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The Abolition Of Slavery In Northeast Brazil

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The article identifies the models of exploitation held in sugar plantations during the abolition of slavery in Brazil. It is argued that the process of abolition in the Northeast sugar region did not represent a transition from a race-based system of coerced labour to a post-slavery system based on free labour. The conditions for exploitation rooted in the Brazilian slavery system were perpetuated. Literature focusing on the definition of exploitation and a Marxist perspective is applied to the economic and social context of sugar plantations in Brazil. The central finding is that the maintenance of a social structure based on racial exclusion and the monopoly of ownership by a minor class caused the prolongation of exploitative conditions for former slaves.

The process of abolition of slavery in Brazil represented the establishment of a long-lasting legacy that had a major impact on the structure of the Brazilian society. The study of the decline of slavery and the transition to “free” labour will uncover the fundamental composition of Brazilian colonial slavery. The focus of this essay will be on the sugar plantations in the Northern East of Brazil due to its crucial significance to the economic development of the country. By 1560, sixty years after the discovery of Brazil by the Portuguese, sugar production had become the dominant economic activity in the northeast region. The exports of sugar to Europe decreased by 1690 as the West Indies took the Brazilian position in the international market. The sugar industry was followed by periods of expansion and stagnation and maintained its importance to the regional economy, providing high profitability to plantation owners.1 Slaves represented the majority of the workforce in the sugar industry and as the abolition process developed, new forms of labour relations were established to assure the slave’s uninterrupted servitude.

The economy in Brazil relied on the continuous servitude of slaves. Not only for the production of sugar but for many other important goods that at some point were the base of the Brazilian economy, like gold, rubber, and coffee. Considering that the exploitation of slaves was the base supporting the economy and the ruling class of the colony, how were slaves exploited and to what extent did the abolition of slavery in Brazil put an end to exploitative conditions in the sugar plantations? It is argued here that the process of abolition in the northeastern sugar region of Brazil did not represent a transition from a race-based system of coerced labour to a post-slavery system based on free labour. On the contrary, land ownership was monopolized by a ruling class and a social order based on racial exclusion was further developed. Consequently, the forms of exploitation held in the sugar plantations were perpetuated.

This article is based on a series of secondary sources including reviewed journal articles, published books, and dissertations. These can be divided into three categories according to the topic researched for this essay. The first academic works that will be reviewed deals with the definition of exploitation and the framework of this essay. “Marx and Exploitation” and “Exploring Exploitation” written by Jonathan Wolf and Jon Elster respectively, contain a discussion about the adequacy of Karl Marx’s definition of exploitation. Although both authors accept Marx’s major points, they both criticize some moral assumptions underlined in the philosopher’s ideas. In addition, Jonathan Wolf gives a more broad analysis of the definition of exploitation while Jon Elster considers the situations on which Marx’s ideas can be applied. Both perspectives will be used for the analysis of the colonial sugar plantations in northeast Brazil.

Secondly, the general context and the economic structure of the colonial sugar plantations explained in this essay is based on two main journal articles: “The Economics of Sugar and Slavery in Northeastern Brazil” and “The Last Years of Slavery on the Sugar Plantations of Northeastern Brazil”. The first deals with the economic and social structure of sugar plantations when slavery was present and the latter explores the changes coming from the abolition of the slavery system. Although these sources do not include an analysis of exploitation in sugar plantations, it serves as a basis for understanding the economic development of the sugar sector in Brazil before and after the abolition of slavery.

Finally, the sources used to build the core of the presented argumentation are the following. Most importantly, The “Liberation” of Africans Through the Emancipation of Capital by David Baronov. The author argues that the abolition of slavery produced three outcomes in Brazil: “a strict racial hierarchy, extramarket methods of labour coercion and the previouse capital class’ continued monopoly…”2 David’s theory will be the main foundation to the consequences of abolition proposed in this essay. Secondly, the article “A Lei de Terras (1850) e a Abolição da Escravidão: Capitalismo e Força de Trabalho” written by the Brazilian professor, Regina Fonseca Gadelha, discusses the process of commercializing land as an elitist project aiming towards the transition to free labour in Brazil. The author’s arguments will be used to further proof the monopolized ownership by the ruling class in sugar plantations.

In regards to the structure, the first part of the essay looks at a possible framework to analyze the process of abolition in the northeast of Brazil. The framework will be established according to the identified definition of exploitation. The second part issues the composition of the sugar plantation economy during the slavery system before and after abolition. In this section, the forms of slave exploitation will also be identified. Finally, the third part proposes two major causes that permitted the perpetuation of the exploitative conditions in the sugar plantations and a discussion about these causes.

