What is Oleo Saccharum and How Do You Use It? on Bevvy
My Entry in the Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails

Sugar in Brazil in the 1700s

For the Alcademics Book Club, we're reading Sweetness and Power, about sugar. Every time I read about the history of sugar, particularly the heyday of slavery-powered production in the 1700s in the Caribbean, I'm always like, "What happened to Portugal-controlled Brazilian sugar?" 

Screen Shot 2022-01-13 at 11.57.19 AMThe Portuguese were early leaders in sugarcane production but then fell off the radar; we mostly hear about Caribbean plantations in the 1700s run by the Spanish then the English and French. Sugar was still produced in Brazil but it wasn't a global economic force. But today, most sugar again comes from Brazil. So what gives? 

I still don't really know how to sum it up (I'd love it if someone was just like "bad management by a newly-poor country" which may be the case), but I pulled some content from the Wikipedia entries on the histories of Portugal and Brazil.

From the Brazilian Side:

  • Starting in the sixteenth century, sugarcane grown on plantations called engenhos[Note 1] along the northeast coast (Brazil's Nordeste) became the base of Brazilian economy and society, with the use of slaves on large plantations to produce sugar for Europe. At first, settlers tried to enslave the natives as labor to work the fields. Portugal had pioneered the plantation system in the Atlantic islands of Madeira and São Tomé, with forced labor, high capital inputs of machinery, slaves, and work animals. The extensive cultivation of sugar was for an export market, necessitating land that could be acquired with relatively little conflict from existing occupants. By 1570, Brazil's sugar output rivaled that of the Atlantic islands.
  • In the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch seized productive areas of northeast Brazil, from 1630–1654, and took over the plantations. When the Dutch were expelled from Brazil, following a strong push by Portuguese-Brazilians and their indigenous and Afro-Brazilian allies, the Dutch as well as the English and French set up sugar production on the plantation model of Brazil in the Caribbean.
  • Increased production and competition meant that the price of sugar dropped, and Brazil's market share dropped. Brazil's recovery from the Dutch incursion was slow since warfare had taken its toll on sugar plantations.
  • The discovery of gold in the early eighteenth century was met with great enthusiasm by Portugal, which had an economy in disarray following years of wars against Spain and the Netherlands.[20][21] A gold rush quickly ensued, with people from other parts of the colony and Portugal flooding the region in the first half of the eighteenth century. The large portion of the Brazilian inland where gold was extracted became known as the Minas Gerais (General Mines). Gold mining in this area became the main economic activity of colonial Brazil during the eighteenth century.
  • Minas Gerais was the gold mining center of Brazil, during the 18th century. Slave labor was generally used for the workforce.[22] The discovery of gold in the area caused a huge influx of European immigrants and the government decided to bring in bureaucrats from Portugal to control operations.[23] They set up numerous bureaucracies, often with conflicting duties and jurisdictions. The officials generally proved unequal to the task of controlling this highly lucrative industry.[24]
  • Nominally, the Portuguese controlled the trade to Brazil, banning the establishment productive capacity for goods produced in Portugal.

From the Portuguese side:

  • Eef19011ed0e72a38c9724ba8de11a38After the 16th century, Portugal gradually saw its wealth and influence decrease. Portugal was officially an autonomous state, but in actuality, the country was in a personal union with the Spanish crown from 1580 to 1640.
  • From 1595 to 1663, the Dutch–Portuguese War led to invasions of many countries in Asia and competition for commercial interests in Japan, Africa and South America. In 1624, the Dutch seized Salvador, the capital of Brazil;[61] in 1630, they seized Pernambuco in northern Brazil.[61]
  • In the 17th century, many Portuguese emigrated to Brazil. From 1709, John V prohibited emigration, since Portugal had lost a sizable proportion of its population.
  • From the restoration of the House of Braganza in 1640 until the end of the reign of the Marquis of Pombal in 1777, the Kingdom of Portugal was in a period of transition. Having been near its height at the start of the Iberian Union, the Portuguese Empire continued to enjoy the widespread influence in the world during this period that had characterized the period of the Discoveries. By the end of this period, however, the fortunes of Portugal and its empire had declined, culminating with the Távora affair, the catastrophic 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and the accession of Maria I, the first ruling Queen of Portugal.
  • The opulent use of Brazilian gold, the absolutist regime, the movement toward the independence of Brazil, the Methuen Treaty and the Lisbon earthquake contributed to the collapse of Portugal's position in Europe and the world. These events, those at the end of Aviz dynasty, and the period of Iberian Union forced Portugal to depend more on its colonies, first India and then Brazil. This shift from India to Brazil was a natural consequence of the rise of the Dutch as well as the British Empire. A similar shift occurred after Brazil gained its independence, which led Portugal to focus more on its possessions in Africa.


So it seems like:

  • Portuguese war with the Dutch impoverished Portugal
  • Challenges controlling/enslaving indigenous populations in Brazil (some good info on slave revolts in Wiki entry)
  • Change of focus to gold mining after sugar prices dropped 
  • Different systems of plantation management and government that seemed to treat Brazil not only as an export country (only extracting resources never contributing to it) like other Caribbean colonies; perhaps because indigenous Brazilians were not as completely wiped out as in other countries? 
  • With greater success of British/French production, those countries sold to their own home and global markets, so the Portuguese didn't have as many people to sell to? 

I don't think that's really the whole story but it gets me closer to what I want to know. 




Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Grant McHerron

The history of Portugal, France, Spain and England is fascinating, especially when it gets into South America, the Carribean and such. Thanks for sharing this info :)

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)