Brazil was the last independent country of the Americas to abolish slavery. But far in advance of the final abolition of 1888 came the banning of the Atlantic slave trade, as well as various gradualist measures to reduce internal slavery, particularly the 1871 Law of Free Birth. Thus for half a century Brazilian slave owners had been forewarned that the institution would not endure indefinitely. It is understandable that neither slave owners nor government could face abolition with equanimity. Slavery had existed since the beginning of colonization; slaves represented wealth and property, and they were the labor force of the coffee and sugar plantations which were the mainstay of the country’s economy. Many feared that chaos and impoverishment would follow abolition, and certainly the history of abolition in the West Indies did nothing to allay this fear. The sugar planters of the Northeast, some of them among Brazil’s greatest slave owners, formed an important interest group in the national debate on abolition.

The politics of the abolition campaign have been examined by several scholars.1 In this paper I will leave politics to one side and examine instead certain aspects of slavery on the sugar plantations of the Northeast during the second half of the nineteenth century. In so doing I hope to provide some insights into Northeastern society and some understanding of why this society clung to slavery for so long. What in fact was the size of the slave population of the Northeast, and how effective were the various ameliorative laws passed between the 1850s and 1888 in reducing it? what was the importance of slave labor to the sugar plantations, and how important were slaves as a form of wealth? Given the fact that the planters were aware for decades that a time limit had been placed on the continued existence of slavery, what provisions were made for abolition, and finally, what were its consequences for the plantations? The paper will demonstrate that as far as the labor force of the plantations is concerned, the abolition of slavery was merely the end of a long process of transition from slave to free labor; that though only a very small portion of the population of the Northeast had any important financial stake in slavery, abolition affected several classes in society adversely; and that in fact both the reason for the long retention of slavery and the most important consequences of abolition were sociological rather than economic.2

It is difficult to establish with certainty the size of the slave population of the Northeast at mid-century.3 The sources are few, unreliable and often conflicting. The weight of evidence, however, does indicate a slave population of the order of 350,000, the greatest in the history of the Northeast.4 This same number of slaves was reported in the census of 1872.5 Indeed, for a thirty-year period the slave population appears to have remained relatively stable at about the 350,000 mark, for it was not until the 1880s, as indicated in the records of Alagôas, Bahia and Pernambuco, that there was a rapid falling off in the number of slaves.6

The persistence of a stable slave population for so long after the end of the slave trade suggests that the measures taken to mitigate slavery before the actual act of abolition led to only a marginal reduction in the slave population. Few slaves took the opportunity of service in Paraguay to obtain their freedom; Haring puts the number for the entire country at 6,000.7 In the case of the Law of Free Birth (1871) most owners elected to employ the children of their slaves, now known as ingênuos until age 21, rather than to relinquish them earlier in return for financial compensation.8 This law, therefore, though in the long run it meant the end of slavery, did not immediately deprive owners of labor. Neither was the Sexagenarian Law (1885) a significant freer of men. In Bahia only 1,001 slaves had obtained their liberty under this law by 1887.9 The Emancipation Fund established in 1871 was also disappointing in the number of slaves it freed. The sums available to the Fund were simply inadequate to the task which it had been set. Fund money was distributed to the provinces for buying the freedom of slaves on seven different occasions between 1876 and 1886. In Bahia, these seven distributions managed to purchase the freedom of only 3,533 slaves.10 Pernambuco received only enough money in the final distribution to buy the freedom of 150 slaves at the most. The sums from the Fund were divided up among the municípios of the province on the basis of the slave population. Some interior districts with small numbers of slaves received so little money as to make it difficult to buy the freedom of even one slave.11 The Emancipation Fund was little more than a gesture.

The traditional ways that slaves could obtain their freedom—manumission, flight and purchase—persisted until abolition, but it is impossible to estimate the numbers involved. Lack of opportunity to earn cash wages probably deterred plantation slaves from buying their release. There are, however, indications that manumission became increasingly common during the last two decades of slavery, and the drop in the slave population in the 1880s can probably be attributed principally to manumissions and flight.

Disease has always taken a heavy toll of human life in northeastern Brazil, and an occasional epidemic could greatly reduce the labor force of the plantations. An outbreak of cholera occurred during the mid-1850s. Reports of heavy losses of slaves were widespread.12 Actual figures are difficult to obtain, but in Alagôas about 4,000 slaves, one tenth of the slave population of the Province, are reported to have died between 1855 and 1857.13

Sale of slaves to southern Brazil was a major cause of loss to the Northeast. Even before the end of the Atlantic slave trade, the wealthy coffee planters of the Paraíba Valley had begun to buy slaves in the Northeast and an intensive inter-provincial slave trade developed.14 By the 1850s the trade was already well organized, with agents traveling through the Northeast touting for slaves to buy. The sellers were usually small proprietors forced to realize capital to cover debts. There were also instances of persons raising capital by this means in order to pay for improvements on their property. In Bahia in the 1850s some proprietors sold land and slaves and moved into the interior of the province to seek their fortune in the diamond fields of Jacobina.15 The loss of slaves to the south caused great concern and resentment in the Northeast. In 1857, the council of the município of Inhambupe complained bitterly about the activities of southern agents. The council requested the provincial president to approve a municipal by-law imposing a duty on each slave sold out of the district.18 By the 1860s the northern provinces had imposed export duties on slaves.17

