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Brazzil Magazine
April 2002

Sugar and Blood

By Phillip Wagner

The Story of the African Slave Trade in Brazil

The Latin American Institute at the University of New Mexico has published a pamphlet suggesting that "by 1800 free African-Brazilians represented an estimated 30% of the population (of Brazil) - the same as whites". The implication is that if the remainder of the population was comprised of African slaves and/or indigenous Brazilian natives then the number of Africans the Portuguese had been importing up until that time must have been extraordinarily large. This was 88 years before slavery was abolished in Brazil, and the overall percentage of non-whites to whites appears to have remained fairly constant throughout the nineteenth century.

My alter-ego, Philip Mizewski, and others who write for BRAZZIL Magazine have asserted that the subjugation of Africans transported to Brazil and the Caribbean constituted a form of "sugar slavery", implying something that deserves closer scrutiny. The complexity of history, and the complex nature of Brazil, can better be understood by reconstructing the sugar-trail and the world in which it existed.

The origins of African slave labor

The origins, and subsequent history, of the African slave trade has been associated indirectly with sugar through the introduction and consumption of coffee, tea and cocoa. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that an estimated four million Africans were transported to Brazil in chains, and another four million to the Caribbean, while only half a million or so were transported to the English colonies and (later) the United States. Cacao, tobacco, cotton and, eventually coffee & tea also became plantation crops in Brazil. Cacao, tobacco and cotton were other cash crops in the Caribbean. But Brazil and the Caribbean comprised the world's primary sugar growing regions, and sugar was king.

Henry Hobhouse in Seeds of Change argues that "Sugar was the first food (drug), dependence upon which led Europeans to establish tropical mono-culture to satisfy their own addiction". He adds that "Because sugar cane was (such a) labor intensive crop . . . perhaps three quarters of the all the Africans transported across the Atlantic, perhaps as many as 15 million . . . must be debited to sugar". So how addicting was, and is sugar? Hobhouse calculates that nearly 60% of the more than half of the sugar trade between the Old and New World controlled by Britain in the years between 1783 and 1793 were consumed by Britains themselves. That means that "perhaps 25% of English maritime effort, the work of a quarter million workers in England and the sun baked effort of all those whites and slaves in the colonies was an expensive substitute for alternative sources of energy".

The origins of sugar

Sugar is thought to have originated in Polynesia, although no one seems to know how far back in time. It moved westward with excruciating lack of speed, probably at first as small pieces washed ashore on beaches elsewhere. Distinct strains of sugar developed in India and Indonesia. Hobhouse, who traces threads of history that grew from actual seeds, says that sugar was being "chewed as an aphrodisiac sweetmeat in about 1000 BC" although sugar only first appeared in Europe during the Middle Ages. It might seem curious that such an addictive substance would spread so languidly. Sugar cane was first distilled and crystallized around 700 BC in India and "introduced to China as sugar".

Genesis of demand for sugar in Europe

When Columbus introduced sugar into the Caribbean in 1494 it was labeled "creole", a term which implied "naturalized to and born"; something which at that time had no racial connotation. It seems especially ironic then that this event foreshadowed the subsequent explosion of trade in Black human beings.

In 1454, exactly a half-century before Columbus delivered the first sugar cane seedlings to Haiti coffee seedlings were making their way from southeastern Ethiopia to the Arabian Peninsula. And within two decades of Columbus's fateful act coffee-houses, by 1511, had opened in Constantinople, Mecca and Medina and the Spanish conquistador Cortez in 1519 had encountered a beverage prepared from the cacao (cocoa) bean in Mexico. This suggests that cocoa may have been introduced to Europe, through Spain, before both coffee and tea. But cocoa, without sugar, failed to create much of a stir. "One commentator" according to Richard Swift in his magazine article The Cocoa Chain " at the time shook his head at the bitter tasting drink, claiming it was more fit for pigs than people. But innovation through the adding of sugar transformed chocolate for the sweet European palate and it grew in popularity". The Aztecs and Mayans of course didn't know about sugar. But they added a "delicate mixture of spices, honey and flowers to get a recipe correct".

