Brazil has become so closely identified with coffee that many
people believe the plant
originated there. What happened in
Brazil exemplifies the benefits and hazards of relying
one product. Coffee made modern Brazil,
but at an enormous human and environmental cost.
You believe perhaps, gentlemen, that the production of coffee and sugar is the natural destiny of the West Indies.
Two centuries ago, nature, which does not trouble herself about commerce, had planted neither sugarcane nor coffee
Karl Marx, 1848
By the time Marx uttered these words, coffee cultivation in the West Indies was already declining. However, over
the next half centurybefore 1900non-native coffee would conquer Brazil, Venezuela, and most of Central America
(as well as a good portion of India, Ceylon, Java, and Colombia). In the process, the bean would help shape laws and
governments, delay the abolition of slavery, exacerbate social inequities, affect the natural environment, and provide the
engine for growth, especially in Brazil, which became the dominant force in the coffee world during this period. "Brazil did
not simply respond to world demand," observes coffee history Steven Topik, "but helped create it by producing enough
coffee cheaply enough to make it affordable for members of North America’s and Europe’s working classes."
Yet coffee did not make much of an impression in Brazil or Central America until the colonies broke away from
Spanish and Portuguese rule, in 1821 and 1822. In November 1807, when Napoleon’s forces captured Lisbon, they literally
drove the Portuguese royal family into the sea. On British ships, the royal family found its way to Rio de Janeiro, where
King John VI took up residence. He declared Brazil to be a kingdom and promoted agriculture with new varieties of coffee,
grown experimentally at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Rio and distributed as seedlings to planters. When a revolution in
Portugal forced John VI to return to Europe in 1820, he left behind his son, Dom Pedro, as regent.
Most Latin American countries, sick of the colonial yoke, soon broke away, led by Venezuela, Colombia, and
Mexico, followed by Central America, and finally, in 1822, by Dom Pedro in Brazil, who had himself crowned Emperor Pedro
I. In 1831, under pressure from populists, Pedro I abdicated in favor of his son Pedro, who was only five. Nine years
later, after a period of rebellion, chaos, and control by regents, Pedro II took over by popular demand at the age of fourteen.
Under his long rule, coffee would become king in Brazil. 1
Brazil has become so closely identified with coffee that many people believe the plant originated there. What
happened in Brazil exemplifies the benefits and hazards of relying heavily on one product. Coffee made modern Brazil, but at an
enormous human and environmental cost.
At over three million square miles, Brazil is the world’s fifth largest country. Beginning just south of the equator, it
occupies almost half of South America, knocking against 4,600 miles of the Atlantic on the east and the upthrusting Andes to
the west, stretching north to the Guiana Highland and the Plata Basin in the south. The Portuguese, who discovered,
exploited, and subjugated Brazil, were initially enchanted with the country. In 1560, a Jesuit priest wrote, "If there is paradise
here on earth, I would say it is in Brazil."
Unfortunately, the Portuguese proceeded to destroy much of that paradise. The sugar plantations of the 17th and
18th centuries had established the pattern of huge
fazendas (plantations) owned by the elite, where slaves worked in
unimaginably awful conditions. It was cheaper to import new slaves than to maintain the health of existing laborers, and as a result,
slaves died after an average of seven years. Growing cane eventually turned much of the Northeast into an arid savanna.
As sugar prices weakened in the 1820s, capital and labor migrated to the southeast in response to the coffee
expansion in the region’s Paraíba Valley. While Francisco de Melo Palheta had brought seeds to Pará in the northern tropics,
coffee grew much better in the more moderate weather of the mountains near Rio de Janeiro, where it had been introduced by
a Belgian monk in 1774. The virgin soil, the famed
terra roxa (red clay), had not been farmed because of a gold and
diamond mining boom of the 18th century. Now that the precious minerals were depleted, the mules that had once carted gold
could transport beans down already-developed tracks to the sea, while the surviving mining slaves could switch to coffee
harvesting. As coffee cultivation grew, so did slave imports to Rio, rising from 26,254 in 1825 to 43,555 in 1828. By this
well over a million slaves labored in Brazil, comprising nearly a third of the country’s population.
