Monoculture, Slave Labour and Latifundia in Colonial Brazil

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Monoculture, Slave Labour and Latifundia in Colonial Brazil

1 Introduction

In this chapter we will study the historical process of the introduction of the Portuguese civilisation project for the settlement and colonisation of Brazil.

Colonial Brazil, in Brazilian history, is the period from 1530 to 1822. This period began when the Portuguese government sent the first colonising expedition to Brazil led by Martim Afonso de Souza.

This project was based on the tripod: latifundia, slave labour and monoculture.

We know that in the first century of colonisation no precious metals were found that could give economic meaning to colonisation. It was therefore necessary to lay the foundations for the introduction of an economic activity in Brazil that would make a profit.

This economic activity was the cultivation of sugar cane and the consequent production in the sugar mills of sugar, which at the time had a high resale value in Europe.

It was on the basis of large-scale farming that the Portuguese began to administer their American colony.

The use of slave labour was to predominate in this activity. At first, indigenous labour was used and then, with the process of capitalisation of the plantation owners, African labour was introduced.

2. The Portuguese Civilising Project in Brazil

As we said in the previous paragraphs, the Portuguese civilising project for Brazil was based on the tripod: latifundia, slave labour and monoculture.

Initially, the agricultural crop chosen was sugar cane, but as the colony developed, other monocultures were introduced, such as cotton, coffee and others.

In this sense, the entire colony was organised around this civilising project. This choice would definitely contribute to defining the social, cultural and economic characteristics of the country that was being formed.

According to Tamás Szmrecsányi:

Large landholdings, export monoculture and slave labour were the three fundamental components of Colonial Brazil’s social organisation.

They combined into a typical system of exploitation of labour and nature, on which all the economic activities of colonial society ended up being based – from farming to mining, including the rare urban and mercantile activities.

Different patterns could only be found in marginal and subsidiary activities – such as extensive cattle-raising in the hinterlands or small subsistence crops – activities that in no way affected the dominant attributes of the colonial economy (1998, p. 12).

In order to do this, Portugal had to organise a civilisation project in Brazil that could handle the settlement and colonisation of Portuguese lands in South America, especially in the Brazilian Northeast.

According to Gilberto Freyre:

When Brazilian society was organised economically and civilly in 1532, it was already after a whole century of contact between the Portuguese and the tropics; after their aptitude for tropical life had been demonstrated in India and Africa.

In São Vicente and Pernambuco, the course of Portuguese colonisation changed from the easy, mercantile to the agricultural; colonial society was organised on a more solid basis and in more stable conditions than in India or the African trading posts.

The base, agriculture; the conditions, the patriarchal stability of the family, the regularity of labour through slavery, the union of the Portuguese man with the Indian woman, thus incorporated into the economic and social culture of the invader (2003, p. 65).

Still according to Freyre:

A society was formed in tropical America that was agrarian in structure, slave-like in the technique of economic exploitation, hybridised with Indians – and later blacks – in composition.

A society that would develop defended less by race consciousness, almost none of which existed in cosmopolitan and plastic Portuguese, than by religious exclusivism unfolded in a system of social and political prophylaxis. Less by official action than by private arm and sword.

But all of this was subordinated to the political spirit and economic and legal realism that here, as in Portugal, had been a decisive element of national formation since the first century; and in our case through the large landowning and autonomous families: plantation owners with an altar and chaplain inside their homes and Indians with bows and arrows or blacks armed with arquebuses at their command […] (2003, p. 65).

Thus, based on the Portuguese decision and, above all, predisposition to transform Brazil into an agricultural colony, a number of mills began to appear in the Northeast and Southeast 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

With the intention of intensifying sugar production in Brazil, Portugal created a series of incentives for this activity to prosper.

According to Celso Furtado (1989, p. 41), the sugar industry would be implemented with great difficulty because:

The rapid development of the sugar industry, despite the enormous difficulties arising from the physical environment, the hostility of the forest dweller and the cost of transport, clearly indicates that the efforts of the Portuguese government will be concentrated in this sector.

The privilege granted to the grantee to manufacture mills and water mills alone shows that the sugar plantation was the one to be introduced.

Subsequently, special favours were granted to those who set up sugar mills: tax exemptions, guarantees against the seizure of production tools, honours and titles, etc. The greatest possibilities found in the initial stage came from the scarcity of labour.

The use of indigenous slaves, on which all the initial plans were apparently based, turned out to be unfeasible on the scale required by the large-scale agricultural enterprises that were the sugar mills.

In addition, this activity had to be linked to slave labour, as the Portuguese settler was not very inclined to manual labour.

Thus, slaves became an extremely important part of sugar production.

The Jesuit priest Antonil states that slaves, of both indigenous and African origin, “were the arms and legs of the plantation owners”.


However, according to Eduardo Bueno (2003, p. 118-119) they were much more than that:

Slaves were planters and cane grinders, forest fellers and seedling sowers; they were cowboys, rowers, fishermen, miners and farmers; they were craftsmen, boilermakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, masons and potters; they were domestics and pageboys, bodyguards, henchmen and bush captains; overseers, foremen and even executioners of other blacks.