Despite everything, the movement of slaves south remained appreciable. The legal traffic went by sea, the slaves with passports and duty paid; the illegal traffic, evading the duty, went overland to Minas Gerais. There are figures on the extent of the legal traffic. Between 1852 and 1862, 34,688 slaves arrived by sea at Rio de Janeiro from the provinces of the Northeast,18 marginally more than an average of 3,000 a year or an annual loss to the Northeast of about one per cent of its slave population. The traffic was still continuing in the late 1870s, with Pernambuco and Bahia each still losing more than 1,000 slaves a year to the south,18 or still about one per cent of the total slave population of the Northeast, if some allowance is made for the export of slaves from the other provinces. The Northeast was a significant reservoir of manpower for the south: given a rate of traffic of an average of 3,000 slaves a year between 1850 and 1880, then the Northeast provided 90,000 slaves for the South.20

The prices as well as the numbers of slaves in the Northeast held up well between mid-century and the 1880s, despite the frequent indications that abolition was likely to occur in the foreseeable future. Following the end of the Atlantic slave trade there was in fact a rise in the price of slaves.21 Prices did decline by about 25 per cent in 1871 following the passing of the Law of Free Birth, but this decline was short lived.22 Certainly the demand for slaves in the south must have served to bolster the price of slaves in the Northeast.23 Only in the last three or four years of slavery are there reports of a rapid drop in the prices of slaves.24 The Northeast clung tenaciously to slavery, and this is not surprising, given the financial investment which slavery represented for many individuals, its importance in the labor force of the major industry of the region, the long period of time the institution had existed, and its role in the development of Northeastern society.

Not all of the 350,000 slaves of the Northeast worked on the sugar plantations. There were some slaves employed in the cultivation of cotton others—a good many probably—lived in the towns, especially in Salvador and Recife, as servants or craftsmen. Some were too old, too young or too ill to work. But the sugar plantations were the major employers of slave labor. As sugar was the most important crop of the Northeast and the welfare of the plantations was vital to the regional economy, the contemporary concern about the plantation labor force can be appreciated. The sugar plantations were concentrated in a narrow strip of land known as the zona da mata or forest zone which extends along the coast from Rio Grande in the north to Bahia. The zona da mata, in contrast to the remainder of the Northeast has a humid tropical climate which is well suited to sugar cultivation. Proximity to the coast meant minimum expense and difficulty in carrying sugar, a bulky and heavy commodity, from plantation to port of export. There were in the 1850s and ’60s between three and four thousand plantations or engenhos in the zona da mata. Rather more than a third of these were in Bahia, about a third in Pernambuco, and the remainder divided between Sergipe, Alagôas, Paraíba and (with a very few only) Rio Grande do Norte.25

“Engenho” means literally mill, but in Brazil the meaning of the word has been broadened to include the entire complex of mill, factory houses and land which go to make up a sugar plantation, the owner of which was known as a senhor de engenho. The actual area of land planted to sugar usually comprised only a part of a senhor de engenho’s estate, the remainder, and in many cases the larger part of which was in pasture or forest and in abandoned fields, their soil exhausted by several crops of cane and on which the forest was allowed to regenerate. The area in cane on a plantation was determined by the capacity of the mill-there being little point in cultivating cane which could not be crushed—and by the size of the labor force.

A senhor de engenho could increase his acreage of cane by building a second mill some distance from the old and so gradually establishing another plantation around the new mill, or he could lease land to men who would provide labor on condition that they cultivated cane. These tenants were known as lavradores. They commonly owned several slaves, and many were scions of landowning families. Some lavradores were in fact share-croppers, sending their cane to be crashed in their landlords’ mills and paying a share of the crop in rent; others had the use of the land rent-free for eight to twelve years, but undertook to clear land, plant cane, erect a mill, factory and house, in fact to create a new plantation which, on the expiry of the lease, became the property of the landlord. Also known as lavradores were men who were not tenants but, nevertheless, were dependent on the plantations. They owned some land and a few slaves but did not own sugar mills. Their cane had to be crashed and made into sugar on neighbouring plantations, and they had to pay the senhores a portion of the crop. The plantations also had a second class of tenant, the moradores. These were poor men and though legally free, they were really retainers of the planters. They performed errands and small duties for the planters, they often lived at remote points on the estates to keep an eye on the planters’ property and in return they were allowed to build a cabin and to cultivate a small patch of provision crops. They formed a numerous class: at the end of the eighteenth century most of the rural free were moradores,26 The sugar plantations contained a hierarchy of social classes from the senhor to the morador and slave. The plantations of the zona da mata at mid-nineteenth century varied greatly in size, as revealed by the labor force. Some plantations employed over 200 slaves, others fewer than 10. They also varied in their dependence on slave labor.

The Recôncavo, or district around the city of Salvador, and the municípios along the coast to the south of Recife, contained the greatest extent of fertile soil in the zona da mata, and were the major centers of sugar production. Besides the advantages of climate and fertile soils, these districts also enjoyed good transport connections by sea and river with the ports of export, Salvador and Recife. Indeed, proximity to these districts in part accounts for the rise to commercial prominence of the two cities. These districts were early colonized, the landowning families by mid-nineteenth century were long established, their plantations were generally large and almost entirely worked by slave labor. Gangs of up to 150 slaves were reported in southern Pernambuco while in the Recôncavo some plantations had as many as 200 slaves.27 In one parish of the Recôncavo, São Pedro do Rio Fundo in the município of Santo Amaro, the number of slaves on the 26 plantations for which information is given (see Table 1) ranged from 19 to 160, with 80 as the average.28 The average number of slaves on plantations in southern Pernambuco was probably near this figure. In these two districts employment of free men in the cultivation and manufacture of sugar was limited to a very few overseers and skilled workers who received a salary.

