History of South America

Sugar Mill in Colonial Brazil

The sugar mill designates the place where sugar was produced during the colonial period.

These mills appeared in the 16th century, when sugarcane was planted in Brazil.

They had buildings for grinding sugar cane, places to transform the juice into molasses and rapadura, a chapel, a house for the owners and a slave quarters for the enslaved.

The first sugarcane seedlings arrived from Portugal in the mid-16th century. The Portuguese already had planting techniques, as they cultivated and manufactured the product on the island of Madeira and the Azores.

Structure of colonial mills

The colonial mill was a large complex divided into several parts:

  • Canefield :where sugar cane was grown;
  • Mind :place to grind the plant and extract the juice. The mill was powered by animal traction, water (mill) or even the human strength of the slaves themselves.
  • House of Boilers :space used to boil sugar cane juice in holes dug in the ground. The result, a thick liquid, was then boiled in copper pots.
  • House of Furnaces :a kind of kitchen that housed large ovens that heated the product and turned it into cane molasses.
  • House of Purge :there were the forms with the crystallized broth, called sugar bread. After six to eight days they were removed from the molds, refined and ready to be marketed.
  • Plantations :In addition to the sugarcane plantations, there were subsistence plantations (vegetable gardens), in which fruits and vegetables were grown to feed the inhabitants of the mill.
  • Big House :represented the center of power of the mills, being the place where the landowner and his family lived. Despite the imposing name, not all the houses were large.
  • Senzala :places that sheltered enslaved people and where there was no type of comfort and they slept on the dirt floor. At night they were chained to prevent escape
  • Chapel :construction made to celebrate the religious rites of the inhabitants of the mill, especially the Portuguese. There, the masses and the main Catholic manifestations took place such as baptism, weddings, novenas, etc. It is worth remembering that the enslaved were often forced to participate in the cults.
  • Houses for Free Workers :small and simple dwellings where the free workers of the mill lived. They were usually skilled employees such as carpenters, sugar masters, etc.
  • Corral :housed the animals used on the mills, whether for transport (products and people), in animal-powered mills or to feed the population.

Functioning of colonial mills

First, the cane was cultivated on large tracts of land (latifundia), then harvested and taken to the mill, where sugarcane juice was produced.

After this process, the product was taken to the boilers and then to the furnace. Therefore, the cane molasses was placed in molds and once crystallized it was known as sugar bread. Finally, it was refined in the purge house and bagged for shipping.

Part of it, and above all of the brown sugar (which did not go through the refining process) was destined for the internal trade. However, most of the production was sent to supply the European market.

Due to their structure and the large amount of labor, the mills were considered “small towns”. At the end of the 17th century, there were already about 500 sugar mills in Brazil, mainly in the northeast region.

From the 18th century onwards, sugar began to decline, with competition from the British, Dutch and French in their Caribbean colonies.

In addition, deposits of gold were discovered, which started the Gold Cycle in Brazil and, little by little, several sugar mills were deactivated.

The work of the enslaved on the plantations

Enslaved people represented the main workforce on the sugar mills (about 80%) and did not receive wages. Although most of them came from Africa, many indigenous enslaved worked on colonial plantations.

In addition to working long hours, they lived in terrible conditions, wore rags, were whipped by foremen and ate very poorly. They worked both in sugarcane production and in the manor houses, taking care of the kitchen, cleaning, raising the lord's children, etc.

Learn more about the topic by reading the articles :

  • Hereditary Captaincies
  • Colonial Brazil
  • Sugar Cane Cycle
  • Slavery in Brazil
  • Indigenous Slavery in Colonial Brazil
Brazil Colony - All Matter
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