Brazilian coffee, a story of love and theft
Legend has it that in 1727 Sergeant Francisco de Melo Palheta was sent to settle a land dispute between French and Dutch Guiana. He arrived in Cayenne with the intention of smuggling out the coveted coffee plants that were so closely guarded. He looked at the wife of the Governor of Cayenne, Madame D’Orvilliers. At the final banquet, his amorous exploits paid off when she presented him with a bouquet containing the plant that would become the progenitor of Brazilian coffee and the Brazilian coffee industry.
Although the amorous nature of the exchange is a legend, it was documented that Palheta was sent to French Guiana by the governor of Maranhão e Grão-Pará in northeastern Brazil. Palheta later described how he was able to come back to Brazil with thousands of seeds and several plants.
Throughout the 18th century, coffee production increased throughout northeastern Brazil. However, coffee remained a minor local crop.
Brazil becomes the land of coffee
In 1770, the first coffee plantation was established in the state of Rio de Janeiro and a small export trade to Europe soon developed. However, it was not until the 19th century that coffee production exploded in Brazil. In 1800, 1,720 pounds of coffee were exported. In 1820 exports reached 12,896,000 pounds, in 1840 137,300,000, and by the end of the century Brazil was exporting over a billion pounds of coffee annually.
From the Baixada Fluminese region in the state of Rio de Janeiro, coffee production began to expand to Vale do Paraíba, moving south and west into Minas Gerais and into the then province of São Paulo. In the late 19th century, São Paulo became Brazil’s coffee center as production moved from the now depleted soils of the Vale do Paraíba westward to more fertile soils, a better climate and flatter topography around Campinas, Rio Claro and Jundiai.
This increased production was largely driven by slave labor. It is estimated that over 5 million African slaves, over half of all African slaves brought to the New World, came to Brazil. African slavery had existed in Brazil since the 16th century. The incidence had then grown significantly in the 17th century with the expansion of sugar cane production and gold and diamond mining. It seemed that the end of slavery was near with the signing of the British-Brazilian Treaty of 1826, which would abolish slavery in Brazil in 1830. But because so many people directly benefited from the slave trade, and because the government lacked enforcement capacity, abolition would take over 50 years. To support the agricultural and coffee boom, over two million African slaves were sent to Brazil between 1800 and 1850.
Immigration and coffee migration
As coffee moved west in São Paulo, growers faced both the labor needs of higher productivity, the lack of slave labor, a more cost-effective slave market, and a growing resentment against slavery.
Although Brazil would not officially abolish slavery until 1888, it was gradually reduced by measures such as the Aberdeen Act, passed in Britain in 1845, which gave the Royal Navy the power to stop and search any Brazilian ship suspected of transporting slaves and arrest slave traders.
This led directly to high costs and a low supply of slave labor. The Free Birth Act (also known as the Rio Branco Act) of 1871 gave freedom to all newborn children of slaves and slaves belonging to the state and the royal family.
The slave owners of the children’s parents would take care of the children until the age of 21 when they would then hand them over to the state for financial compensation. The abolition of slavery in Brazil finally came with the Lei Aurea, or Golden Law, on May 13, 1888. This quickly led to a political immigration policy to provide labor for the ever-growing coffee plantations.
Brazil’s first experiment with importing foreign labor to work in the coffee fields had actually occurred 20 years earlier at Fazenda Ibicada in the state of São Paulo. Between 1847 and 1857, plantation owner and senator Nicolau Vergueiro brought around 180 families, mainly Swiss Germans, to work on his farm. However, the experiment proved a massive failure that ended in rebellion.
Plantation managers were used to dealing with slaves, not citizens with rights and the expectations that come with them. Moreover, the contractual obligations that Vergueiro imposed on the immigrants were far from fair. He charged them not only their transportation costs and the costs related to their resettlement in Brazil, but also significant interest on these costs.
This resulted in de facto indentured servitude, a situation much different than they had been promised. Led by Swiss schoolteacher Thomas Davatz, who had immigrated to Ibicada and was appalled by the situation he observed, the immigrant families rebelled. This forced Switzerland to stop emigration to Brazil and the Empire of Brazil to reconsider legislation regarding working conditions and the regulation of the import of foreign labor.
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