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  • Print publication year: 1978
  • Online publication date: May 2010

15 - From banguê to usina: social aspects of growth and modernization in the sugar industry of Pernambuco, Brazil, 1850–1920


During the 1930s, the hostility between the central mill-owners of Pernambuco and their independent cane suppliers, which had been growing since the late nineteenth century, finally reached an acute stage. An outgrowth of this was a body of literature produced by a vigorous school of local writers, who sought to assess the impact on their society of the sugar economy's development over previous decades. Their main argument concerned the excessively high social cost of modernization and the urgent need to halt the destruction of the traditional fabric of the community which it was bringing about.

According to these defenders of the old order, a serious loss was entailed by the growth of the central mills, or usinas, because in the process they were swallowing up the smaller, old-fashioned plantations, known as banguês. This had the result of gradually uprooting the centuries-old class of planters who had presided from the beginning over the nation's destiny and who embodied all that was best in its character. Of no less importance, the usinas were accused of producing a deterioration both in labour relations and in the standard of living of the rural population. The rural labourer, it was claimed, had become a pariah of the usina. Finally, the critique that attempted to vindicate the old engenhos found itself obliged in turn to defend the slave labour system with which they had been identified from the earliest times. Here it was the familiar argument that plantation slaves were often materially better off than their free counterparts locally, or than the proletariat of contemporary industrialized societies.