In order to placate the British, who by then had outlawed the slave trade, the Brazilians made the importation of
slaves illegal in 1831 but failed to enforce the law. Slavery’s days were clearly numbered, however, and so the slavers,
attempting to take advantage of the time left to them, increased the number of slaves imported annually from 20,000 in 1845 to
50,000 the following year, and 60,000 by 1848.
When British warships began to capture slave boats, the Brazilian legislature was forced to pass the Queiroz Law of
1850, truly banning slave importation. Still, some two million already in the country remained in bondage. A system of huge
plantations, known as latifundia, promoted a way of life reminiscent of the slave plantations of the Old South in the United States,
and coffee growers became some of the wealthiest men in Brazil.
In 1857, American clergyman J. C. Fletcher wrote of his visit to the 64 square mile coffee
fazenda of Commendador Silva Pinto in Minas Gerais. "He lives in true baronial style," Fletcher commented appreciatively. In the huge dining room,
three servants came, bearing "a massive silver bowl a foot and a half in diameter." Later, he listened to fifteen slave musicians
playing an overture to an opera, after which the black choir sang a Latin mass.
A few years later, a traveler in the Paraíba Valley described a typical slave schedule. Though not the same plantation
visited by Fletcher, the conditions under which the slaves labored were probably similar:
The negroes are kept under a rigid surveillance, and the work is regulated as by machinery. At four o’clock in the
morning all hands are called out to sing prayers, after which they file off to their work…. At seven [p.m.] files move wearily back
to the house…. After that all are dispersed to household and mill-work until nine o’clock; then the men and women are
locked up in separate quarters, and left to sleep seven hours, to prepare for the seventeen hours of almost uninterrupted labor on
the succeeding day.
Although some plantation owners treated their slaves decently, others forced them into private sadistic orgies.
Beatings and murders were not subject to public scrutiny, and slaves were buried on plantations without death certificates. Slave
children were frequently sold away from their parents. Constantly on guard against slave retaliationa scorpion in the boot or
ground glass in the corn mealowners always went armed. "On this plantation," one owner proclaimed, "I am the pope."
Slaves were regarded as subhuman, "forming a link in the chain of animated beings between ourselves and the various species
of brute animals," as one slaveholder explained to his son.
Brazil maintained slavery longer than any other country in the Western hemisphere. In 1871, Pedro II, who had
freed his own slaves over thirty years before, declared the "law of the free womb," specifying that all new-born offspring of
slaves from then on would be free. He thus guaranteed a gradual extinction of slavery. Even so, growers and politicians fought
against abolition. "Brazil is coffee," one Brazilian member of parliament declared in 1880, "and coffee is the negro."
War Against the Land
In his book, With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic
Forest, ecological historian Warren Dean documented the devastating effect that coffee had upon Brazil’s environment. During the winter months of May,
June, and July, gangs of workers would begin at the base of a hill, chopping through the tree trunks just enough to leave them
standing. "Then it was the foreman’s task to decide which was the master tree, the giant that would be cut all the way through,
bringing down all the others with it," Dean wrote. "If he succeeded, the entire hillside collapsed with a tremendous explosion,
raising a cloud of debris, swarms of parrots, toucans, [and] songbirds." After drying for a few weeks, the felled giants were set
afire. As a result, a permanent yellow pall hung in the air at the end of the dry season, obscuring the sun. "The terrain," Dean
observed, "resembled some modern battlefield, blackened, smoldering, and desolate."