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Exploitation can take various forms, however, this phenomenon will be analyzed in the context of labour. The definition of labour exploitation in most cases is attributed to the classical and influential theory of Karl Marx. For Marx, the income that a worker receives is not equal to the effort in hours put into the production process. A part of the worker’s salary, known as the surplus value, is taken away by the capitalist to generate profit.3 In addition, Marx’s concept of exploitation is intrinsically connected to his ideas involving class. Ronald Chilcote, in an investigation about the ruling classes in northeast Brazil, explains the link between class and exploitation in the following manner: “In Marxist theory, an exploiting class is a group of individuals whose ownership of the means of production enables them to appropriate products of the others’ labour.”4 Therefore, exploitation takes place when a ruling class holds enough political power to monopolize the means of production and guarantee a continuous subjugation of their workers.

Marx’s perspective is useful to understand the context in which exploitation takes place, however, it can be applied to any society where private property or market mechanisms are present. For a broader perspective, exploitation will also be identified through two main categories. The first one is understood through the definition proposed by Jonathan Wolff: “To exploit someone is to make use of their circumstances in a way which fails properly to acknowledge their standing as an end in themself.”5 Thus, exploitation can be identified when someone is used as a mean to accomplish some goal, in the case of the capitalist or plantation owner, to accumulate capital and maximize their gains. Secondly, exploitation will also be identified in terms of coercion or forcefull acts that limit an individual’s freedom. In the case of slavery in sugar plantations, the use of physical violence for punishments was a form of coercion that amplified the exploitative conditions imposed.

The production process in the sugar plantations was characterized by a strongly established hierarchy in labour relations. The sugar plantations in Brazil were formed in a region known as the zona de mata or forest zone which developed in states ranging form Rio Grande in the northeast coast to Bahia. In the 1850s, there were around three thousand plantations in the zona de mata.6 The basic unit of production for the sugar industry was the engenho, signifying mill. The engenho represented more than the mill, it encompassed the entirety of the complex surrounding the mill including the land and equipment associated to it. The senhores do engenho or the plantation owners were the ones with sufficient capital to invest in the mill, land, and slaves.7 Moreover, these landowners rented a part of their property to tenants known as lavradores, who owned slaves and were able to cultivate cane in exchange for a fee or a percentage of their yield paid to the senhor do engenho. In addition to the lavradores and the slaves, there was a social class of poor agrigultural workers who were given land at the edges of the engenhos to sell subsistence crops and carry out errands to the plantation owner. These sharecroppers, known as moradores, were significantly dependant on the senhor do engenho, despite being considered as free workers.8 The hierarchical structure present in the engenho was one of the contributing factors to the legacy of the Brazilian slavery. David Baronov identifies this legacy as an “institutionalized racial segmentation of the labour process”.9 The European (land owners and lavradores) produced profit from the harsh working conditions of the mullatoes (positioned as moradores) and the black African slaves.

The race-based organization in the engenhos can, with no doubt, be considered as exploitative. This can be argued by firstly reassessing the definition of Jonathan Wolff in the context of slave-labour in northeast Brazil. The act of associating a slave to a determined market price is already a form of exploitation in the sense that the slave is viewed as a commodity, as a component of production. Therefore, slaves are used as a mean for profit and not as ends in themselves. Secondly, for the continued servitude and control of slaves, coercion was necessary, which increased the exploitative conditions imposed. This is argued by Stuart Schwartz as he points out that “the slave regime itself created conditions in which the exercise of dominance that called for extreme physical force or punishment was a logical and in fact necessary element of the regime.”10 In sugar plantations, the management of slaves was commonly understood by the “three-p”: pau (rod for punishment), pão (bread), and pano (cloth).11 Finally, from a Marxist perspective, exploitation was inherently present due to the privileged position of the lavradores and especially the senhores do engenho, who owned the slaves, land and all the resources for the production of sugar. Consequently, a separation of classes can be established: the senhores do engenho and lavradores as the exploiting class and the slaves and moradores as the exploited class.

The factors which contributed to the practice of exploitation in the sugar plantations during the slavery system in Brazil have been identified, however, did this practice end after the abolition of slavery? To answer this question an analysis of the process of abolition must be carried out. The abolition of slavery in Brazil did not come with the end of slave trade at the beginning of the 19th century. The population of slaves in the northeast was maintained stable after the end of slave trade. Slavery was officially abolished in 1888 with the Golden Law. The gradual change from slave-labour to wage-labour was not a factor that negatively influenced the production or profit obtained in the sugar industry.12 The main transformation was in the structure of the plantation society. An entire social class, the slaves, who represented a major part of the work force, was eliminated. This signified an important consequence to the lavradores since they were dependent on the ownership of slaves to rent a piece of property from the senhores do engenho. Despite the lavradores’ economic loss, their social class in the northeast remained constant after 1888.13 Lavradores were now dependant on the moradores, who increased in population due to the addition of slaves to this social class, and were now required to carry out more obligations in return for the use of a plot of land.14 Therefore, the social structure in sugar plantations remained the same. Labour was still race-based, lavradores and senhores do engenho maintained their privileged positions and former slaves were still denied access to property.