Elsewhere in the zona da mata plantations were generally smaller, with fewer workers, and free men formed a significant part of the labor force. Many of these plantations had been established only recently, and even at mid-century plantations were still being founded in Pernambuco and other provinces.29 These plantations were being built at a time when slaves were expensive and increasingly difficult to obtain; understandably, therefore, planters had turned to the employment of free laborers. In Paraíba, in 1860, the 37 engenhos in the município of Mamanguape employed a total work force of 900, of whom 400 were slave and 500 free, or an average of 11 slaves and 14 free men per plantation. Some daily workers were employed during the harvest. In Pedras do Fogo there was an average of 13 slaves on each plantation; in Pilar, only 6.5. The numbers of free men on the plantations of these two municípios were not recorded.30 The plantations of northern Pernambuco appear to have been somewhat larger than those of Paraíba, though a gang of 40 slaves meant by local standards a sizeable plantation and some free men were employed, though in unknown numbers. Early in the nineteenth century, Indians from a village in Paraíba had been contracted to work on one Pemambucan estate.31 The plantations of Alagôas were described as generally inferior to those of Pernambuco and some employed no more than six slaves. At least one engenho was worked entirely by free men.32 In Sergipe, a survey of labor on plantations carried out in 1863 yielded only incomplete returns, but the 299 plantations for which information was returned were worked by a total of 7,120 laborers, of whom 5,035 were slave and 1,484 were free, an average of 19 slaves and 5 free men per plantation.33

Plainly at mid-century slave labor was predominant on the sugar plantations, but the labor of free men was quite widely employed. The relative importance of slavery varied enormously from one part of the zona da mata to another: abolition therefore threatened less of a crisis in some districts than in others. Plainly also, not all senhores de engenho were grand men of large estates; many, if not most, in fact owned very modest agricultural enterprises. The large plantation with many slaves was rare outside the Recôncavo and coastal southern Pernambuco.

What portion of an individual’s or a family’s wealth did slaves represent? The present lack of sources makes it impossible to answer this question with the certainty that one would like, but an answer can be attempted. Table 1 lists the value of land and slaves on the plantations of the parish of São Pedro do Rio Fundo, in the município of Santo Amaro in the Recôncavo for the year 1854. The information is not ideal for the purpose at hand—the values given in the table can only be approximately correct. Nevertheless, the table does establish a major point: in São Pedro, the value of slaves on a plantation usually equalled and often surpassed the value of the plantation land. When the slaves of the landowner and lavradores are taken together, the point can be made even more strongly. An inventory made in 1876 of some of the property of the Moniz Barreto de Aragão family, Barons of Paraguassú, provides another example of the cash value assigned land and labor.34 This family owned four engenhos— Madurga, Cassarangongo, Victoria and Conceição—on the banks of the Paraguassú River in the Recôncavo. Only the Engenho Cassarangongo, which belonged to the Baroness, plus the slaves and part of the equipment of the Engenho Madurga, appear in this inventory. Cassarangongo with all its land and improvements was valued at 77:710$000 milreis, while its 189 slaves were worth 134:4508000. The 239 slaves of Madurga were valued at 173:300$000. The slave force was by far the most expensive item on the plantation. The value of a good field hand at Madurga ranged between 800$000 and 1:500$000. By way of contrast, the 40 oxen of Madurga were valued at only 1:600$000, slightly more than the price of the best field hand. Allowing for slaves on the two other plantations, the Barreto de Aragáo family may well have owned something on the order of 800 slaves, and if these four plantations and their slaves represented the bulk of the family fortune, then that fortune was made up in large part by slaves.

These examples are admittedly a small sample from which to make general statements about the relative importance of land and labor in individual fortunes. Moreover, all these examples are from the Recôncavo, a district which we have seen is not typical of the zona da mata. The examples do indicate that in the Recôncavo at least the proportion of a landed family’s wealth formed by slaves was extremely high. It is, I think, reasonable to suggest that this was also the case in southern coastal Pernambuco, the other district of the zona da mata with large slave-worked plantations. But where free men were extensively employed, slaves probably accounted for a smaller portion of the value of an estate.

Slaves must have represented a very high proportion of the wealth of lavradores. In the case of the tenant lavradores their slaves may well have been almost their entire wealth; certainly the lavradores’ major asset in the plantation society of the zona da mata was their ownership of slave labor.

