The Hope and Fear Involving Slavery and the Economy in the Brazilian Coffee Industry

Presentation Link:

Greg Bowman, Stephanie Boateng, Vishal Ayyagari, and Rachel Moser


Coffee was first introduced to Brazil by a French Guiana traveler, Francisco de Mello Palheta, in 1727. Coffee was originally used for domestic consumption and it did not turn into a cash crop until around the 1800s. Sugar cain was the primary cash crop, but the demand of coffee beans, excellent climate, and low competition made coffee king. By 1840, Brazil was the largest coffee exporter in the world. Produced mainly in the Paraiba Valley and Sao Paulo coffee plantations began to increase in size and number to meet the growing demand of the world. The coffee industry brought both fear and hope to Brazil. The use of slavery was a strong driver in allowing the coffee plantations to meet demands, but the brutality of slavery brought fear into the people. Once slavery was abolished the fear of the failing economy of Brazil and the coffee industry was in question. Since coffee exports are a large part of Brazil’s GDP the decrease in exportation due to the lack of labor force caused fear in the citizens of Brazil. The substitution of immigrants in the coffee plantations brought hope to Brazil, since now the coffee industry could grow and the new people turned Brazil into a beautiful mix of cultures. The coffee industry in Brazil has brought fear through the use of slavery and a cyclical economy dependent on the coffee production, while industry brought hope by creating a flow of immigration that made Brazil a melting pot of culture, which in turn created a better Brazil.

In 1830, Brazil was the largest slave economy in the world in which there were more slaves than free individuals. With an estimated 300 thousand coffee plantations in over 1,950 cities, slaves became the main source of labor needed to plant as well as cultivate what would be the coffee bean. (Skidmore). At the time, slaves were being imported rapidly from mainly Africa in order to keep up with the booming coffee economy.  During the period of 1501 to 1866, it is estimated that 4.9 million slaves were being acquired from Africa into Brazil.  (Skidmore). Shockingly, some of these slaves were being obtained from the slave trade; which at the time was illegal since 1826 however continued to occur until around 1850 due to Brazil’s desire for more slaves. Others were being purchased from the less profitable sugar plantations, especially those in the Northeast region. (Skidmore). Brazil was becoming dependent on their coffee production, that the soils of their beautiful home, such as Rio de Janeiro, were becoming more depleted due to the rigorous amounts of coffee cultivation.  The long hours of labor left many slaves with cuts and blistering hands in order to meet the goals of production.      

Male slaves were often divided up among ethnicity as well as were put to work as transporters by transporting agricultural products by water or from ships to the marketplace. (Gutenberg). In addition, it was the role of male slaves to bring new slaves from ships to auction off. Slave men were then used as fishermen, canoeists, oarsmen, sailors, artisans and as labor workers performing fieldwork with female slaves for the production of coffee.  Women slaves were kept to fulfill the traditional duties such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, childcare in addition to the fieldwork. Brazilian slaves were kept in such grim living conditions that their health was being jeopardized. (Gutenberg). These health threats caused a reduction in the childbearing capacity among the female Brazilian slave population.  “Life expectancy of a Brazilian slave was only two-thirds that of a Brazilian free white man, in contrast to the United States in the slave period, where a slave would expect to live almost 90 percent as long as his master.” (Skidmore). These harsh conditions started to become apparent as there was an immense amount of British pressure to end the slave trade as they believed it to be inhumane. Therefore, the Brazilian economy was fearful as the act of abolishment started to become more appealing around the world.

Brazil abolished slavery nationwide in 1888 through the Golden Act, a legal act promoted by Princess Isabel on May 13th.  The feeling of  panic was created among Brazilians and their economy, as they no longer had the workers to produce their highly demanded export of coffee. After the abolishment of slavery, the coffee production almost collapsed. The solution for the lack of labor was to obtain European immigrants to work in the Brazilian coffee fields.(Skidmore).

