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by Mark Johnston

Sugar cane from Willem Piso, Historia naturalis Brasiliae.… Leiden: Hackium; Amsterdam: Elzevirium, 1648, p. 83.Sugar cane from Willem Piso, Historia naturalis Brasiliae.… Leiden: Hackium; Amsterdam: Elzevirium, 1648, p. 83.

Soon after Columbus returned from his first voyage to the new world it became apparent to old world investors and the Spanish crown that the new territories could not be exploited as had been hoped. Indeed, Magellan’s circumnavigation of 1519-1522 proved that the territories visited by Columbus weren’t even parts of Asia, but a continent that could offer little in the way of spices and manufactured goods such as were exported from east Asia. However, the Europeans quickly realized that the new world possessed potential of a different sort: the production of sugar cane. Consequently, the plantation system and the sugar refining industry, rather than the harvesting of spices and silk production, were destined to shape the economy and society of Brazil and the West Indies.1

The European discovery and colonization of Madeira and the Canary Islands would prove fateful precedents for the new world, because the plantation system and colonial governments instituted on these islands became models for the great sugar plantations in the new world.2 Since sugar cane had been introduced to Madeira and the Canaries after their colonization during the last half of the fifteenth century, the techniques of sugar production, exploitation of labor, and economic organization developed on these islands were easily exported to the new world.3 Ultimately, the adoption of these production techniques and the system of colonial government from the Atlantic islands, with the institution of slavery, made sugar production the most profitable cultivation in either the Americas or Europe.4

Piso, Historia naturalis Brasiliae, p. 50.Piso, Historia naturalis Brasiliae, p. 50. Piso, Historia naturalis Brasiliae, p. 51.Piso, Historia naturalis Brasiliae, p. 51.

The earliest large-scale production of sugar was established in Brazil, along the Atlantic coasts surrounding Bahia and Pernambuco. Although sugar cane was reputedly first planted in Brazil in 1516, it was apparently done as much for strategic as economic reasons, because the European powers were struggling for legal and economic claims to territory in the Americas.5 For the next four decades, trade with Brazil centered around the harvest of dyewood, since the demand and prices for sugar had slumped in Europe.6 But, by the sixteenth century, both demand and prices had risen because refined sugar was replacing honey in most recipes and was increasingly used as a sweetener in jams, jellies and other popular food products. The first commercial production of sugar in the new world was undertaken in 1550, when the Portuguese Donatarios built mills near Pernambuco and São Vicente along the Atlantic coast of Brazil.7 This early production was derived principally from techniques developed in Madeira, based upon a system resembling sharecropping, where the owner, or senhor de engenho, leased his land to a number of smaller planters in return for a portion of the sugar produced.8

By the middle of the seventeenth century the Brazilian sugar industry had begun to expand rapidly with support of capital from the Dutch East India Company, which had seized Pernambuco from the Portuguese in 1630, and the Dutch importation of slaves from equatorial Africa. In 1612 the total production of sugar in Brazil had reached 14,000 tons, and by the 1640s Pernambuco alone exported more than 24,000 tons of sugar annually to Amsterdam.9

However, the 1660 the focus of sugar production began to shift from Brazil to Barbados and other islands of the West Indies. Unfortunately, this process is not well understood, primarily due to a lack of documentation. It has been suggested that Brazil suffered from economic stagnation because of higher production costs, decreasing yields and general trends in investment that negatively affected sugar production.10 Furthermore, the expulsion of the Dutch from Pernambuco in 1654 and the subsequent disruption in trade led the Dutch to focus their capital investments in the West Indies.

Surviving evidence shows that despite increases in production, Brazil was not able to keep the sugar refineries in Amsterdam adequately supplied, forcing the Dutch refiners to look elsewhere for the product.11 Barbados, which had been developing the sugar industry under the leadership of the Englishman John Drax, proved to be a perfect complement. Drax, who had been a student of Portuguese and Dutch production methods and organization in Pernambuco, adapted sugar production to the limited resources of the islands and proved that, despite their relatively small size, the West Indies were capable of producing significant amounts of muscovado, or raw sugar. His adaptations included the abandonment of the Pernambuco model, which had called for self-sufficient plantations, as the limited timber resources and food production on the islands made such a system impractical.