Land may have brought prestige, but there is a case to be made that it was assigned a very low cash value. A tarefa of the best land was valued at 90$000 milreis, about one tenth the price of a good field slave.35 At some time after abolition, the Engenho Victoria of the Barreto de Aragão family was put up for sale. The total value of the plantation, including buildings, equipment and livestock, was given as 100:880$000, of which the lands accounted for only 15:000$000.36 The argument is reinforced by the fact that boundaries of land holdings were imprecisely marked and appear often to have been known only by custom and local tradition. Outcrops of rocks and a variety of landmarks and topographic features were used to indicate the limits of properties rather than fences or hedges. Estate maps dating from the nineteenth century are few and far between.37 Highly valued land, it is reasonable to suppose, would have been mapped and boundaries clearly shown on the land, though admittedly one of the functions of the moradores was to keep an eye on the outlying parts of properties. The prevailing agricultural practices showed a disregard for land. Little or no attempt was made to fertilize it. When yields of sugar decreased because of declining fertility of the soil, the fields were abandoned and new ones cleared. The fertility of the soil was recovered by resting the land, allowing the forest to regenerate. This rotation of crop land with forest was only possible because to senhores de engenho land was abundant—they were unable to cultivate all they owned—and being abundant it was assigned a low cash value.

How widespread among the population was the ownership of slaves? Here a register of the slaves of the município of Inhambupe, Bahia, compiled between 1884 and 1886, provides a partial answer.38 Listed in the register are 2,092 slaves and 412 owners. Assuming the register is complete or nearly complete, and using the 1890 census figure of 28,000 for the total population of Inhambupe, it becomes evident that slave owners in the 1880s represented about 1.5 per cent of the total free population. Persons with a really significant financial stake in slavery represented a far smaller percentage of the total population. As many as 129 of the owners in fact owned only one slave; 48 owned ten slaves or more, but only three owned more than 50. There were two families in Inhambupe owning a large number of slaves; the Velloso family with 116 and the Sousa Dantas family with 192.39 Inhambupe cannot be taken as representative of all the municípios in the zona da mata. It is on the inland margins of the region; cattle, cotton and tobacco were the main products, not sugar. In the 1880s, slaves represented about 8 per cent of the total population in Inhambupe. In munícipios where sugar cultivation was predominant, slaves could constitute as high as 20 per cent of the total population in the early 1870s.40 Because of the lack of sources, the pattern of slave ownership in these municípios cannot be exactly defined, but the number of families owning many slaves, with an important financial stake in slavery, must have been higher, if only because there were many more plantations there than in Inhambupe. Nevertheless, such families remained a small minority in the population at large.

In the second half of the nineteenth century only a comparatively small proportion of the society of the zona da mata had any important financial interest in the institution of slavery. There was an elite of landowners concentrated in the Recôncavo and southern coastal Pernambuco whose plantations were worked by slaves and of whose fortunes slaves represented a large part. These landowners formed the governing circles, and by and large spoke for the Northeast. There were less wealthy planters who owned some slaves but also employed free labor. Then there were the lavradores, most of whose wealth was in slaves and whose existence as a class was dependent on slavery, and finally there were numbers of people with only one or two slaves.

The slave-holding minority knew as of the early 1850s, when the illegal trans-Atlantic trade in slaves came to an end, that the years of slavery were now limited and that an alternate form of labor had to be found. Already during the 1850s and 1860s there was a chorus of complaints at the provincial and local levels about the lack of labor on the plantations and dire predictions that the end of the slave trade threatened the progress of the sugar economy if in fact it did not mean the decline or collapse of the plantations of the Northeast.41 A president of Bahia, reporting in 1853, claimed that another supply of labor had to be found within ten years if the sugar industry was to be saved.42 Yet, despite the general clamor and the predictions of doom, there is remarkably little indication in the sources of any organized preparation for abolition on the part of governments and planters. The British consuls, by and large, could see no evidence at all of such preparations.43 Most action was limited to discussion of alternative forms of labor. There were in fact only two possible approaches to the labor problem presented by abolition: employ the local free population or arrange for the importing of foreign labor.

To replace African slaves with foreign labor from other sources was not a new idea. The planters had before them the example of East Indian indentured labor in the Caribbean islands, and in São Paulo the coffee planters were employing European immigrants. However, the presidents of the Northeastern provinces did not respond enthusiastically to the idea of immigration. They inserted into their Relatórios paragraphs about the need for immigration; they made inquiries, even raising in London the possibility of obtaining British aid in contracting Chinese labor;44 they welcomed the formation of colonization societies. But they invested little time, money or energy in the cause, and hardly surprisingly, the results were minimal. Asians did not come to work in the canefields, and only a few hundred Europeans decided to risk their lot in the Northeast. The presidents, one has the impression, were merely responding to a mild, sporadic public interest in the possibilities of immigrant labor.

Indeed, in the Northeast, two considerations worked against a policy of attracting immigrants. There was no way of overcoming the fact that the slave-owning, highly stratified, class-conscious society of the Northeast, in which agricultural laborers endured an abysmal standard of living, constituted a social and economic milieu more likely to repel than attract immigrants. The Northeast offered the immigrant little chance of escape from rural misery. In São Paulo conditions were different, and an immigration policy brought results. Working conditions on the coffee plantations were harsh, but the economy was booming, the agricultural frontier expanding rapidly and in the growing city of São Paulo there was plenty of opportunity for the advancement of immigrants who could avoid the plantations. The second consideration was that in the Northeast immigrants were not really needed. An alternative to slave labor existed in the local free population.