In 1880 São Paulo produced 1.2 million 60-kilogram coffee bags, or 25 percent of Brazil’s total; by 1888 this proportion had jumped to 40 percent (2.6 million bags); and by 1902, to 60 percent (8 million bags). In turn, between 1884 and 1890 some 201,000 immigrants from all over Europe and even some from Japan had entered São Paulo State, and this total jumped to more than 733,000 between 1891 and 1900.  (U.S. Library of Congress). Therefore, it was evident that Brazil had solved the problem of finding workers to replace slaves. The immigrants picked up right where the slaves left off, vitalizing the economy by mass producing goods such as coffee beans, coco, sugar, and molasses. When the inner markets picked up, it was evident that Brazil had something special growing. Coffee quickly became the most exported product from Brazil and growth in the inner markets became very dramatic. Approximately twenty years later, it accounted for over forty percent of the exports and rapidly exceeded the economic growth of sugar. The income earned from the exportation of coffee created capital that brought about changes to Brazil’s society, economy, and culture. This increased the Gross Domestic Production (GDP) of Brazil by: encouraging industrialization, developing a middle class, devaluing slavery; it also helped develop institutions, infrastructures, railways and credit expansions. Below is a graphic representation of just how much slavery was apart of the Brazilian economy. As we can see, coffee really picked up in 1909 with all the technological and industrial advances in the 1900’s but also sharply declined after the foreign markets crashed.

However, coffee could not keep Brazil high in the markets for too long. In around 1909, the value of coffee decreased drastically as slavery was abolished despite the new aid from the immigrant workers. Also, even the most profitable economic activities could not withstand the Great Depression of 1929. At that time, the United States were the leading importers of Brazilian coffee. The prices fell and thousands of coffee sacks were burned; this brought an enormous economic loss to the producers that could never be recovered. Even after the depression ended and markets started returning to their rates, producers of coffee never showed the same interest as they once had. These producers had to find other ways to become profitable during this time and never got back into the businesses that once vitalized the economy.

Today, coffee is responsible for over ten percent of Brazil’s commodities in 2011. From 2011 to 2012, Brazil gained almost eight billion US Dollars in revenue from its coffee exports – a six percent increase compared to the previous year. There are over three hundred thousand coffee plantations in Brazil with its largest buyers being Germany, the United States, Italy, Japan, and Belgium. Coffee never left its role in its importance to the Brazilian economy and remains as the country’s most valuable commodity.

The coffee industry in Brazil has brought hope and fear to the citizens and the country as a whole. In recent times the industry still faces problems with some plantations creating fear through illegal labor practices, such as poor working conditions and forced labor. As other plantations have instilled hope with good conditions for workers and ensuring ethical treatment. The extreme mistreatment of slaves was substituted by hope of the new immigrants who contributed to Brazil and created a new inclusive culture that makes Brazil unique to all other countries. This pride in Brazil has worked hand in hand with boosting its economy. However, the coffee production and the economy has seen cyclical cycles, but coffee remains a mainstay in Brazil, as it is something Brazilians are most proud of. All in all the coffee industry has been a mix of hope and fear, but looking into the future it remains a symbol of hope within the people and the country as the coffee bean is a cherished and loved commodity.  



“Brazilian Coffee Beans.” Coffee beans. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2017


“Coffees from the Americas: Brazil |” Coffee Review – The World’s Leading Coffee Guide. Web. 01 Mar. 2017

Gutenberg, Project. “History of Slavery in Brazil.” History of Slavery in Brazil | Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing – EBooks | Read EBooks Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.


Mackay, Jack. “CRS Policy Brief: Slave Labor in Brazilian Coffee. (And What We Can Do about It.).” Coffeelands. The Blog, 13 Apr. 2016. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.

Mello, Juliana. “Brazilian Coffee Industry.” The Brazil Business. Fujikawa, 14. Oct. 2012. Web. 18. Feb. 2017.


Skidmore, Thomas E.  “Latin American Histories: Brazil : Five Centuries of Change” OUP Oxford, March. 1999. Web. 27. Feb. 2017

Soloway, Benjamin. “In Brazil’s Coffee Industry, Some Workers Face ‘Conditions Analogous to Slavery’.” Foreign Policy. Passport, 13 Apr. 2016. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.


Waite, Chelsea; “Coffee.” Brown University Library. Brown University, 2012. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.