Early Colonial Society, Brazil & Caribbean - Plantation Society

Cabral discovered the coast of central Brazil in 1500; yet it took another 3 decades for the Portuguese to undertake a serious attempt to settle the country. No conquest took place; the local population played a negligible role in the establishment of a colonial economy in Brazil. The foundation of Brazil's economy was to be the sugar plantation; the complex technique had been mastered by the Portuguese on Madeira and later on Sao Tome, and in the 1530es was transferred across the South Atlantic, to Brazil, which had just the suitable climate, and, in contrast to the islands off the African coast, the potential for the industry to expand. The labour force was imported from Africa - slaves.
A good deal of the Portuguese plantation owners were Marranos, Jews who had, formally, converted to Christianity, but who continued to practice Judaism privately. When parts of the Brazilian coast were conquered by the Dutch in 1630 (-1654) - the Dutch practicing religious toleration - a number of them returned to living openly as Jews. When the Dutch surrendered Recife to the Portuguese in 1654, these Jews faced the Inquisition - relapse of converts into their former religious beliefs, according to Portuguese law, was punishable by death. There thus was an exodus of plantation owners, to the Caribbean - to any island suitable for sugar cane cultivation not ruled by Spain. Thus, the Caribbean soon overtook Brazil as the world's leading cane sugar producer.
Other products were produced on plantations in the Americas, such as tobacco, cocoa, cotton, coffee. When the first British colonies were established (Virginia, Barbados, St. Kitts), attempts were made using white labour. High death rates in the hot and humid climate of the Caribbean lead to the plantation owners turning to the import of African slave labour. Their death rates were lower, but still higher than the reproduction rate; the labour force had to be replenished by a continuous import of slaves.
The economic success of the plantations resulted in the change of the ethnic pattern of the population; many of the smaller Antilles have a population the overwhelming majority of which is of African descent. In pockets where the plantation industry did not set foot, and where the natives had survived both attempts of the Spaniards to abduct the natives to work their farms and mines elsewhere, and the diseases, Carib populations survived into the 18th century (St. Vincent)
The plantations, of course, were white-owned, and most of the wealth generated on the plantations was consumed and invested in Europe. Some argue, that Haiti's sugar and coffee plantations have financed the construction of Versailles. Napoleon's first wife, Josephine de Beauharnais, was the daughter of the owner of a sugar plantation on Martinique.


This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on June 27th 2003, last revised on November 14th 2004

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