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Bahia plantation slavery and minas gerais gold mine

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Bahia plantation slavery and Minas Gerais gold mine

With the period of colonial conquest in which great countries began to take turn in exploring and conquering territories in Africa, India and Caribbean islands, slavery or rather the idea of human traffic which then developed into human exploitation reaching the final point of slavery, began. If the initial purpose of these conquests was solely based on the idea of exporting resources, it took a turn which saw the establishment and creation of an economic system based on plantation with the involvement of slaves as labour forces. The creation of plantation system helped conquest countries in developing and influencing their economic system transforming colonial countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Jamaica and many others in establishing themselves as predominant exporters. For such reason the purpose of this essay will be based on the analysis of a plantation slavery, Bahia, compared to a non-plantation slavery, Minas Gerais. The focus of the essay will centre on the differences of how a plantation slavery based on the production of sugar, Bahia, differ from a non-plantation slavery in which the labour force was concentrated on the extraction of mineral resources, Minas Gerais, for instance gold. The main differences will be discussed in terms of treatment of slaves, their condition and the variety of labour that they engage in.

Before focusing on the aim stated above for the essay, an historical introduction concerning the historical economy of the most predominant plantation exporters power, Brazil will be given for then focusing the rest of the essay on two of its main states Bahia and Minas Gerais.

During the period of colonialism, countries such as Brazil, Jamaica, Cuba and others began to exhale in the production of food, mineral resources which were then exported to the Americas and European countries. One of the predominant economic forces in the production of sugar from the sixteenth centuries till middle nineteenth century[1]was Brazil which kept its position as the main producer despite having competition from nearby countries. Even during the gold rush trend which took place throughout the eighteenth century, and despite Brazil being among the producers of gold itself, it did not as Adam Smith noted, helped fuel the industrial revolution, instead on the contrary it did boost the value of Brazilian sugar exports which always exceeded those of any other commodity.[2]Due to this some historians have argued that the economy of brazil has always been based on its production of sugar giving it the impression in the historiography of the fact that its sugar economy has always experienced its heyday without experiencing downfalls.

Nevertheless, records have shown that the latter was not the case as in the early seventeenth century it did experience a long period of stagnation or decline, becoming in the process virtually moribund.[3]

Brazilian sugars began first to appear in European markets as early as the 1510s and it was not until the middle decades of the century that it began to reach Europe in great number of quantities.[4]At the beginning, most of its destinations were Lisbon and to a lesser extent Oporto, with smaller Portuguese harbors such as Viana do Castelo and Povoa de Varzim.[5]As already mentioned above it was not until the late sixteenth century that most Brazilian sugar began to appear within the northern European ports, for then becoming part of the commerce, in such cities like London, Hamburg, and Antwerp.[6]

When discussing about the production of sugar one must point out the fact that not all areas in Brazil were dedicated to sugar plantations and such was not the case also for its successfulness. As a matter of fact, most of the sugar industries and planters were mostly concentrated in places like Bahia and Pernambuco and the latter was caused by the fact that the complexity and volume of the sugar trade required an active mercantile community which could be found mainly in these two areas where merchants were an important part of the Bahian and Pernambucan social structure by the late sixteenth century. They provided the shipping facilities and organization of the trade and extended credit for the establishment and operation of mills.[7]

Bahia as been known for its long history of a great contributor state in the production of sugar where the economy always functioned in relation to the international market for that commodity and the changing patterns of politics and economy within the Atlantic world[8].

The crucial element in the production of sugar in Bahia was slaves. As a matter of fact, all plantation of any type of cultivation were mainly based on the labour force of slaves and Bahia sugar plantation was not an exception. The conditions under which the lives of Bahian slaves were structured, maintained, worked and lived in was a crucial key element in the successfulness of a plantation and to the nature of the society that grew from the sugar economy. This statement did not represent the reality of how things were managed in these plantations. In actual fact in the course of the seventeenth century, many planters in most part of Brazil seem to have adopted and implemented to the three-p theory of slave management mentioned by João Antonio Antonil in his research book that he wrote during the time he stayed in Brazil: pau (the rod), pdo (bread), and pano (clothing).[9]Antonil’s confirmation about the general conditions of slaves were further confirmed by foreign observers such as Johan Nieuhoff, who upon his travel to Brazil[10]invariably spoke of the brutality of the slave regime and noted that Brazilian slaves were poorly fed, housed, and clothed.

