for the planting and harvesting of sugarcane.

Most of the sugar cane milled in the 16th and 17th centuries was supplied to the mills by the ploughmen who initially had a share in the profits, but who over the centuries lost this privilege.

A property usually contains much more land than the owner can manage or work […]. These leftover lands give way to the dwellings of free people, of the poorer classes who live on the meagre result of their labour. […]
No document is written, but the landowner verbally authorises the inhabitant to build his little house on the land, inhabiting it […] and allowing him to cultivate […] (KOSTER, 1942, p.440)

Slave labour was also widely used in sugar mills for the cultivation of unrented land, sugar production and domestic chores.

In the first decades of the colonial period, the sugar mill owners did not have the resources to import African slaves, so the solution found to overcome the shortage of labour was the enslavement of Indians.

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“The percentage of Indian slaves involved in sugar production was decreasing as the mill owners grew richer and could import African slaves, less ‘lazy’ than the Indians.” (GOMES, 2006, p. 58).

Black slaves were therefore gradually introduced into the sugar civilisation, only to become the main available labour force in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Sugar-making process in Hispaniola, 16th century. Girolamo Benzoni, Americae pars quinta nobilis & admiratione . . . (Frankfort, 1595). In one of the earliest representations of sugar-making in the Spanish Caribbean, we see, in addition to all the activities of the sugar mill, still medieval industrial instruments and practices.
Fig 2 – Sugar-making process in Hispaniola, 16th century. Girolamo Benzoni, Americae pars quinta nobilis & admiratione . . . (Frankfort, 1595). In one of the first representations of the sugar industry in the Spanish Caribbean, one can see, in addition to all the activities of the sugar mill, still medieval industrial instruments and practices.

Colonial society in Brazil, especially in Pernambuco and the Recôncavo da Bahia, developed patriarchally and aristocratically in the shadow of the great sugar plantations […] (FREYRE, 2006, p. 79).

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the socio-cultural model of colonial Brazil, which was geared towards sugar production, had as the basic cell of its socio-economic structure the sugar mills, which were not only sugar-producing units, but also cultural ones.

“And it was around and within this colonising unit that the Luso-American social identity was forged; an identity of an original character, based on mutual learning between whites, slaves, masters and captives.” (TEIXERA, n.d.). (TEIXERA, s/d, p. 2).

Moulin à sucre, par Rugendas, 1835. The 19th century sugar mill in Rio de Janeiro is depicted here in full activity. Master and mistress surrounded by slaves and domestic animals supervise the work in a seemingly smaller universe.
Fig. 3 – Moulin à sucre, by Rugendas, 1835. The 19th century sugar mill in Rio de Janeiro is represented here in full activity. Master and mistress surrounded by slaves and domestic animals supervise the work in a seemingly smaller universe

.Whoever has had the opportunity to experience the culture of the Northeast, and especially that of Pernambuco, still observes today the strong presence of values derived from colonial culture, marked by the slave, elitist and patriarchal system.

Sponsorship, colonelism, prejudice against people of colour, female submission, hospitality, the mixture of spices in cooking and religious festivals are some examples of this heritage.

However, in addition to the customs and traditions that are strongly rooted in the local culture, the sugar civilisation left behind material records of exceptional historical, artistic and landscape value in Pernambuco, the sugar mill being the most emblematic example.

The old sugar mills consisted of: the owner’s residence, usually called the big house; a chapel for religious activities; the slaves’ dwelling, called the senzala; and the factory for sugar production, also called the mill and cane fields.

Most of the time, they also had a vegetable garden, orchard, flour house and animal husbandry to ensure the subsistence of their residents.

The sugar mill was, therefore, an agro-industrial unit that, despite having its production geared towards European trade, had a physical structure that minimised the need for exchanges with urban centres, so that its residents were focused on their socio-cultural universe.

The sugar mill, besides being a production unit, was also a structuring element of the landscape and culture of Pernambuco;

The physical structure of the sugar mill […] is composed of distinct elements, which can change according to the region and the social conditions to which it belongs. Juliano CARVALHO (2005) draws attention to the fact that “Such an architectural ensemble reflects, in its complexity, a series of aspects of the society that generated it: social stratification, production relations, technology, the role of religion, constituting a microcosm of its time.”. (FERREIRA, 2010, p.65)

Sugar mill with water wheel contained in a section of the map of Pernambuco painted by Willem J. Blaeu, in 1635
Sugar mill with water wheel contained in a section of the map of Pernambuco painted by Willem J. Blaeu, in 1635

Since the beginning of the sugar agro-industry in Pernambuco, sugar mills have been established primarily in the Zona da Mata region.

