The Portuguese Colonies

Portugal’s role in the sugar industry began before Brazil even introduced it.  Prior to this popular commodity, Portugal had established trade relationships between the Low Countries (Antwerp being the most important until the mid-sixteenth century), England, the Netherlands, and Germany.  When Brazilian sugar came along, these routes only expanded because of the shortage of grain in Portugal.  These trade links were also strong because Portugal provided salt to the European countries which was a necessity to the fishing industry.

Looking to make money, the Portuguese settlement was initiated by Prince Henry the Navigator in 1420 with focus on Madeira and Sao Tome.  Wheat was to be the initial cash crop of the area, but was not due to a decrease in production.  In 1425, sugar was introduced and caused Madeira Islands to prosper.  Like all sugar plantations, the Portuguese plantations required much labor leading to the influx of slaves to make the industry more profitable.  Although the Portuguese were the main sugar plantation owners, others invested their money.  Slaves suffered from burns and loss of ligaments, yet some skillful ones rose in power and became masters and bankers having a role in the final stages of sugar production.  Madeira had distribution issues preventing them to develop any further.  The sugar plantation in Sao Tome also caused a decrease in productivity and later wine became their main product.

Sao Tome being located on the sea route to India was a major advantage for the sugar production.  In the early 16th century, Sao Tome was famous for being the largest producer of sugar in the world. As Madeira, Sao Tome faced challenges as well.  The vast population of slaves caused problems in the island that led the Portuguese government to stop investing.  The humid weather also was not fit for the drying process needed for sugar (1).

(1) Ebert, Christopher. Between Empires: Brazilian Sugar in the Early Atlantic Economy, 1550-1630. Boston: Brill, 2008. Print.


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