The use of physical force and punishment was an integral aspect of plantation slavery, and sugar plantations in Bahia were not exempted from it, as most commentators on slavery in Bahia mentioned the common cruelty of the slave regime. Masters saw that by implementing physical force slaves were deemed to be more efficient and obedient on the work field and, nonetheless, served by its reality and threat as a negative incentive. The treatment of Bahian slaveholders differ greatly from plantation to plantation as some were worse than others. The slave regime itself created conditions in which the exercise of dominance that called for extreme physical force or punishment was a logical one and in fact a necessary element of the regime where the notion of extreme punishment on slaves was accepted as a legitimate institution that helps with the economy of the country.[11]

Many are the account of travellers who wrote about the condition of slaves and one of them, Jorge Bend an Italian Jesuit who lived in Bahia at the beginning of the eighteenth century, wrote and published a small book calling upon the masters to treat their bondsmen humanely. In doing so he did not deny the legality of slavery neither their inferiority. He argued that the “ rudeness” or barbarity of the slaves should excuse them from getting too severe punishment and that judgment of their faults as well as their punishment should be given with moderation.[12]His argument was based on the situation he observed which could be argued as quite different, for he saw slaves being burned or scorched with hot wax, branded on face or chest, tortured with hot irons, had their ears or noses lopped off, or suffered sexually related barbarities as the result of jealousy of their masters.[13]

Slaves had little opportunities if not none in escaping from the punishments given unless these punishments resulted in the death of the slave and only in this occasion if someone was willing to bring it to the attention of civil authorities then something might be done otherwise nothing would happen. Probably due to many accounts discussing about this issue as well as the recurrence of it, finally prompted the government took a decision in designing laws that would provide the slaves some legal protection and it is so that in 1688, two laws were issued that gave anyone, including the slaves themselves, the right to denounce cruel slaveowners to civil or ecclesiastical authorities. With this law slaveowners were bound and could be forced to sell their slaves to someone else if proof could be given that continued ownership under him might result in unjust treatment and threat for the slave’s life.[14]

The physical conditions under which Bahian slaves laboured set the context for their lives, but it was their labour itself that determined their role in the productive process of sugar production and also the way in which they functioned. Work in the sugar plantation was the central feature of plantation slavery in Bahia and for this reason the majority of the slaves spent most of their time in the field working on the cane fields[15]to ensure great quality in sugar production. As a consequence related to ensuring great quality of sugar, work in the cane field was arduous and continuous, often based on early morning beginning for then ending late. A typical example of a slave routine consisted in them waking up around five o’clock for morning prayers before setting out for the fields. A small breakfast will be provided which was then eaten about nine o’clock, the midday meal three or four hours later was taken in the field, and then work will continue until nightfall.[16]

A system was created for work in cane fields by Bahian slaveholders in order for work to be done in a more systematic way. In this system cutting of sugar cane was done on a quota basis in which slaves were assigned a certain number of “ hands” of cane to be cut as their tarefa[17]or daily task to reach. Much of the labour on Bahian plantations was assigned by tarefa as well, which was then extended to other fields such as the mill, at the pottery, and elsewhere.

In addition to the “ normal” workday of crop-related labour, slaves were assigned other work in the plantation such as building fences, construction, ditch digging, preparing manioc, and other different types of chores. These extra chores, known as quingingo,[18]did extend the workday of other extra hours for the slaves.

The methods worked out by masters and slaves to provide sustenance was a matter of survival and in some ways a key to successfulness of the sugar plantation organization. The structure of sugar plantation varied according to their size of the estate and therefore the number of slaves used in it was based on the latter. The utilization of large numbers of workers in cane fields and at the mill in shifts levelled out differences in skill, so the ultimate result was a relatively homogeneous labour product, or, as Marx termed it, “ labour of an average social quality.[19]

The making of sugar was a complex activity, which required a great force of labour however each part of the process was simplified for the individual worker into a set of tasks to be carried out. The series of tasks necessary to make sugar were individually performed, but integrated by the process itself, being “ consecutive in time and simultaneous in space and in this aspect, the sugar plantation was seen as the forerunner of the modern factory.[20]

Due to the complexity of the production of sugar, division of labour was created as a way of dividing the task by assigning different positions to the slaves. However, men and women were sometimes used in both field and factory but always based on a separation of tasks by sex. Heavier field tasks such as holing, field clearing, wood cutting where mainly done by men, but women worked alongside men at weeding and cane cutting.[21]Other men labour consisted in work in the furnaces, kettles, and teaches lit. While women were engaged in labour of milling house carrying out bagasse, carrying out task in the purging house and claying the pots.[22]

As a way of motivating the slaves in doing a good job and also to keep them under control to avoid rebellion Brazil government created this system of incentives or privileges which was then implemented on Bahian plantation slavery. Three were the main privileges identified by historians as such the first one consisted in the use of slaves in skilled occupations and as foremen in the sugar plantation providing an image of possible social mobility. The second one saw masters in giving their slaves a space to grow their own food which in order to diminish the unjust system of food rationing and lastly, the incentive of an eventual freedom through manumission.[23]

The early half of the eighteenth century saw the rise of Minas Gerais as the main focus of colonial activity in Brazil. The discovery of gold and diamonds brought the territory an immense profitable colony which was possible due to the fact that sugar economy in the north-eastern part of Brazil was facing a period of a general downfall and was not profitable in the same way it was at the beginning. In response to the continue growth of Minas Gerais the population began to move to settle in this territory.[24]

By speeding up the process of territorial integration and consolidating that of colonization the overall approach forced the royal authorities to assume a more active role[25]and furthermore the mines did make a major contribution to the early definition of Brazilian society and its economy as well.