At the end of this conflagration, a temporary fertilizer of ash on top of the virgin soil gave a jump-start for year-old
coffee seedlings, grown in shaded nurseries from hand-pulped seeds before being transplanted. The coffee, grown in full sun
rather than shade, sucked nutrition out of the depleting humus layer relatively quickly. Cultivation practicesrows planted up
and down hills that encouraged erosion, with little fertilizer inputguaranteed wildly fluctuating harvests. Coffee trees
always need a "rest" the year after a heavy bearing season, but Brazilian conditions exacerbated the phenomenon. When the
land was "tired," as the Brazilian farmer put it, it was simply abandoned and new swaths of forest were then cleared. Unlike
the northern arboreal forests, these tropical rain forests, once destroyed, would take centuries to regenerate.
How to Grow and Harvest Brazilian Coffee
The Brazilians quickly learned the rudiments of coffee-growing and harvesting, much of it universal to the plant
wherever it grows. Their agricultural methods required the least possible effort and generally emphasized quantity over quality.
The general way Brazilians grow coffee remains largely unchanged over a hundred years
Coffee thrives best in disintegrated volcanic rock mixed with decayed vegetation, which describes the red clay, the
terra roxa, of Brazil. Once planted, it takes three or four years for a tree to bear a decent crop. In Brazil, each tree produces
delicate white flowers three and sometimes four times a year (in other areas of the world, there can be only one or two
flowerings). It is common in many parts of the world to see blossoms, green berries, and ripe cherries all on the same tree. The white
explosion, which takes place just after a heavy rain, is breath-taking, aromatic, and brief. Most coffee trees are self-pollinating,
allowing the monoculture to thrive without other nearby plants to attract honeybees.
The moment of flowering, followed by the first growth of the tiny berry, is crucial for coffee-growers. A heavy wind
or hail can destroy an entire crop. Arabica coffee (the only type known until the end of the 19th century) grows best
between 3,000 and 6,000 feet in areas with a mean annual temperature around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, never straying below
freezing, never going much above 80 degrees. The high-grown coffee bean, developing slowly, is generally more dense and
flavorful than lower growths.
Unfortunately for Brazil’s coffee, 95 percent of the country rests below 3,000 feet, so that Brazilian beans have
always tended to lack acidity and body. Worse, Brazil suffers from periodic frosts and droughts, which have increased in
intensity and frequency as the protective forest cover has been destroyed. Coffee cannot stand a hard frost, and it needs plenty of
rain (70 inches a year) as well. The Brazilian harvest begins soon after the end of the rains, usually in May, and continues for
six months. Because Brazilian coffee is cultivated without shade, it grows even more quickly, depleting the soil unless
Coffee trees are usually pruned on a regular basis. Still, most trees in the early Brazilian
fazendas required ladders for the harvest. Trees will produce well for fifteen years or so, though some have been known to bear productively for as
long as 20 or even 30 years. When trees no longer bear well, they can be "stumped" near the ground, then pruned so that only
the strongest shoots survive. On averagedepending on the tree variety and growing conditionsone tree will yield five
pounds of fruit, translating eventually to one pound of dried beans.
Coffee is ripe when the green berry turns a rich wine red (or, in odd varieties, yellow). It looks a bit like a cranberry
or cherry (which is why it is in fact called a "coffee cherry") though it is more oval-shaped. Growers test a cherry by
squeezing it between thumb and forefinger. If the seed squirts out easily, it is ripe. What is left in the handthe red skin, along
with a bit of fleshis called the "pulp." What squishes out is a gummy mucilage sticking to the parchment. Inside are the
two seeds, covered by the diaphanous silverskin.
The traditional method of removing the bean from nature’s multiple wrappings, known as the "dry method," is still
the favored method of processing most Brazilian coffee. The ripe (and unripe) cherries, along with buds and leaves, are
stripped from the branches onto big tarps spread under the trees. They are then spread to dry on huge patios. They must be
turned several times a day, then gathered up and covered against the dew at night, then spread to dry again. If the berries are
not spread thinly enough, they may ferment inside the skin, developing unpleasant or "off" tastes. When the skins are
shriveled, hard, and nearly black, the husks are removed by pounding on them. In the early days, the coffee was often left in its
parchment covering for export, though by the late 19th century, machines took off the husks and parchment, sized the beans, and
even polished them.