The preference for this region for planting sugar cane is due to the following factors: its proximity to the port of Recife; the presence of several watercourses in the region, which make it possible to transport sugar production by rain and to use hydraulic energy to mill the cane; and because it is a region with medium and large trees, which were used as firewood in the mills’ furnaces.

Illustration 05: Factory of a 19th century Pernambuco mill, painted by Henry Koster in 1816. To the right is the water wheel, in the centre the sugar cane mill and to the left the furnaces. One can also observe the presence of black labour in the sugar manufacturing process.
Fig. 5 – Factory of a 19th century Pernambuco sugar mill, painted by Henry Koster in 1816. To the right is the water wheel, in the centre the sugar cane mill and to the left the furnaces. The presence of black labour in the sugar manufacturing process can also be seen.

With the continuous construction of new sugar mills throughout the 16th century, Brazilian sugar production only grew, stimulated by the incentive of the Crown and the popularisation of the product, reaching almost the entire European market.

However, in 1580, with the Spanish domination over the Portuguese crown, there was an increase in the tax rate on Brazilian sugar from 10% to 20%, in order to benefit the commercialisation of sugar produced on the island of Madeira, already exploited by the Spanish for several decades, which did not stop the growth of the sugar agro-industry in Brazil.

Portugal delegated the distribution of Brazilian sugar in the European market to the Dutch, who made large profits from this trade agreement.

In 1605, while still under Spanish rule, Lisbon had its harbour closed to the Dutch, who suffered great commercial losses.

In response, the Dutch merchant company, the West India Company, tried to occupy Bahia and, without success, left for the captaincy of Pernambuco.

In 1630, the Dutch took over the city of Olinda. However, the interior of the captaincy was only conquered little by little, during seven years of battles, resulting in the destruction of mills and sugar cane fields.

In 1637, Count Maurício de Nassau was sent to Pernambuco with the mission of re-establishing sugar production.

To this end, he granted tax favours, forgave debts and imported slaves.

Maurício de Nassau also spent large sums on the construction of the “Mauritius City” (present-day neighbourhoods of Santo Antonio and São José), including exquisite buildings such as bridges, theatres and palaces.

Maurício de Nassau also hired the Dutch painters Frans Post, Albert Eckhout and Zacharis Wagener to record the fauna, flora and architecture of the “exotic” conquered land, and it is thanks to these artists that we have today the graphic record of the Pernambuco landscape of the 17th century.

Based on the paintings of Frans Post, it can be deduced that in the 17th century there was not a very rigid layout in the implantation of the buildings that make up a mill, but some schemes were always repeated: the big house set on a half slope with the façade facing the factory, the factory on a lower level and the chapel on a level equal to or higher than the big house, reinforcing its symbolic importance.

There is no record of slave quarters in these paintings, which raises two possible possibilities: the slaves inhabited the ground floor or the attic of the big house or were allowed to build huts for their dwelling (Gomes, 1994) 

Oil painting by Frans Post on wood, ca. 1668. The painting depicts the layout of the buildings of a sugar mill in Pernambuco. The chapel is at the top of the hill. Next to it, the big house. At the lowest level the grove.
Fig 6 – Painting by Frans Post in oil on wood, ca. 1668. The painting depicts the layout of the buildings of a sugar mill in Pernambuco. The chapel is at the top of the site. Next to it, the big house. At the lowest level the moita.

Despite his many achievements, Maurício de Nassau could only rule Pernambuco for seven years.

Dissatisfied with the delay of a financial return, the West India Company removed Maurício de Nassau from the command of the Capitania of Pernambuco in 1644.

