The Economy - the Sugar Cycle, 1540-1640

The Economy - 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 now Minas Gerais State.

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