There was in fact a large poor but free population in the zona da mata. The rural free greatly outnumbered the slaves in all municípios, and in fact were to be numbered in millions.45 There were smallholders who cultivated food crops, along with some tobacco and cotton perhaps, and used largely the labor of their own families. There were fishermen, peddlers and craftsmen, as well as landless, rootless transients who eked out a precarious living, and occasionally performed daily labor on plantations during the harvest. Many inhabitants were moradores. This array of people had a very bad reputation, almost invariably categorized by officials as idle or unreliable, with no disposition whatsoever towards hard work. The poor were said to be content with their thatch and mud cabins and their meager diet of manioc, beans and occasional fish.46 This large poverty-ridden mass of people nevertheless represented a vast reservoir of labor which by mid-century had been very little exploited. The consuls frequently commented on the paradox of the existence of a large unemployed class while the planters complained about the shortage of labor. One consul was amazed that even on the eve of abolition “idle gangs remain as hitherto, spread all over the province [Bahia] and abstain from coming forward while landowners still refrain from calling them.”47

The reluctance on the part of the “idle gangs” to come forward is understandable. They disliked the idea of working alongside slaves, a feeling appreciated by some of the authorities, and when they did work on plantations they tried to do jobs which would keep them from too close a contact with slaves. They worked in the mills and factories, at carting cane and in clearing forest to make way for new fields. Field labor itself, alongside the slave gangs, was to be avoided.48 Planters were often reluctant or unable to pay wages, and wages when paid were very low.49Parceria—that is, share-cropping by people relying only on their own or family labor as opposed to the lavradores who employed slaves—was a possible alternative, much discussed, but seldom adopted.50 Many planters were prejudiced in favor of slave labor and felt that sugar could not be cultivated successfully without slaves. In truth, the complaints about the lack of labor were unfounded. There was no shortage of labor; the problem lay in the difficulty of planters in making plantation work an attractive proposition for the free population.

The answer to the threat presented by the abolition of slavery came not through the introduction of wage labor or immigration, but through a change in the nature of the long-existent tenant class on the plantations—the moradores. The moradores were now required to work in their landlords’ fields in return for the use of a plot of land, and the term morador de condiçõo became current for such tenants. The size of this class grew, more men were allowed to settle on the plantation in return for labor, and some moradores became bound by indebtedness to the plantation. The transition in the function of the morador was gradual, and appears already to have begun by mid-nineteenth century. As slaves became more difficult to obtain and the labor needs of the sugar industry grew, so the numbers of moradores de condiçõo increased. The trend occurred even in southern coastal Pernambuco; by the 1870s on the plantations of Ipojuca more “free” men than slave were employed.51 This gradual evolution in a longstanding form of tenancy appears to have gone unnoticed by the consuls and others who complained about the lack of preparation for abolition. The answer to the threatened labor crisis already existed in the morador, long embedded in the rural society of the zona da mata. From the point of view of plantation labor, abolition was merely the end of a long period of transition. Abolition represented a financial, political and emotional problem, but not a labor problem.

The employment of the morador on the plantation in effect represented an exchange of the use of land for labor. The planters had abundant land, but little ready cash with which to pay wages. They exchanged something they valued lightly in cash terms—land—for labor. For this system of labor to be effective, it was essential that the planters have a monopoly or near monopoly of land in the zona da mata. Where there was abundant unclaimed land, the free men could settle as small holders and so avoid becoming moradores. The large landholding was thus essential to the preservation of the labor supply. But the morador system was also buttressed by the tradition of a partiarchal society in which one social class expected deference and service from another, and in which the horizons of ambition of the poor were very limited.

Abolition was accepted peacefully on the sugar plantations, a fact which greatly surprised the consuls.52 “In no locality,” reported the president of Bahia in 1889, “was it necessary for the authorities to intervene to see that the slaves received their freedom and the exslaves did nothing to require the intervention of the authorities.”53 Some of the former slaves moved to towns, others to the interior, many it appears settled down as moradores either on the plantations where they had served as slaves, or on neighboring plantations. Disruption of the sugar industry by these migrations in the labor force was slight, but most noticeable in those districts of the zona da mata which had relied most heavily on slave labor. There were no further complaints after abolition about the shortage of labor. Indeed, there were comments about its abundance and cheapness.54

It is difficult to detect with certainty any impact of the decline of slavery on sugar production. Trends in sugar production for three provinces are shown in Figure 1. In Pernambuco and Alagôas, the amount of sugar produced as well as the number of engenhos had continued to increase while slavery as a form of labor declined. The change in the type of labor did not injure the sugar industry in these provinces. In Bahia, the question is more complex. Sugar production did not increase during the second half of the nineteenth century and sugar came to represent a smaller and smaller proportion of the total exports of the province.55 It is possible to advance arguments that labor problems may not have been the cause of the stagnation of the sugar industry. After all, in Bahia as in Pernambuco there was a large rural free population to draw on. There is evidence that Bahian sugar was not as good as that of the other provinces of the Northeast, nor was it as well packed.56 These factors may have made it more difficult for Bahian sugar to compete on national and foreign markets and it presumably sold at a lower price than the sugar of the other provinces. Sugar, therefore, may well have been not as attractive an investment in Bahia as in other provinces. Certainly during the second half of the century new engenhos were not being built in Bahia at the rate they were in Pernambuco. Moreover, there were in Bahia lucrative alternatives to sugar production. Tobacco had long been grown in the Recôncavo; it commanded a good price in the second half of the century, and its production was on the increase. In the last years of the century, cocoa became a boom crop, especially in the municípios south of the Recôncavo.57 There was a movement of people, many of them coming from the sugar-growing areas, into these municípios. Exploitation of alternative crops may thus have led to the neglect of the sugar industry, rather than any difficulty in replacing slave labor.