In addition to the maintained structure based on racial exclusion, the structure of land ownership also presented a major obstacle for the further emancipation of former slaves. This was possible due to the implementation of the Lei de Terras (Land Act), a piece of legislation that recognized non-occupied land as property of the state with a fixed price.15 The Land Act, project led by the depute Joaquim José Rodrigues Torres, had three main objectives: increase the price of land to turn it unaccessible for the work force, provide financial security to landowners, and merge a dispersed population in one area to improve labour productivity.16 Therefore, the lei de terras was a legal instrument to ensure the monopoly of land property for a capitalist class in many different regions in Brazil, not only the northeast sugar sector. From a Marxist perspective, the monopoly of property and means of production is a form of exploitation, although coercion and forceful acts were not necessarily directly present.

Even though it can be argued that exploitative models were maintained after abolition, this does not imply that slaves were less free or that their serfdom continued at the same level as before. Former slaves were granted the possibility to move freely and therefore, when the golden law was established (1888), migration to other regions apart from sugar plantations were common. As Galloway explains, “some of the former slaves moved to towns, others to the interior, many it appears settled down as moradores either on the plantations where they had served as slaves, or on neighboring plantations”17 Despite the migration of former slaves, the impact it had on the sugar industry was not significant. In the northeast, there was no necessity for immigrant workers since free and cheap labour was abundant with the existing alternative choice to slave labour (the moradores). Slaves may have had the option to migrate to other regions, nevertheless, the exploitative models rooted from the slavery system were still maintained in sugar plantations. The worker force was still unable to enjoy the fruits of their own labour and they were still seen as a means for capital accumulation.

In summary, the concept of exploitation has been explored and applied to the context of slavery in sugar plantations. During the slavery system in northeast Brazil, exploitation was definitely an essential characteristic attached to sugar plantations that not only hindered the emancipation of slaves, but contributed to the maintenance of a ruling class represented by the lavradores and senhores do engenho. Additionally, the late process of abolition in northeast Brazil did not constitute the end of the exploitative conditions identified. Former slaves were able to migrate to other regions, however the economic and social structure of plantations was still based on the expropriation of the product from the worker’s labour. Legislation on land and a social structure based on racial exclusion, guaranteed the monopoly of ownership by planters and the continued exploitation of former slaves and moradores.


  1. Baronov, David. The Abolition of Slavery in Brazil: the ‘Liberation’ of Africans through the Emancipation of Capital. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000.
  2. Costa, Patrâcia T., and International Labour Organisation. Fighting Forced Labour: The Example of Brazil. International Labour Organisation, 2009.
  3. Chilcote, Ronald H. Power and the Ruling Classes in Northeast Brazil: Juazeiro and Petrolina in Transition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  4. Dean, Warren. ‘Latifundia and Land Policy in Nineteenth-Century Brazil.’ The Hispanic American Historical Review 51, no. 4 (1971), 606. doi:10.2307/2512053.
  5. Elster, Jon. “Exploring Exploitation.” Journal of Peace Research 15, no. 1 (1978): 3–17.
  6. Gadelha, Regina M. ‘A lei de terras (1850) e a abolição da escravidão: capitalismo e força de trabalho no Brasil do século XIX.’ Revista de História 0, no. 120 (1989), 153. doi:10.11606/ issn.2316-9141.v0i120p153-162.
  7. Galloway, J. H. “The Last Years of Slavery on the Sugar Plantations of Northeastern Brazil.” The
  8. Hispanic American Historical Review 51, no. 4 (1971): 586–605.
  9. Hall, Anthony. ‘Social and Economical Obstacles to Agrarian Reform in Northen-East Brazil.’ Master’s thesis, University of Glasgow, 1970. https://search-proquest-
  10. Sakamoto, Leonardo. “Por Que a Lei Áurea Não Representou a Abolição Definitiva?” Reporter
  11. Brazil, May 13, 2008. representouaabolicao-definitiva/.
  12. Schwartz, Stuart B. ‘Workers in the Cane, Workers at the Mill.’ In Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society: Bahia, 1550-1835. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  13. Taylor, Kit Sims. “The Economics of Sugar and Slavery in Northeastern Brazil.” Agricultural History 44, no. 3 (1970): 267–80.
  14. Wolff, Jonathan. “Marx and Exploitation.”The Journal of Ethics 3 (1999): 105–20. https://link-

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