Brazil - The Sugar Cycle, 1540-1640
The Sugar Cycle, 1540-1640
By the mid-sixteenth century, Portugal had succeeded in establishing
a sugar economy in parts of the colony's northeastern
coast. Sugar production, the first large-scale colonial agricultural
enterprise, was made possible by a series of favorable conditions.
Portugal had the agricultural and manufacturing know-how from its
Atlantic islands and manufactured its own equipment for extracting
sugar from sugarcane. Furthermore, being involved in the African
slave trade, it had access to the necessary manpower. Finally, Portugal
relied on the commercial skills of the Dutch and financing from
Holland to enable a rapid penetration of sugar in Europe's markets.
Until the early seventeenth century, the Portuguese and the Dutch
held a virtual monopoly on sugar exports to Europe. However, between
1580 and 1640 Portugal was incorporated into Spain, a country at
war with Holland. The Dutch occupied Brazil's sugar area in the
Northeast from 1630 to 1654, establishing direct control of the
world's sugar supply. When the Dutch were driven out in 1654, they
had acquired the technical and organizational know-how for sugar
production. Their involvement in the expansion of sugar in the Caribbean
contributed to the downfall of the Portuguese monopoly.
The Caribbean sugar boom brought about a steady decline in world
sugar prices. Unable to compete, Brazilian sugar exports, which
had peaked by the mid-seventeenth century, declined sharply. Between
the fourth quarter of the seventeenth century and the early eighteenth
century, Portugal had difficulties in maintaining its American colony.
The downfall of sugar revealed a fragile colonial economy, which
had no commodity to replace sugar. Paradoxically, however, the period
of stagnation induced the settlement of substantial portions of
the colony's territory. With the decline of sugar, the cattle sector,
which had evolved to supply the sugar economy with animals for transport,
meat, and hides, assimilated part of the resources made idle, becoming
a subsistence economy. Because of extensive cattle production methods,
large areas in the colony's interior were settled.
Realizing that it could maintain Brazil only if precious minerals
were discovered, Portugal increased its exploratory efforts in the
late seventeenth century. As a result, early in the eighteenth century
gold and other precious minerals were found. The largest concentration
of this gold was in the Southeastern Highlands, mainly in what is
Data as of April 1997