The end of slavery had a profound impact on the structure of plantation society. The law of 1888 legislated one class out of existence; its elimination destroyed the major asset of a second, the lavradores, whose position had depended to a large extent on their ability to provide labor through the ownership of slaves. The senhores de engenho experienced financial loss, and perhaps also a loss of prestige. There was an increase in the class of moradores, but these people also suffered, for their obligations to landlords were increased now that they had to work in return for the use of land. Slaves gained legal freedom by abolition, but all that the other classes of plantation society could report were losses. Abolition struck at the fabric of a social hierarchy which had persisted for centuries. It is in the social order and values of the traditional patriarchal society of the sugar plantation that the explanation of the persistence of slavery lies. There was in fact no economic rationale for planters buying slaves at midcentury and after. Slavery was not a necessary form of labor for the plantations; an alternative form of labor existed at mid-century and even earlier as it did in 1888. Money invested in slaves would have been better spent on improving milling machinery and in buying agricultural implements to make the plantations more efficient and competitive. One wonders to what extent, if at all, planters examined the economics of their own plantations. Those who sold their slaves south, whether they were forced to do so by a need to raise money, or because they realized slaves were an unnecessary investment, were acting wisely. But the plantations cannot be understood if looked upon purely as businesses, for they were not simply businesses. They represented a way of life, of which slaves were an important part.

The decline and eventual end of slavery was but one factor changing the life of the sugar plantations towards the end of the nineteenth century; a second was the introduction of central factories or usinas. These rendered the old mills and plantations uneconomic. Planters were to cease to mill their own cane, selling it instead to the usinas; many sold their land to the usinas and withdrew from the countryside. The usineiro usurped the place of the senhor de engenho at the top of the class structure; plantations were no longer units of production supporting their own hierarchical social order. At the end of the nineteenth century, in the zona da mata, a complete reorganization of the sugar industry was taking place. The world of the old plantations was coming to an end, its society disrupted, its mills and mansions on the way to becoming ruins, place names, and memories.


See C. H. Haring, Empire in Brazil: A New World Experiment With Monarchy (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1958); Richard Graham, Britain and The Onset of Modernization in Brazil, 1850-1914 (Cambridge, England, 1968); Percy Alvin Martin, “Slavery and Abolition in Brazil,” HAHR, 13:2 (May 1933), 151-196; and Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (ed.), História geral da cmilização brasileira, Tomo II, O Brasil monárquico, Vol. III, Reações e transações (São Paulo, 1967).


Sources and abbreviations: This study relies to a great extent on the British consular and slave trade reports from Brazil addressed to the foreign secretary, on reports (Relatónos) made by the presidents of the provinces of the Northeast to their legislative assemblies and on the correspondence of municipal councils with the presidents. I have used abbreviations in the footnotes.

Consular Reports from, Brazil, 1825-1878, series: Foreign Office 13 in the Public Record Office, London. Referencing is as follows: C.R.F.O. 13/Vol., name of consul, name of foreign secretary, residence of consul, date of report. During the second half of the century, these reports were published in the House of Commons Accounts and Papers. Reference: H.C.A.P., year, Vol., residence of consul, page.

The Slave Trade Papers, series: Foreign Office 84, in the Public Record Office, London. Reference: S.T.P.F.O. 84/Vol., name of consul, name of foreign secretary, residence of consul, date of report.

Presidential Reports. There are good but incomplete collections in the Arquivo Nacional and the Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro. There is a collection of the Bahian reports in the Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia, Salvador, and of the Pernambucan reports in the Biblioteca Pública, Recife. Reference: Relatório, province, date, page.

Coleção Câmaras Municipaes. I have used the collections in the Arquivo Público Estadual, Recife, and in the Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia, Salvador. Reference: C.C.M., province, municipal council, volume or packet, date of report.


For the purposes of this paper I have included in the Northeast only the important sugar-growing provinces of Bahia, Sergipe, Alagôas, Pernambuco, Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte.


This is based on the results of a variety of provincial censuses. The results of nineteenth-century censuses are reviewed province by province in Vol. I of the Recenseamento do Brazil realizado em 1 de Setembro de 1920 (Rio de Janeiro, 1922-30), 5 vols.


Bahia, 167,824; Sergipe, 22,623; Alagôas, 35,741; Pernambuco, 89,028; Paraíba, 21,526; Rio Grande do Norte, 13,020. Total: 349,762. For the complete census: Recenseamento da Populaçõo do Império do Brasil a que se procedeu no Dia 1 de Agosto de 1872 (Rio de Janeiro, 1873-76), 21 vols.


Bahia: 165,403 slaves in early 1880s, H.C.A.P. 1884, 81, Bahia, 1614; 76,838 in 1885, Relatório, Bahia, 1887, 129-130. Pernambuco: 91,992 in 1880, Relatório, Pernambuco, 1880, 15; 90,872 in 1886, Relatório, Pernambuco, 1886, 50; 41,122 in March 1887. Many slaves were being freed. Relatório, Pernambuco, 1888, 19. Alagôas: There were 26,911 slaves in 1884 and 15,296 on the eve of abolition according to Manuel Diêgues Júnior, O Banguê nas Alagôas (Rio de Janeiro, 1949), pp. 153, 155.


Haring, Empire in Brazil, p. 94.