The dry method often yielded poor results, particularly in the Rio area. Since ripe and unripe cherries were stripped
together, the coffee’s taste was compromised from the outset. The beans might also lay on the ground for so long that they would
develop mold or absorb other unpleasant earthy tastes that came to be known as a "Rioy" flavor (strong, iodinelike,
malodorous, rank).** Some Rio coffee, however, was hand-picked, carefully segregated, and gently depulped. Called "Golden Rio," it
was much in demand. 4
From Slaves to Colonos
By the late 19th century, the Rio coffee lands were dying. The Rio region was "quickly ruined by a plant whose
destructive form of cultivation left forests razed, natural reserves exhausted, and general decadence in its wake," wrote Eduardo
Galeano in Open Veins of Latin America. "Previously virgin lands were pitilessly eroded as the plunder-march of coffee
advanced." As a result, the main coffee planting region moved south and west to the plateaus of São Paulo, which would become
the productive engine for Brazilian coffee and industry.
With prices continually rising throughout the 1860s and 1870s, coffee monoculture seemed a sure way to
riches. The new coffee men, the Paulistas of São Paulo, considered themselves progressive, modern businessmen compared to the
old-fashioned baronial lords of Rio coffee. In 1867, the first Santos railway to a coffee-growing region was completed. In
the 1870s, the Paulistas pushed for more technological change and innovationprimarily to advance the sale of coffee. In
1874, Pedro II dictated the first message to Europe on a new submarine cable, facilitating communication with a major
market. By the following year, 29 percent of the boats entering Brazilian harbors were powered by steam rather than sail.
Railroads quickly replaced the mule as the preferred method of transporting beans from the interior to the sea. In
1874, there were only 800 miles of track; by 1889, there were 6,000 miles. The lines typically ran directly from coffee
growing regions to the ports of Santos or Rio. They did not serve to bind regions of the country together. Rather, they deepened
dependency on foreign trade.
After 1850, with the banning of slave importation, coffee growers experimented with alternative labor schemes. At
first, the planters paid for the transportation of European immigrants, giving them a house and assigning a specific number of
coffee trees to tend, harvest, and process, along with a piece of land so that they could grow their own food. The catch was that
the sharecroppers had to pay off the debt they incurred for the transportation costs, along with other advances. Since it was
illegal for the immigrants to move off the plantation until all debts were repaidwhich typically took yearsthis amounted to
debt peonage, another form of slavery. Thus it was no surprise when Swiss and German workers revolted in 1856.
The Paulista farmers finally gained enough political clout, in 1884, to persuade the Brazilian government to pay
for immigrants’ transportation costs, so that the new laborers did not arrive with a pre-existing debt burden. These
colonos, mostly poor Italians, flooded São Paulo plantations. Between 1884 and 1914, more than a million immigrants arrived to work
on the coffee farms. Some eventually managed to secure their own
land.*** Others earned just enough to return to their
homelands, embittered and discouraged. Because of the poor working and living conditions, most plantations maintained a band of
capangas, armed guards who carried out the planter’s will. One much-hated owner, Francisco Augusto Almeida Prado, was hacked
to pieces by his colonos when he strolled through his fields unprotected.
The Brazilian Coffee Legacy
The Brazilian coffee farmers did not think of themselves as oppressors, however; on the contrary, they considered
themselves enlightened and progressive, wishing to enter the modern world and to industrialize with the profits from coffee.
After concluding that the colono system produced coffee much more cheaply than slavery, the Brazilian coffee farmers led the
charge for abolition, which occurred when the aging Dom Pedro II was out of the country. His daughter, Princess-Regent
Isabel, signed the "Golden Law" on May 13, 1888, liberating the remaining three-quarters of a million slaves. A year later, the
planters helped oust Pedro in favor of a republic that would, for years, be run by the coffee planters of São Paulo and the
neighboring province of Minas Gerais.
