Gathering together a large enough work force to carry out these ambitious plans proved a daunting challenge. The colonists encountered resistance among the indigenous population from the start. As development plans expanded along the coast, more workers were needed than could be supplied from the region. For the buyers, indigenous slaves were a bargain, usually selling for less than half the cost of imported slaves from abroad.
Even with the help of the mercenary bandeirantes to retrieve the indigenous from their inaccessible settlements, the supply of Brazil’s native laborers could not keep pace with demand, making the colonists turn increasingly to the African slave trade. In the 1570s, Portugal began establishing settlements and had secured a colony in what is today Angola that served as a slave-trading base. As the need for slaves increased, they expanded the efforts to other areas of Africa.
Over three and a half centuries, Brazil enslaved more people than any other country in the world, acquiring between three and four million slaves from Africa. Some were captured by European slave traders, but most were enslaved by Africans of other tribes or forced to travel to Brazil as punishment for crimes committed and then traded for Brazilian goods. The discovery of gold deposits in the interior of Minas Gerais in 1695, and diamonds thirty years later, expanded the desire for slave labor still further.
Slaves were priced according to their usefulness, a reflection of their strength and health. Those who survived the three-month journey arrived in the port cities of Rio de Janeiro and, further north, Recife and Sao Luis, but primarily in Salvador, located in the heart of the sugar plantation region. By the end of the 16th century, 100,000 slaves had arrived in Brazil; during the 17th century, another 600,000; in the 18th century, 1.3 million; and before the 19th century ended, another 1.6 million.
At the peak of the slave trade, the slaves and their descendents equaled thirty percent of Brazil’s population. By the time the trading in slaves was prohibited in 1850, economic conditions had already begun to undermine the institution. Immigration was being promoted back home, and international competition in the sugar business was making the crop less profitable. The growing resistance of slaves, their desertion from the plantations in increasing numbers, and the balking of the military to contain the problem all contributed to ending the slave trade.