Slaves were everywhere: in the cities, on the farms, in the villages, in the woods, in the slave quarters, in the harbours, in the markets and in the palaces.

Família de Fazendeiros” ilustração de Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1822
Família de Fazendeiros” ilustração de Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1822

They carried trunks, boxes, baskets, crates, firewood, sugar cane, delicacies, gold and stones, earth and rubbish. They also carried chairs, hammocks and litters where, sitting or lying down, their masters strolled (or even travelled).

But in Brazil, slaves were even more than that: they were the eyes and arms of the mine owners; they were the shepherds of the flocks and the beasts of burden; they were the shoulders, backs and legs that made the Colony and, later, the Empire move. They were the womb that generated an immense mestizo population and the breast that suckled the children of the masters.

They left a profound legacy: in 500 years of history, Brazil has had three and a half centuries of slavery, compared to just one century of free labour.

Analysing Bueno’s words, we can get a deeper idea of the importance of slaves in colonial society.

The most interesting thing is that colonial society increasingly became a hybrid society, in which whites, blacks and Indians formed a true cultural melting pot that contributed to the ethnic formation of Brazil. This subject will be looked at more closely in the next topic.

Dança do Batuque - Rugendas, Johann Moritz
Batuque Dance – Rugendas, Johann Moritz

On the subject of slavery and its relationship with sugar cane monoculture, it is prudent to quote Celso Furtado (1989, p. 42), as he makes us reflect on the production relationship, the success of the colony and slave labour.

From the outset, slavery proved to be a condition of survival for the European settler in the new land. As a chronicler of the time remarks, without slaves the settlers “cannot sustain themselves on the land”.

In fact, in order to survive without slave labour, the settlers had to organise themselves into communities dedicated to producing for their own consumption, which would only have been possible if immigration had been organised on a completely different basis.

Those groups of settlers who, due to a shortage of capital or the choice of an unsuitable geographical base, found it more difficult to consolidate themselves economically, had to make every effort to capture the men of the land.

The capture and trade of indigenous people thus came to constitute the first stable economic activity of population groups not dedicated to the sugar industry.

It was this indigenous labour force, considered second class, that made it possible to sustain the population groups located in those parts of the country that had not become sugar producers.

As Celso Furtado tells us, we must be clear that the cultivation of sugar cane initially led to the creation of a parallel economic activity.

This activity was related to Indian hunting, with the Captaincy of São Vicente being its greatest exponent. This captaincy prospered as a result of the trade in Indians, who were considered second-class labour. However, in the beginning, the plantation owners didn’t have the resources to buy slaves brought from Africa.

The fact that the Vincentians enslaved indigenous people led to conflicts with the Jesuit priests, who had sought to protect the natives since their arrival in Brazil.

With the success of the sugar industry, large “shipments” of slaves were unloaded at the main ports in the north-east. The African slave was more expensive than the indigenous slave, but he was more productive and also more resistant to the harsh trials of slavery.

In order to better understand the issue of slave labour in the colony, we will introduce a fragment from the book “O que se deve ler para conhecer o Brasil”, by historian Nelson Werneck Sodré (1976, p. 74-75-78).

Navio Negreiro - Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1830
Navio Negreiro – Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1830
Black Trafficking and Slave Labour 

The appearance of slave labour at the beginning of the Modern Age has not been appreciated in its proper terms, with an analysis of the reasons that required the re-establishment of a form of human exploitation that seemed relegated to the past.

Efforts to recognise this emergence as an exact reproduction of what had taken place in antiquity have been fruitless and have led to erroneous conclusions.

Overseas expansion and the discovery of new lands, opening up broad prospects for trade, brought the slave trade to the fore, making it one of the most important commodities of the time.

There were few European areas, however, where slave labour had succeeded in establishing itself, particularly that which was fed by supplies from distant lands. The struggles against the Arabs made the Iberian peninsula, and particularly Portugal, one of these areas.

However, it was the colonisation of overseas possessions that gave the trade the extraordinary boost that turned it into a leading commercial activity.

Colonisation, appearing suddenly in the context of overseas expansion, showed the impossibility of the dominant structure in the metropolises tackling the problem of production where it was not a pre-existing activity.

Wherever it became necessary to build a production structure from the ground up, wherever it became indispensable to colonise, slavery appeared as an important factor and fuelled the impetus for the slave trade.

The slave trade is a very different problem in the context of the Commercial Revolution from what it was in other times, when slave labour existed and even characterised an era of economic development.

In ancient times, this form of exploitation of man’s physical effort was the generalised regime, a stage in historical development.

This would not be the case in the Modern Age.

On the contrary, the driving forces behind economic development were interested in eliminating the residual forms of slave labour that still existed.

Overseas expansion and colonisation forced them to compromise with their reconstitution, now on other terms, accepting slave labour as peculiar to colonial areas, destined to make them subsidiary components of the great transformation that was taking place in the economy of the West.

Accepting this, they took the slave trade to organisational extremes, making it one of the factors in the developing accumulation.