Unfortunately, the liberation of the slaves did nothing to improve the lot of black workers. "Everything in this world
changes," a popular verse went, "Only the life of the Negro remains the same: / He works to die of hunger, / The 13th of May
fooled him!" The planters favored European immigrants because they considered them genetically superior to those of African
descent, who increasingly found themselves even more marginalized.
In the coming years, under the colono system, coffee production would explode, from 5.5 million bags in the 1890
to 16.3 million in 1901. Coffee planting doubled in the decade following abolition, and by the turn of the century, over 500
million coffee trees grew in the state of São Paulo. Brazil flooded the world with coffee. This over-reliance on one crop had a
direct effect on the well-being of most Brazilians. A contemporary writer observed that "many articles of ordinary food
required for the consumption of the [Brazilian] people, and which could easily be grown on the spot, continue to be largely
imported, notably flour…. Brazil is suffering severely for having overdone coffee cultivation and neglected the raising of food
products needed by her people." 6
* Most Brazilian coffee is still stripped rather than selectively harvested, then "dry" processed. Much
has changed, however. Mechanical harvesting is now possible on flat Brazilian farms. Different types of trees now grow there. Finally, many
huge fazendas have given way to smaller lots.
** Some consumers got used to the Rioy flavor, however, and came to prize it.
*** Indeed, Francisco Schmidt, a German immigrant in the 1880s, eventually came to own twenty huge
fazendas with sixteen million coffee trees, a private railway and phone system, and thousands of
Galeano, Open Veins, p. 77; Steven C. Topik in Second Conquest,
p. 37-84; Roseberry, Coffee, Burns, History of Brazil, p.
151-175; Jacob, Saga, p. 298-299; Bushnell, Emergence, p. 147.
History of Brazil, p. 1-2, 192-195, 270-271; Galeano, Open Veins,
p. 71-75; Bushnell, Emergence, p. 148-151, 177-179; Thomas, Slave
Trade, p. 571, 598-599, 611, 629-636; 730-733, 739-747, 787, 804; Haarer,
Modern Coffee Production, p. 413-422, 453-458; Ukers, All About
Coffee, p. 149-151; Curtin, Atlantic Slave Trade, p. 240-269; Isola,
"Rediscoving," p. 42; Freyre, Masters, p. xlii, 428, 336; Stein, "Negro
Slavery in Brazil," in Century of Brazilian History, p. 64-67;
Documentary History, p. 251-267; Jacob, Saga, p. 296-297; Burns,
Latin America, p. 143-144; Dean, Rio Claro, 34-87; Stein,
Vassouras, p. 44-173; Bacha, 150 Years, p. 18-22, 131-195.
With Broadax, p. 178-190; 216-225, 234-235.
Out of Africa, p. 8; Lago, From Slavery, p. 44; Jacob, Saga,
293-294; Culturgram ’97 Brazil, Ukers, All About Coffee, p.
133-152; Wellman, Coffee, p. 93-112, 370-373; Burns, History of
Brazil, p. 191; Cameron, "Second International," p. 907; "Brazil’s Hidden
Hidden Wealth"; Galeano, Open Veins, p. 111; Dean, With Broadax,
p. 210-211, 220; Burns, History of Brazil, p. 198-201; Ybarra, "Old
King Coffee," p. 48, 50; Stolcke, Coffee Planters, p. 171-173, 185;
Levi, Prados; Baer, Brazilian Economy, p. 16-20; Dean, Rio
Claro, p. 88-197; Stein, Vassouras, p. 258-261.
Coffee, p. 252-253; Dean, With Broadax, p. 217; Muniz, "What It
Costs," p. 1231; Burns, History of Brazil, p. 209-212, 273, 285,
300-301; Dean, Industrialization, p. 3-66; Evans, Dependent
Development, p. 80.
The foregoing is an excerpt from Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our
World, by Mark Pendergrast (Basic Books, 1999). It can be ordered from Amazon.com. The author, who is an investigative
journalist and scholar, would like to have the book translated into Portuguese, since it contains a great deal about Brazil and its
coffee and history. If anyone has an idea for such a publisher, please contact Mark Pendergrast at