Note that in 1500, according to Katia Mattoso, author of To be a Slave in Brazil "there were no more than 25,000 slaves in the Old World. Interest in the slave trade did not really develop until the discoverers of the New World . . . realized that these vast new territories called for new modes of exploitation" (related to sugar and the beverages that prompted its demand). Mattoso also notes that between 1572 and 1652 "the price of (African) slaves . . . doubled. This increase reflected both the increased price of sugar and the increased demand for slave labor". Hugh Thomas (The Slave Trade) lists the average price of a slave in 1504 Lisbon as about 5,000 réis. By 1593 the indicated average price of 20-30,000 réis roughly represents a five-fold increase.

Use of the word "cha", probably derived from the Chinese character "ch'a" that was assigned to represent tea around 725, appeared in Lisbon after 1550 and the Portuguese began to import tea around 1580 (McCoy and Walker, Coffee and Tea). According to Mattoso, "the Portuguese who had settled Brazil took it upon themselves as early as 1559 to furnish their Brazilian estates with a supply of Black manpower." And, more importantly, she adds that "Bahia . . and Pernambuco . . . became major centers for the importation of slaves, indispensable for the economic development of the sugar-producing hinterland".

Peter Winn, author of the 600 page Americas; the Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean describes how "At first the Portuguese tried to solve their labor problem by bribing or coercing the local (Tupi) Amerindian population to work on their sugar estates. But the Tupis . . . were unaccustomed to regular hard labor and uninterested in earning a steady wage. They either sickened and died under the Portuguese lash or else slipped (back) into the nearby forest". Mattoso agrees that the indigenous population of Bahia, where the Portuguese first established sugar plantations, was "soon decimated by war and disease. The Indians did not adapt well to being forced to work as sedentary agricultural laborers". "After 1570" says Hobhouse "Brazilian planters began to replace them with African slaves". The African slave trade, fueled by an incipient demand for sugar in Europe, had begun in earnest.

Captain James Smith, prior to establishing the colony of Jamestown in 1607, mentioned coffee in his 1603 book Travel and Adventures". Documented evidence of coffee consumption in England doesn't appear until 1637 although Venetians began the importation of coffee into Europe in 1615. A coffee-house was established near Oxford by a Lebanese immigrant in 1650, and an apothecary near Oxford began selling coffee five years later. Hobhouse writes that coffee was introduced to England in 1652, along with cacao and tea. So there is some disagreement regarding exact dates, but the parallel spread of the new beverages in Europe and cultivation in of sugar cane in the New World is not disputed. Increasing demand for sweetened, boiled beverages resulted in escalating demand for sugar. Growing and (particularly) processing sugar cane is brutal work; work that Europeans were not inclined to pursue.

The significance of choice

Consider now the importance of the introduction of the three new beverages derived from cocoa, coffee and tea to Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and its subsequent full impact on the fate of African peoples and the future development of Brazil. According to Hobhouse, "At the time of the introduction of these beverages, water was not fit to drink in most towns and villages". In the context of modern day society it's virtually impossible to appreciate the significance of that statement. Imagine that there were no non-alcoholic beverages available to you today other than milk? Who could have produced such quantities of milk as might have been required anyway, and remember there was no refrigeration to keep it. There was no canned or bottled fruit juices, no carbonated sodas, no instant artificially flavored drinks and no V-8. There were, of course, alcoholic beverages. But the consumption of significant quantities of alcoholic beverages must have been counterproductive for society. Its one thing to suggest that French children today are introduced to wine at an early age; quite another to imagine them largely sustaining themselves on beer and wine throughout each day. Try to imagine the commonplace incidence of intoxicated public and church officials, carriage drivers and field workers sustaining the wants and needs of every community throughout Europe in the 1500s. The only commonly available alternative to the dual risks of reliance on contaminated wells and alcoholic beverages was "boring boiled water". So the introduction of hot coffee, tea and cocoa drinks produced by boiling water triggered demand on a scale that can hardly be imagined today. But Hobhouse astutely observes that "all three were crude, often bitter, and not consumable, it was said, without sugar".

Demand and value

One measure of demand for any product is the 'supply and demand' value ascribed to it. In colonial North America tea was almost always under lock and key. The 1773 British tax on tea in the colonies provided a pretext for the Boston Tea Party that was staged by the radical 'Sons of Liberty' faction in pre Revolutionary War Massachusetts. And the high value of tea encouraged such severe and unscrupulous adulteration of it that the famed Mr. Twining accused one English village of producing 20 tons of adulterated tea annually. "The adulterants" quotes Hobhouse "were ash leaves collected by children and boiled in a copper with sheep's dung".