Martin, “Slavery and Abolition in Brazil,” 178.


Relatório, Bahia, 1887, 129-130.


Relatório, Bahia, 1887, 129-130.


Relatório, Pernambuco, 1886, 29-50. Several municípios received less than 500 milreis. Prices of slaves were beginning to fall at this time, but a short time earlier a good field hand was valued at about 1,000 milreis. See discussion below.


See for instance C.C.M., Bahia, Cachoeira, Packet 1,271, September 30, 1855, and Relatório, Bahia, 1861, 32.


Relatório, Alagôas, 1860, table, no page number.


In the years 1849-52, 11,426 slaves were sent to Rio de Janeiro from Bahia: S.T.P.F.O. 84/912, Morgan to Russell, Bahia 17th February, 1853.


H.C.A.P. 1862, 58, Bahia, 223 and C.C.M. Bahia, Santo Amaro, Packet 1,429, March 5, 1858.


C.C.M. Bahia, Inhambupe, Packet 1,319, 1st October 1857.


S.T.P.F.O. 84/1184, Christie to Russell, Rio de Janeiro, September 30, 1862. The export duties ranged between 100 and 200 milreis, about £10 to £20, a head.


S.T.P.F.O. 84/1184, Christie to Russell, Rio de Janeiro, September 30, 1862.


The figures are not available for each year. Bahia lost 2,479 slaves to the south in 1872 and 1,840 in 1875: Relatório, Bahia, 1876, 106. 1,271 slaves were sent south from Pernambuco in 1877; 1,677 in 1878; 2,212 in 1879; and 1,329 in 1880: H.C.A.P. 1881, 91, Pernambuco, 1412.


The existence of a stable slave population and this sale of slaves south carry the corollary that the rate of natural increase in the slave population of the Northeast during these years must have been slightly above the replacement level.


Prices of slaves are given frequently in the Slave Trade Papers, right up to the eve of abolition. For the increase in the price of slaves following 1850 see S.T.P.F.O. 84/116, Christie to Russell, Rio de Janeiro, June 2, 1860. At the end of the 1850s, the price range for able-bodied slaves in the Northeast was from £100 to £220, or about 950$000 to 2:100$000 at the exchange rate of 2/2d per milreis. Female slaves born in Africa commanded tire lowest prices, adult skilled male slaves the highest. There was a slight variation in price from one port to another.


S.T.P.F.O. 84/1355, Morgan to Granville, Bahia, 30th June, 1872. Prices had recovered by the following year: S.T.P.F.O. 84/1369, Morgan to Granville, Bahia, December 31, 1873.


This point was made by the consuls. See for instance: S.T.P.F.O. 84/1449 Morgan to Derby, Bahia, September 13, 1876. The price range for able-bodied slaves was then £83 to £208. Six years later, prices had begun to drop. The range in 1882 was £70 to £180: S.T.P.F.O. 84/1613, Stevens to Granville, Bahia, December 31, 1882.


Slaves once priced between £150 to £250 were now selling for £20 to £30: H.C.A.P. 1884/1885, 78, Bahia, 1652-1653.


The numbers of engenhos are given in the Relatórios and occasionally also in the consular reports. It is not possible to give the numbers more precisely because of incomplete reporting, and figures are not available for all provinces in the same year.


For a discussion of lavradores and moradores see L. F. de Tollenare Notas Dominicais tornados durante uma viagem em Portugal e no Brasil em 1816, 1817, e 1818 (Salvador, Brazil, 1956), pp. 93-97, and the report by De Mornay in C.R.F.O. 13/240, Cowper to Aberdeen, Pernambuco, March 16, 1846. Tollenare claimed that 19 out of every 20 free men in rural areas were moradores.


For Pernambuco, see Tollenare, Notas Dominicais, p. 93. The Engenho Madurga in the Recôncavo had 239 slaves in 1876. For sources see footnote 34 helow.


This table is derived from a reply to a circular requesting information on sugar production sent to all municípios in 1853 by the president of Bahia. Only a few returns were made or have survived; that of São Pedro is the most complete, and the only one from which it is possible to construct such a table. The São Pedro reply is an unbound packet of documents labelled Presidencia: Agricultura, Industria e Comeécio, Engenhos 1824-1889, in the Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia.


For Pernambuco see J. H. Galloway, “The Sugar Industry of Pernambuco During the Nineteenth Century,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 58:2 (June 1968), 285-303, The number of plantations in Alagôas doubled during the second half of the century: M. Diêgues Júnior, O Banguênas Alagôas, p. 125.


Relatório, Paraíba, 1861, Table 16, no page number.


H. Koster, Travels in Brazil (London, 1816), p. 218. For slavery on the plantations of Pernambuco, see also C.R.F.O. 13/240, Cowper to Aberdeen, Pernambuco, March 16, 1846.


C.R.F.O. 13/240, Cowper to Aberdeen, Pernambuco, March 2, 1846.


Relatório, Sergipe, 1863, 38-39.


These documents were made available to me through the kindness of Professor Katia M. de Queirós Mattoso of the Departamento de História, Faculdade de Filosofia da Universidade Católica, Salvador, Bahia.