Like the sugar plantation in Bahia, Minas Gerais gold masters made use of slaves as first hands labour forces leading to it becoming in the mid eighteenth century a territory with a high concentration of African slaves. Vallejos states in his book ‘ Slave Control and Slave Resistance in Colonial Minas Gerais, 1700–1750’ that although official statistics for the 1730s place the average slave population at approximately 100, 000, there might a fall short of the real numbers[26]as these were submitted for taxation purposes therefore the numbers did not account for the reality of the quantity of slaves present during this period of time. In the mining urban society like Minas Gerais, slave and master confronted each other in ways that bore little resemblance to the typical patterns of plantation slavery.[27]Supervision of the slaves was provided and very strict due the nature of the labour that they were dealing with. Nonetheless, gold dust and gold nuggets were very easy to conceal[28]something that the slaves were aware of. In comparison with the production of sugar where the only harm possible that slaves could do was to tamper with the production of it causing the sugar to not be at its finest quality. However, with the extraction of gold the situation was different as a very small quantity of it was enough to give a slave considerable buying power and a fair measure of independence.[29]The latter reason cause gold masters in investing in surveillance which was considerably expensive therefore not all miners were able to afford one.

Nevertheless, gold slave miners did face the same reality of bondage that all slaves did endure in different places elsewhere despite the nature of their job. The suspiciousness of slaves stealing gold nuggets from their gold masters was often one of the main causes for extreme use of force and violence.  Indeed, there are many contemporary accounts which denounce the irrationality of those masters who ill-treated their slaves.[30]

Slaves were allowed to mine for themselves after fulfilling a specified time-quota for their masters but sometimes the slaves working on their own could come to agreement to share their profits with their masters. By meeting the specify quota decided by their masters, in return they could be offered their freedom after a certain number of years, proven by their masters that their behaviour and productivity had been worthy for such a concession to be given unto them.[31]

The differences between plantations slaves and the miners one lies in the fact that the nature of the labour of the latter was somehow less demanding compared to those in sugar plantations. Obviously, this statement is arguable as the notion of slavery itself cannot be identified as a positive one, however, not all slaves did face cruel realities as seen in Bahia the existence and creation of certain laws did provide them with some sort of legal protection shifting this idea of inhumane treatment of slaves to humane.

Similarities between the treatment of slaves in both territories reside in the creation of incentives as a way of rewarding those who met their quotas with promises of freedom or manumission in the case of Bahia.

Overall the life of plantation slaves in Bahia did not differ much from the ones in Minas Gerais although as shown above there were little subtle degree of difference between them such as less violence, legal laws and incentives. Slaves in Bahia were less supervised when engaging in their daily task due to the nature of the production while this was not the same case in Minas Gerais as due to the nature of the work and the fact that slaves could smuggle gold nuggets supervision was highly strict.


  • P. Vallejos, Slave Control and Slave Resistance in Colonial Minas Gerais, 1700–1750 , (Cambridge, 1985)
  • Luna, Francisco Vidal, and Herbert S. Klein. “ Slave Economy and Society in Minas Gerais and São Paulo, Brazil in 1830.” Journal of Latin American Studies 36, no. 1 (2004): 1-28. http://www. jstor. org/stable/3875422.
  • S. B. Schwartz, Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian society – Bahia 1550-1835,(United States, 1985)
  • Taylor, Kit Sims. “ The Economics of Sugar and Slavery in Northeastern Brazil.” Agricultural History 44, no. 3 (1970): 267-80. http://www. jstor. org/stable/3741454.
  • Schwartz, Stuart B. “ The Manumission of Slaves in Colonial Brazil: Bahia, 1684-1745.” The Hispanic American Historical Review , vol. 54, no. 4, 1974, pp. 603–635. JSTOR , JSTOR, www. jstor. org/stable/2512892.

[1]Sugar plantations in the formation of Brazilian society- Bahia 1550-1835, p. 160



[4]Ibid, p. 161




[8]Ibid, p. 160

[9]Ibid, p. 132


[11]Ibid, p. 133


[13]Ibid, p. 134


[15]Ibid, p. 140



[18]Ibid, p. 141

[19]Ibid, p. 154


[21]Ibid, p. 153


[23]Ibid, p. 156

[24]Slave Control and Slave Resistance in Colonial Minas Gerais, 1700–1750, p. 1



[27]Ibid, p. 4

[28]Ibid, p. 5


[30]Ibid, p. 7

[31]Ibid, p. 6

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