In Coffee and Tea Elin McCoy and John Frederick Walker relate that tea "was so costly that only the aristocracy could afford it and the necessary accoutrements for storing and serving it. But by 1666 the price had been lowered to (the equivalent of) a mere eighty to one hundred dollars a pound". They also point out that the price of a small serving of coffee in 1683 New Amsterdam (New York) equated to the price of an entire good meal.

In The Cocoa Chain, a journal article, Richard Swift notes that "with the establishment of chocolate houses in London a tax of 75p (pence) a pound kept the price out of reach of ordinary folks". Swift says that the cacao "bean was so highly valued that it was used (by Mayans) as a form of currency at a fixed market rate" and was hoarded by Aztec emperors. "At one point" there were "some nine hundred and sixty million beans in the (Aztec) royal coffers".

"Follow the money trail"

Who can forget that cryptic advice given by "Deep Throat" to Washington Post investigative reporters Woodward and Bernstein in the film All the President's Men? Wherever there is anything of such importance in society there is enormous incentive for political intrigue. A Polish Spy who helped Austria halt the advance of 300,000 invading Turks laid claim to the sacks of Turkish coffee that the invaders left behind. With permission he opened the first European café in that region of Europe and coffee soon displaced Ale as the beverage of choice. According to Maryjo Koch, author of Coffee; Delectable for All Seasons, the explosion of demand for coffee precipitated a national crisis in Prussia. Frederick II " . . . . annoyed that so much money was bleeding out of his empire into foreign coffers, mounted a campaign against the brew, aided by physicians willing to denounce it". Johann Sebastian Bach, representing the unyielding public, responded by poking fun at the King in his Coffee Cantata.

Koch also points out that religious zealots had earlier attempted to close down coffee houses in the Near East but says that their efforts were thwarted by "Rulers who . . . though suspicious of (the) subversive intellectual activity (associated with such establishments) were seduced by the tax revenue they brought in."

McCoy and Walker (Coffee and Tea) relate the following story that underscores the value of coffee as a commodity in the 17th century. The French and Dutch, who "jealously guarded their fledgling coffee industries" in Colonial South America, nearly went to war over a border dispute between Dutch Suriname and French Guiana. But the importance of the coffee trade was such that in order "to avoid interruption that warfare would mean to their commerce . . . they appealed to the Brazilians to arbitrate their disagreement". The wife of the governor of French Guiana gratefully "presented (the arbitrator) Francisco de Melo Palheta, a lieutenant colonel in the Brazilian army . . . with a bag of coffee, seeds and several seedlings". Palheta immediately resigned his commission and quickly established what has become the world's largest coffee industry; that of Brazil.

Perhaps the ultimate reflection of the political influence of sugar is more direct. Hobhouse says the "The West Indian merchants carried such weight that the sugar islands were considered in 1763 as being more important than Canada, both British and French, and by one section of politicians as being more vital even than the American colonies". So it seems clear that the African slave trade was as much a product of sugar as was sugar a product of African labor.

Economic impact and sociopolitical disruption were pronounced in Africa itself. Thomas (The Slave Trade) writes "An intelligent historian, Fernando da Silva Correa, reported about 1789 that eighty eight percent of the income of Luanda derived from the trade in slaves". But in the case of Africa the monetary profits were fueling an insidious form of societal self-destruction. Tribal rivalries were inflamed and exploited for the sole purpose of generating a continuing stream of slave 'inventory'. Thomas quotes a Swedish mineralogist. "The wars in which the inhabitants carry on with each other are chiefly of a predatory nature, and owe their origin to the yearly number of slaves which the Mandingos, or the island traders, suppose will be wanted by the vessels which arrive on the coast". He also quotes the historian Vasina. "The (slave) trade explains most of the history of the kingdoms of Central Africa between 1500 and 1900". One former African King of Dahoma, he says, generated an annual income of about a quarter million pounds in the trading of slaves. He contrasted that to "The richest English landowner" who at that time "might expect an income of only forty to fifty thousand pounds".

Medicinal precedent

Coffee, tea and cocoa were first and foremost considered medicinal beverages in earliest times. Its important to understand how significant the medicinal qualities of these beverages were considered to be in society because, again, it helps us in the present time to appreciate just how greatly they were valued. It is the value of these beverages that drove the demand for sugar. And sugar in turn, as has already been established, triggered and sustained demand for African slave labor.

A Venetian merchant documented medicinal aspects of tea; a second hand account provided by "a Persian Merchant describing Chinese tea drinking customs" in 1559.