Map of the Captaincy of Pernambuco of 1698 - This magnificent map of the Brazilian province of Pernambuco was one of 23 maps in this rare account of the Luso-Dutch colonial war. Written by João José de Santa Teresa, known among bibliophiles as St Teresa, it is considered one of the most sumptuous 17th-century works on Brazil. St Teresa, a Portuguese Carmelite, spent twelve years in the Jesuit missions of South America and then returned to Europe where he became librarian of the Jesuit college in Rome. His account was heavily subsidised by Pedro II of Portugal, and some of the leading artists and engravers of the period, including Antonio Horacio Andreas, were hired to work on the project. It was published by Giacomo Giovanni Rossi. The map itself is beautifully drawn and offers an excellent view of the region with rivers and streams carefully delineated. The locations of towns, missions and forts, including Olinda, are recorded. Even navigational hazards are shown along the coast. A large wind rose orients the map with north on the right. The map is elaborately adorned with putti supporting the title cartouche, the royal coat of arms and the map key. "Provincia di Pernambuco", Horatius, Andreas Antonius.
Map of the Captaincy of Pernambuco from 1698 – This magnificent map of the Brazilian province of Pernambuco was one of 23 maps in this rare account of the Luso-Dutch colonial war. Written by João José de Santa Teresa, known among bibliophiles as St Teresa, it is considered one of the most sumptuous 17th-century works on Brazil. St Teresa, a Portuguese Carmelite, spent twelve years in the Jesuit missions of South America and then returned to Europe where he became librarian of the Jesuit college in Rome. His account was heavily subsidised by Pedro II of Portugal, and some of the leading artists and engravers of the period, including Antonio Horacio Andreas, were hired to work on the project. It was published by Giacomo Giovanni Rossi. The map itself is beautifully drawn and offers an excellent view of the region with rivers and streams carefully delineated. The locations of towns, missions and forts, including Olinda, are recorded. Even navigational hazards are shown along the coast. A large wind rose orients the map with north on the right. The map is elaborately adorned with putti supporting the title cartouche, the royal coat of arms and the map key. “Provincia di Pernambuco”, Horatius, Andreas Antonius

.”The same year saw the beginning of the “War of Restoration”, whose objective was the definitive expulsion of the Dutch, which only materialised 10 years later, in 1654.” (PIRES, 1994, p. 19).

After so many years of war, sugar production in Pernambuco was jeopardised by the destruction or abandonment of mills and cane fields and the transfer of a large part of the mill owners, together with their slaves and capital, to other more peaceful and secure captaincies, such as Bahia and Rio de Janeiro.

In addition to the damage caused by the Dutch occupation, there were other factors that also contributed negatively to sugar production in the 17th century: shortage of firewood to feed the mill furnaces, competition with sugar production from the Antilles, smallpox outbreak, floods and prolonged droughts.

At the end of the 17th century, the Portuguese crown, now free from Spanish domination, encouraged the development of new economic activities in Brazil that could become more profitable, such as tobacco in Bahia and mining in Minas Gerais.

This resulted in an increase in the cost of sugar production in Pernambuco, as financial resources and black labour were attracted to other regions of the colony.

However, “from 1750 onwards, a succession of events in Europe and Brazil would reverse the chain of crisis, heralding a new and resplendent stage of prosperity for the Brazilian economy”. (PIRES, 1994, p. 22).

England and France went to war and, as a consequence, the commercialisation of Andean sugar, at the time the biggest competitor of Brazilian sugar, was damaged.

In Brazil, the extraction of minerals declined, favouring former miners to invest in agriculture.

In the 19th century, the occupation of Portugal by Napoleon’s troops and the transfer of the Portuguese court to Brazil, leading to the opening of Brazilian ports in 1808, also had a positive influence on the commercialisation of Brazilian sugar.

First steam mill built in Brazil by the Aurora Foundation, by Harrington and Starr, in Recife. It was installed in the Caraúnas mill, in Jaboatão, (PE) (PIRES, 1994, p. 32). Steam machinery of the Vaca Brava mill located in the municipality of Areia, Paraíba. Photo by Anna Cristina A. Ferreira, 15/01/09.

During the 19th century, new large houses were built in the countryside and exquisite townhouses in the cities to provide comfort to the engenho lord and his family.

The latter once again enjoyed the prestige, pomp and power they had enjoyed in the 16th century.

The halls of the big houses were the scene of parties, balls and banquets. This was the golden age of the great and influential rural families of Pernambuco.

The vast majority of the architectural examples that made up the traditional sugar mill, which still exists today, were built precisely in the 19th century, with the revitalisation of the sugar agroindustry.

There is therefore a difference in the occupation pattern of the buildings of the mills depicted by the Dutch in the 17th century from those described by Vauthier. The latter were placed on the land in a more rational and ordered manner.

General plan of a mill in Pernambuco, according to Vauthier. Source PIRES, 1994, p
fig. 9 – General plan of a mill in Pernambuco, according to Vauthier. Source PIRES, 1994, p

The typology of the buildings, their materials and construction techniques differed according to their uses.

The factory was almost always built of brick masonry with a wooden roof and ceramic tiles and its volumetric composition, usually rectangular, was determined by functional issues.

The 19th-century senzala was generally built with materials and construction techniques that were not very durable, such as pau-a-pique and adobe, leading to its rapid deterioration and, consequently, to the scarcity of remaining examples today.

It was always single storey and had an extremely simple floor plan consisting of several windowless cubicles that rarely exceeded 12m², arranged side by side and connected by a door to the only circulation corridor.

The chapel was the most aesthetically pleasing building in the complex, built with noble materials such as brick or stone masonry.

It had a simple floor plan, comprising a central nave, high altar, sacristy and choir on the second floor.

In addition to these four basic elements, the chapel could also have a porch, side aisles, pulpit, balconies and tribunes. Its interior was richly decorated with paintings, gilding, carved wood, sacred images, chandeliers, etc.

“However, this decoration should not be understood as ostentation on the part of the mill owners. It should be remembered that in the countryside, social life was summarised in religious services and religious festivals.” (PIRES, 1994, p. 37).

The casa-grande could be sumptuous, built with noble materials, or modest, using less durable materials, depending on the proximity of the mill to the city. If the mill was close to an urban centre, the casa-grande served only to house the engenho lord during the milling season.

During the rest of the year, he and his family lived in the city. However, when the mill was far from the city, the casagrande took on the air of a palace and was the main or only residence of the mill owner and his family.

According to the architect Geraldo Gomes, the big houses built in the 19th century can be classified into three types: bungalow, neoclassical sobrado and chalet.

The bungalow is a medium-sized one-storey building that may have a semi-underground basement, a hipped roof and its main feature is the U-shaped porch that accompanies three of the building’s façades.

The neoclassical sobrado is a large two-storey building with a rectangular plan and a gabled roof.

The medium-sized chalet resembles the bungalow, except that its roof is gabled with a ridge perpendicular to the main façade and may have some ornamentation in the eclectic style, since it only appeared in rural areas at the end of the 19th century.

During this period, the sugar agro-industry experienced a new decline due to the following factors: competition with beet sugar, which began to be produced in Europe, the start of a new economic cycle focused on coffee production, the abolition of slavery in 1888, the start of industrialisation in the country and the fall in the price of cane sugar on the international market.

In order to modernise sugar production in Pernambuco, the imperial government set up four central mills in the province in 1884.

These were larger than the traditional mills and had modern steam-powered machinery capable of producing crystal sugar.

The central mills had the capacity to produce a larger quantity of sugar at a lower cost, but they did not grow the sugar cane they milled.
milled.

It was still supplied by the banguês (traditional) mills.

From the point of view of the organisation of space and landscape, the Central Mill is the first – and fatal – step in the disruption of the sugar universe.

With the transfer of industrial activity (and of a significant part of the profit) to industry, not only did the mills’ factories lose their raison d’être, but each productive unit was weakened.

If, before, the existence of a micro village for each mill was indispensable, given the large number of tasks to be carried out, now the factories, and with them the potteries, could be dismantled; there would be no more need for skilled labour; the owner needs to stay less time in the countryside, and with him, his family, so that the building of the big house remains more symbolic than useful; and the decrease in population diminishes the sense even of the chapel. (CARVALHO, 2009, p. 37).

A few years after the installation of the central mills, the mills emerged on the initiative of private individuals, who, in addition to concentrating sugar production and using industrial techniques, were also in charge of planting and harvesting sugarcane, thus adding to their domains lands of former mills or, in some cases, converting the mills into mere suppliers of raw materials. The mills have gradually replaced the central mills, which is partly due to the irregularity in the supply of cane for milling.

The mill owners preferred to produce brandy, rapadura or even sugar by the old methods than to supply cane to the central mills.

The First Republic in the Northeast (1889-1930) can be broadly characterised as a period of transition characterised by the progressive replacement of the mills by the processing plants.

In other words, this period saw in the Northeast the progressive decay of the old sugar-cane aristocracy and the birth of new social sectors or groups, based on the development of industrial and financial capital. (PERRUCI, 1978, p. 105).

Oil painting of the Catende Mill, built at the end of the 19th century.
Oil painting of the Catende Mill, built at the end of the 19th century. “It was once the largest sugar mill in Latin America, occupying an area of 70,000 ha. between Pernambuco and Alagoas.”

However, I understand the installation of the central mills and later of the mills as a process of modification of the sugar universe, not its destruction.

Culture is in constant transformation and so is everything that is closely linked to it, so to deny these changes that the cultural landscape undergoes would be to deny its very essence.

However, these changes have led to the abandonment of the buildings of the old mills and cultural practices (such as religious festivals, songs and dances), changes in the parceling of land in rural areas and changes in labour relations in the countryside, which have changed from an informal relationship of renting and housing to a temporary wage labour contract.

This change in labour relations in the countryside, which began in the 1940s, reflects capitalist and industrial principles in rural production, where the worker loses possession of the means of production and is left with only his labour power.

Small farmers and rural labourers are expelled from the countryside and only return during the sugarcane harvest, becoming known as “bóias-frias”.

These changes have repercussions in both rural and urban areas: rural exodus; gaining of areas for sugarcane plantations, previously occupied by houses and gardens; insecurity for rural workers who no longer have a stable employment relationship; emergence of the Landless Movement.

Throughout the twentieth century, the process of expelling small farmers from the countryside and concentrating sugar production in ever larger factories continued at the same rate as sugar production in the Northeast grew.

In 1975, this process was accentuated by the Pró-Álcool or National Alcohol Programme, which was created due to the sharp increase in the price of a barrel of oil in 1973 and in 1979, to stimulate the production and consumption of alcohol as a substitute for petrol.

To this end, the government encouraged the expansion of sugarcane plantation areas, the modernisation and expansion of existing distilleries and the installation of new production and storage units, as well as providing subsidies to mill owners for the production of alcohol instead of sugar.

“The stages in the production of sugar and alcohol differ only from the moment the juice is obtained, which can be fermented for the production of alcohol or treated for sugar.”

Proálcool

It is up to the miller to consider, with each new harvest, which of the two products derived from sugar cane offers the greatest economic advantage, based on their prices in international trade and government incentives.

At the time of the implementation of Pro-Alcohol, the price of sugar was low on the market, thus facilitating the adaptation of the mills to the production of alcohol.

Brazil’s fleet of petrol-powered cars was quickly replaced by alcohol-powered cars; alcohol production in the country peaked at 12.3 billion litres between 1986 and 1987.

However, from 1986 onwards, the price of a barrel of oil fell significantly and remained stable, making alcohol an uneconomic fuel for both consumers and producers.
for both the consumer and the producer.

In addition to this factor, in the same period the price of sugar rose considerably on the international market, causing mill owners to prioritise sugar production.

Another factor that strongly contributed to the weakening of Pro-Alcohol was the supply crisis that the country went through in the 1989-90 off-season, discrediting the programme in the eyes of car manufacturers and consumers.

Although short-lived, the crisis, together with the reduction in government incentives for the use of ethanol, led to a significant decrease in demand and, consequently, in sales of ethanol-powered cars in the following years, to the point where automakers no longer sold new models powered by ethanol.
automakers no longer sell new alcohol-powered models.

However, nowadays, alcohol production has gained momentum thanks to the technology of flex fuel engines, which run on alcohol or petrol, or any mixture of the two fuels.

This technology was developed in the United States and introduced in Brazil in 2003, with rapid acceptance in the market.

Today almost all car models are offered by automakers with flex fuel technology.

Unlike 35 years ago, when the Pro-Alcohol programme was launched, it is the private sector that is currently investing in the construction of new mills and increasing the area of sugarcane plantations, based on the growing demand from the consumer market and encouraging estimates that point to an additional demand of 10 billion litres of alcohol in 2010, in addition to 7 million tonnes of sugar (according to a study by Única).

“The prospects for increased consumption of alcohol add up to a favourable moment for increased sugar exports, and the result is the beginning of an unprecedented wave of growth for the sugar and alcohol sector.” (PRÓÁLCOOL).

Eight decades after the establishment of sugar mills in Pernambuco, the profile of its sugar agroindustry has changed considerably.

The modernisation of sugar production in the state has allowed the maintenance of this economic activity, but has significantly contributed to the degradation of its material heritage linked to the civilisation of sugar.

Only a few of the sugar mills in Bangkok are still standing. Most of them were demolished by the sugar mills to increase the area of sugarcane plantations or were simply abandoned, deteriorating over time until they reached the condition of ruin.

The change in socio-economic structure transformed the mills into farms: from sugar producers they became cane suppliers to the mills.

With the consequent disappearance of the figure of the “lord of the mill” and the appearance of the administrator, changes were introduced in the buildings of the mills.

The change of use inevitably led to other changes. The engenho is no longer an agro-industrial centre and the loss of the importance that this condition gave it contributed decisively to its abandonment by the former owners.

The big house is uninhabited or, in some cases, occupied by residents who contribute to its de-characterisation.

For the same reasons, the chapel, when it exists, no longer functions as a religious temple and the “moita” […] has become a stable or storage area.

Rarely are the large houses still well preserved. Very few moitas still retain their typical machinery. In parallel with the change of use, lack of interest, partly the result of misinformation about the value of these historic sites, and the financial difficulties of the current owners are responsible for the decaying appearance of most of the mills.

Not to mention the large number that have been absorbed by the mills, transformed into brandy distilleries or divided into small properties and/or simply no longer exist. (PERNAMBUCO, 1982, p.10).

History of the sugar mills of Pernambuco – Beginning and End

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