A History of Sugar


Satisfying the World's Sweet Tooth
Satiating the continent’s sweet tooth created an agricultural frenzy in Brazil where the northern coastal areas offered ideal conditions for growing sugarcane. More tracts of land were cleared to cultivate the crop, and what are today the states of Pernambuco, Paraiba, Bahia and Sergipe became the heartland of Brazil’s sugarcane industry. Sugar turned the Bahia settlements of Salvador and Olinda into thriving ports and many hamlets into boom cities that have today reverted to sleepy little towns.

Growing sugarcane and processing the plant into sugar was a labor-intensive industry that required a huge labor force. Sugarcane was planted in rows dug by hoes and topped with manure, spread by hand. Workdays were long and arduous. Come harvest time, the plant was cut at the base of the stem with a machete, and to prevent it from deteriorating, milled immediately. Built near the fields, the mills operated round the clock during harvest. After the cane was shredded and before it was cured, it had to be boiled into crystals, a process that took place in boiling houses where conditions were stifling and dangerous.

The indigenous were the first to be recruited. They had a choice: convert to Christianity or become a sugar plantation worker. When their numbers resulted in too small a labor force, Portugal became a leader in the African slave trade. Over a third of all the slaves traded in the Americas were sent to Brazil, primarily for work in the sugar plantations.

It was too good to last. The sugar industry continued to thrive after the Dutch took over Brazil in 1630. Though the Portuguese regained their colony two decades later, the Dutch took sugarcane with them and planted it in their Caribbean land holdings. As international competition for this important cash crop grew, the importance of Salvador began to ebb. The city’s fate was sealed with the discovery of gold in the Minas Gerais region north and west of Rio de Janeiro. With Brazil’s gold rush in full swing, Portugal named Rio de Janeiro the new capital in 1763. By the end of the 19th century, sugar beets had replaced sugarcane as the source of sugar on European tables.

Today, sugarcane remains one of the country’s most important crops, making Brazil the world’s second largest producer of ethanol. Visitors on Brazil tours may wish to sample one of the country’s traditional uses for sugarcane, the alcoholic beverage, Cachaca, sold under hundreds of brands, served in drinking establishments nationwide and brewed in rural stills, especially in Bahia. Vestiges of the sugar industry may also be seen by visitors during their travel to Brazil in such towns as Laranjeiras, a once important colonial town on the Costa Verde.