A Persian legend tells that the archangel Gabriel delivered the Prophet Muhammad his first cup of coffee, after which Muhammad is said to have declared that he could "unseat 40 horsemen and possess 50 women".

The high fat content of cacao made it an important food source in a world where survival might depend on the ability to sustain oneself for periods without reliable availability of food stores. Aztec warriors carried light high-energy chocolate on military campaigns. Some of you may recall films depicting American servicemen carrying chocolate during the Second World War. Chocolate was included in the C-rations I carried in Vietnam.

The demise of cane-sugar's influence and the decline of African slavery

The idea that the abolitionist movement is alone responsible for the decline and termination of the African slave trade fails to account for economic and political realities. Financial and political interests responding to public demand had initiated and maintained the African slave trade for more than three centuries. New economic considerations related to development of an alternative source of sugar, technological advancements and political interests would, as much as moral outrage, spell its demise.

During the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s "French sugar ships had to run the blockades of the (British) Royal Navy in the West Indies" and "also suffered the loss of 100,000 tons of sugar a year which had previously been produced by Dominica". Between 1791 and 1804 (Bonham C. Richardson, The Caribbean in the Wider World 1492-1992) ". . . the slaves of the western half of Hispanola galvanized themselves . . . defeating British, Spanish and French armies, thereby forcibly transforming French St. Dominique into the Black Republic of Haiti". So Napolean encouraged commercial development of sugar from a form of beet; following up on earlier work conducted by a researcher in Berlin. Commercial production of beet-sugar sealed the fate of the sugar-cane industry in terms of its overwhelmingly dominant economic and political influence in world affairs. And technological advances further undermined justification for slave labor. "On January 11, 1797, a steam engine ground stalks of sugar cane at the Seybabo mill in Cuba"(Marino Fraginals 1976) "and steam powered mills arrived in the islands of the British and French Caribbean in the same decade (Watts 1987)". Richardson adds that with "invention of the vacuum pan early in the nineteenth Century more sugar juice could be evaporated at lower temperatures without scorching; and the volume of the molasses by-product was reduced accordingly" meaning increased efficiency producing more product with less labor.

Human addiction to sugar ensured that a more relative and regional significance of would continue, as it has to this day, in many Caribbean countries. "Sugar cane remains the principle cash crop of the Caribbean region as it has for nearly five hundred years" says Richardson. But sugar cane based economies in the Twenty-first Century only support impoverished populations. On a grander scale, the cane-sugar industry declined precipitously after 1807. An English law at that time "made the slave trade illegal for all British subjects" (Africans and their History; Joseph E. Harris). And that precedent coincided with the emergence of the beet-sugar production, advancements in cane sugar refining and increasing pressure from abolitionists. The first abolitionist 'legal' success had come in 1772 when a British court "ruled against slavery in England"; that is on the island of Great Britain itself. Other successes followed the more significant 1807 British ruling in the Netherlands, the United States and elsewhere; but these laws were not reliably enforced.

Harris supports my own linkage of the success of abolition to economic and political factors, but with a distinctly African twist. "The story of abolition is frequently portrayed as humanitarianism. While the curtailment of the traffic in itself was humane, it is clear that economic imperatives in large measure accounted for the success of abolitionism. The huge [profits accrued from the slave trade made possible greater industrial development which created a demand for legitimate products such as oil for lubricants and soap. In order to exploit these and other products which were known to exist in Africa, peace and stability, which could not occur alongside the slave trade, had to be established". African slavery simply began to lose its economic appeal, and political support for the trade in human beings began to erode rapidly. From that point forward, says Hobhouse "the slave trade was condemned as an immoral cruelty that was economically inefficient".

Sources of information for this article:
All the President's Men; film
Americas; the Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean Peter Winn
Coffee and Tea Erin McCoy and John Frederick Walker
Coffee; Delectable for All Seasons Maryjo Koch
Seeds of Change Henry Hobhouse
The African Exchange; Toward a Biological History of Black People Kenneth F. Kiple, editor
The Anchor Atlas of World History Volume II
The Caribbean in the Wider World 1492-1992) Bonham C. Richardson
The Cocoa Chain, journal article, publication uncertain Richard Swift
The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American Jeff Smith
The Slave Trade Hugh Thomas
The Latin American Institute at the University of New Mexico
To be a Slave in Brazil 1550-1888 Katia M. de Queirós Mattoso

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