Pierre Pomet, Histoire generale des drogues, traitant des plantes,  des animaux, & des mineraux, Paris: Lyson & Pillon, 1694, p. 94.Pierre Pomet, Histoire generale des drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux, & des mineraux, Paris: Lyson & Pillon, 1694, p. 94.

Once established on the Caribbean island, sugar production increased rapidly, with Barbados experiencing an increase from 7,000 to 12,000 tons produced per year between 1655 and 1700. Even more remarkable is Guadeloupe, which increased its exports from 2,000 tons in 1674 to 10,000 tons in the early eighteenth century, with assistance from Martinique.12

Although Brazil remained the largest exporter of sugar, it was no longer dominant in the face of Dutch, and later French and English, competition from the Caribbean. The Dutch, French and English ultimately proved better able to endure the steadily decreasing prices resulting from the rapid rise in supply due to the geographical advantages of their proximity to Europe and the slave trade and their royal support in the form of official trade monopolies. However, the legacy of Brazil in the sugar trade remained significant, as the Portuguese and Dutch pioneered the plantation system from old world examples and adapted it to the special conditions of the new world. More importantly, this legacy is evident in the development of colonial society in the America. The plantation system of Brazil and the Caribbean, like the hacienda system on the continent, would endure for centuries as the model for agricultural production and rural society. The introduction of slavery would likewise leave a significant, most unfortunate legacy in the new world. Ultimately, sugar production provided one of the original means and motivations for European expansion, colonization and control in the new world, precipitating a course of events that would forever shape the destiny of the Western Hemisphere.


1. F. R. Augier et al. The Making of the West Indies, p. 79.
2. William Phillips, Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips. The Worlds of Christopher Columbus, pp. 56-69.
3. Phillips and Phillips, p. 59.
4. F. R. Auger et al, p. 79.
5. Matthew Edel. “The Brazilian Sugar Cycle of the Seventeenth Century and the Rise of West Indian Competition.” Caribbean Studies, Vol. IX, no. 1., 1969, p. 25.
6. By 1500, the price for refined sugar in London had fallen to one quarter of its price in 1400. See Matthew Edel, p. 26 and E. O. Von Lippmann, História do Açúcar, 1941.
7. Matthew Edel, p. 27.
8. David Watts. The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture and Environmental Change since 1492, p. 179.
9. Matthew Edel, p. 27.
10. Matthew Edel, pp. 33-37.
11. Richard Dunn. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies 1624-1713, p. 60.
12. Matthew Edel, p. 32.


Augier, F. R. et al. The Making of the West Indies. London: Longman Caribbean, 1960.
Aykroyd, W. R. Sweet Malefactor; Sugar, Slavery and Human Society. London: Heinemann, 1967.
Dunn, Richard S. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973.
Edel, Matthew. “The Brazilian Sugar Cycle of the Seventeenth Century and the Rise of the West Indian Competition.” Caribbean Studies, (1969) Vol IX, no. 1, pp. 24-43.
Goslinga, Cornelis Ch. The Dutch in the Caribbean and on the Wild Coast, 1580-1680. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1971.
Lippmann, Edmund O. von. Historia do Açucar desde a Época mais remota até o Comêço da Fabricação do Açucar de Beterraba. Rio de Janeiro: Instituto de Açucar e do alcool, 1941.
Phillips, William D. and Carla Rahn Phillips. The Worlds of Christopher Columbus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Sheridan, Richard. “The Plantation Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, 1625-1775.” Caribbean Studies, (1969) Vol. IX, no. 3, pp. 5-25.
Watts, David. The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture and Environmental Change since 1492. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Trade product essays have been contributed by graduate and advanced undergraduate students in the Bell Library’s Expansion of Europe seminar (Hist 5962), unless otherwise indicated. Essays without author attribution were contributed by staff. For information on the Expansion of Europe seminar, contact the curator at