In order to fully understand the problem of the slave trade and the problem of slave labour in colonial areas, it is therefore essential to distinguish what was different about it from ancient slavery and its ruin with the advent of settlement, from which medieval serfdom emerged in the historical process.

Without distinguishing between these forms of labour exploitation in their historical context, any examination of the slave trade and the colonial slave regime is distorted and leads to false conclusions.

It is important, then, to distinguish, in the activity of trafficking, with the import of arms to which it corresponded, what was Portuguese from what was not, that is, in what way and to what extent trafficking had an influence on the accumulation of metropolitan wealth, and in what way and to what extent it led to an evasion of wealth.

Slaves were the highest-priced commodity introduced into the colonial areas dominated by the Lisbon court.

As time went by, however, Portuguese capital was reduced, with the English dominating supplies.

In the final phase, as it neared its total disappearance as a trading activity, Brazilian capital was invested in the trade. The role and importance of the slave regime in the colony must then be appreciated, since it was the basis for the production structure that arose from the need to colonise.

Having been a basic part of this production structure, the slave regime conditioned its manifestations and it was only to the extent that the field of free labour gradually expanded that other forms of production emerged and developed.

According to Nelson Werneck Sodré’s text on the “Slave Trade and Slave Labour”, the slave was the master’s most valuable asset.

The wealth of a plantation owner was not measured by the amount of land he owned, but by the number of slaves.

Despite being the master’s most valuable asset, the slave was treated very badly.

Just look at the picture below of how black slaves were transported from Africa to their final destination: Brazil.

Planta de um Navio negreiro com capacidade para 400 escravos.
Planta de um Navio negreiro com capacidade para 400 escravos.

According to Nelson Werneck Sodré (1976, p. 69):

Land ownership was not difficult to conquer, accept that inevitable discrimination.

The land was donated, in other words, free of charge. But the seeds weren’t free, the mills weren’t free, the animals weren’t free.

From the earliest times, there was a fundamental difference between the sesmeiro who was just a planter and the sesmeiro who, as well as being a planter, was also a mill owner.

History and chronicles only recognise the latter as a type, but the former did exist. What were the reasons for their disappearance?

How was it eliminated?

As the plantations developed, and with them the mills, the mills were more numerous than the planters, i.e. there were a large number of planters, but a small number of mill owners.

Necessity forced those who were only planters to take their crops to the mill owner, who bought them at his convenience. With the passage of time, there is no longer a place for planters.

This means that, little by little, the planters were replaced by the mill owners, who practically monopolised sugar production.

This replacement, through the monopoly of the plantation lord, would make it difficult to establish a middle class in the 16th and 17th centuries, as the free settlers found themselves exploited by the great lords, which made their agricultural production unfeasible.

It is believed that the implementation of this elitist, purely mercantilist system was responsible for the emergence of the embryo of a scenario that would only serve the economic aspirations of the metropolis, ignoring the initiatives of the small settlers established in the newly formed colony.

The refusal to encourage the emergence of a colonisation process that had the intention of populating and at the same time providing conditions for the development of settlers of humble origin eventually ceased to prevail, indicating Portugal’s intention to privilege the power of the great lords.

The occupation of the land took place using instruments that made commercial colonisation possible.

Thus, from 1534 onwards, the hereditary captaincies and sesmarias multiplied. Posseiros and aggregates from Portugal were among the Crown’s top officials.

However, the model of large, monocultural, slave-owning property that Portugal set up ended up enshrining the power of the plantation owners, making life difficult for the small and medium-sized landowners.

Those who couldn’t even afford to rent land gravitated towards the mills that were formed from the beginning of colonisation, as specialised sugar workers or service providers.

The need to control production through the sugar mill greatly complicated the existence of smallholdings, which were disconnected from the production process and not destined for commercial purposes.

Despite this, little by little a significant number of free men became smallholders, in addition to the traditional slave masters, fighting against the soil and diversifying.

Traditional farming was regulated by the four seasons of the year (PRIORE; VENÂNCIO, 2006, p. 31).

The possibility of growing economically would only manifest itself again for small producers through the establishment of livestock farming in the north-east of Brazil.

Cattle breeding would enable the emergence of a new social class based on free labour.

3. The structure of the colonial economy was based on a tripod:

  • latifundia
  • slave labour
  • monoculture

These three elements provided the initial foundations of the colony. Without them, the colonisation process would certainly not have been successful.

In the next chapter we will study the structure of the colonial sugar mill, emphasising that this structure allowed for the coexistence of at least three different races – the European, the African and the Indian – who, through their process of miscegenation, would give rise to the Brazilian people.

4. Slavery in Brazil

The first African slaves arrived in Brazil in the middle of the 16th century.

The blacks brought from Africa were destined for jobs such as sugar agro-manufacturing in the north-east and the extraction of precious metals in Minas Gerais.

The total liberation of the slaves only took place in 1888, with the enactment of the Golden Law;

5. In this chapter you studied about:

  • The idealisation of the Portuguese civilisation project to colonise Brazil.
  • The institution of sugar cane monoculture, slave labour and latifundia as the foundation for the process of settlement and colonisation of Brazil.

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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