Immigrants on the Land: Coffee and Society in Sao Paulo, 1886-1934

Immigrants on the Land: Coffee and Society in Sao Paulo, 1886-1934

Immigrants on the Land: Coffee and Society in Sao Paulo, 1886-1934

Immigrants on the Land: Coffee and Society in Sao Paulo, 1886-1934


When slavery was abolished in 1880, Sao Paulo, Brazil, subsidized the immigration of workers from southern Europe and Japan. Faced with a worldwide coffee market and abundant land for expansion, native planters developed a package of incentives to attract workers, in contrast to the coercive labor systems historically common in other plantation systems. By the 1930s a clear majority of the small and medium-sized coffee farms were owned by first-generation immigrants.

Originally published 1980.


Ten years ago when I began research on the Brazilian coffee economy and the price support scheme of 1906, I soon realized that much remained to be learned about the rural labor system that replaced slavery in São Paulo in the late 1880s. By the early twentieth century the planters considered that system something of a burden. One of the arguments officials advanced in advocating an abandonment of laissez faire in coffee marketing was that the immigrant laborers' preference for work in newly planted groves had induced planters to expand the area under cultivation, despite the relative depression in the world coffee market. the resulting overproduction, culminating with the bumper crop of 1906, led to large scale government intervention in the coffee market for the first time. Was it possible that ex-slavocrats and their children yielded to pressure from plantation laborers? I began the present study as an exploration of that question and others related to the post-slavery labor system as it developed in western São Paulo, the dynamic center of the world coffee industry of the time.

The broad outlines of immigration to southern Brazil in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were available in the work of T. Lynn Smith, Preston James, and other scholars; the importance of coffee in the emergence of São Paulo's regional economy was clear from the work of Richard Graham, Florestan Fernandes, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso. the preponderance of immigrants in the urban labor force was evident from the growing number of studies of the urban working class. Warren Dean had examined the emergence of an immigrant bourgeoisie and its amalgamation with the native elite during the process of industrialization. But what of the coffee zone during the period of mass immigration? From the abolition of slavery in 1888 to the early 1930s coffee production in São Paulo grew tremendously, and during that period most coffee workers were first generation immigrants. Yet who these people were, why they came or were brought, how they found their way hundreds of kilometers into the coffee zone, what became of them there, and what effect they had on the agrarian society they entered—all of these questions had been treated only as fragmentary parts of studies focusing on other issues.

Some of the best of these treatments are the work of French writers, notably Pierre Denis and Amour Laliére in the first decade of the twentieth century . . .

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