This value is for the most fertile soils (massapê) when forested, and is from São Pedro do Rio Fundo, Table 1. A tarefa is an old Brazilian land measure. The Grande dicionario da lingua portuguesa (Lisboa, 1949-1959), 10th edition, gives the following modem equivalents: 4,345m2 in Bahia, 3,052m2 in Alagôas and Sergipe and 3,630m2 in Cearrá. The Novo dicionario etimológico da lingua portuguesa (Porto, no date) gives the tarefa as the quantity of cane which could be milled in a day.


From the papers of the Moniz Barreto de Aragão family.


The only one I know is that of the Engenho Buenos-Ayres, Alagôas, which is reproduced by M. Diêgues Júnior, O Banguê nas Alagôas, facing p. 272.


Uncatalogued document in the Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia, in the section Presidência da Provincia, Legislativo and entitled Livro de Classificação de Escravos Para Libertação No Município de Inhambupe 1884-1886. The value of this document is somewhat reduced by the fact that it was compiled when slavery was in decline.


Manoel Pinto de Sousa Dantas, Prime Minister of Brazil in 1884, is recorded as owning 20 slaves in Inhambupe.


Recenseamento da População do Império do Brasil, 1872.


See for instance Relatório, Bahia, 1861, 32, in which the President of Bahia claimed that the shortage of labor was daily getting worse; C.R.F.O. 13/297, Cowper to Malmesbury, Pernambuco, November 20, 1852; H.C.A.P., 1865, 53, Pernambuco, 38; Relatório, Alagôas, 1855, 52; and S.T.P.F.O. 84/912, Power to Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Paraíba, fanuary 10, 1853.


Relatório, Bahia, 1853, 76.


S.T.P.F.O. 84/1025, Christie to Russell, Rio de Janeiro, February 26 1863; H.C.A.P. 1884, 81, Bahia, 1613, and again in H.C.A.P. 1884/85, 78 Bahia, 1652.


Reỉatório, Bahia, 1856, 79.


Recenseamento da População do Império do Brasil, 1872. This census records 3,005,850 free and 349,762 slaves in the Northeastern provinces of Bahia Sergipe, Alagôas, Pernambuco, Paraíba, and Rio Grande do Norte.


For comments on the life of the rural free population see Relatório, Bahia 1857 89 and H.C.A.P., 1884, 81, Bahia, 1613. The consul in Pernambuco in 1875 wrote “The immense number of people without a trade or ostensible means of living is truly astonishing”: H.C.A.P., 1875, 77, Pernambuco, 1425.


H.C.A.P. 1884/85, 78, Bahia, 1653.


Relatórios, Bahia, 1857, 89; 1871, 22; 1872, 39; H.C.A.P., 1862, 58, Bahia, 233.


Judging by the comments of the presidents and the consuls, very little cash was circulating in the countryside of the Northeast. For comments on the difficulty of paying wages before abolition, see Relatório, Bahia, 1879, 68 and after abolition H.C.A.P. 1890, 74, Maceió, Alagôas, 16 and H.C.A.P. 1890, 74, Pernambuco, 4-5. However, M. C. de Andrade, A Terra e o homen no nordeste (São Paulo, 1963), pp. 95-96, suggests that wage labor was quite common.


Parceria appears to have been more widespread in Pernambuco than in Bahia: C.R.F.O. 13/297, Cowper to Malmesbury, Pernambuco, November 20, 1852 and H.C.A.P., 1865, 53, Pernambuco, 38.


C.C.M., Pernambuco, Vol. 41, Ipojuca, February 16, 1870. For a discussion of moradores, their obligations, and growing importance, see M. C. de Andrade, A Terra e o homen no nordeste, pp. 78-79, 92-93, and 109-110.


H.C.A.P., 1893-94, 92, “Report of The Years 1890-93 on The Trade and Finances of Brazil,” Rio de Janerio, 42.


Relatório, Bahia, 1889, 95-96.


In the opinion of the consul in Pernambuco, labor was cheaper than anywhere in the Old World with the exception of Asia: H.C.A.P. 1889, 94, Pernambuco, 8.


At mid-century, sugar amounted to about 70% of the exports, by value, of Bahia. During the 1860s and 1870s it accounted for between one third and a quarter of the value of the exports. By the early twentieth century, tobacco, cacao, and in some years coffee and hides were more valuable exports than sugar. The trade figures can be found in the Relatórios, Bahia.


In 1888, it was stated that sugar produced in Bahia was not as good as that produced in Pernambuco. The reasons were not given: Relatório, Bahia, 1888, 35. Sergipe sugar was said to be better than that of Bahia: H.C.A.P. 1874, 67, Bahia, 684. At mid-century, Bahian sugar was exported in wooden boxes. There was falsification of the weights of boxes as well as a lot of wastage, all of which gave Bahian sugar a bad name in Europe. During the 1850s an attempt was made to adopt the Pemambucan system of packing in bags, which were more easily handled and stowed than boxes, and from which there was less wastage: Relatório, Bahia, 1852, 62 and C.R.F.O. 13/288, Porter to Palmerston, Bahia, May 8, 1851.


The growing importance of tobacco dates from about the mid-nineteenth century. Consul Morgan reported in 1859 that “tobacco is becoming yearly more important and bids fair in the course of time to supersede sugar cultivation. . .”: C.R.F.O. 13/374, Morgan to Malmesbury, Bahia, April 8, 1859. Cacao appears as a minor export in the 1870s; in the early twentieth century it is the most important export; trade figures, Relatórios, Bahia.

Author notes


The author is Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto.