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Engenho, an agricultural establishment with machinery for refining sugar from sugarcane; such a facility typically includes a mill for milling cane as well as cauldrons and distilleries for preparing sugar. Begun in São Vicente and in Pernambuco in the 1500s, sugar production later expanded to Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, and other coastal areas. Profitable sugar production attracted the Dutch, who dominated the Brazilian Northeast until their expulsion in 1654. In financial terms, ownership of a mill could be just as important as the ownership of land.

The engenho first used two and later three wheels in milling. The first engenhos were run by animal power, then water power, and eventually steam. The designation engenho initially referred to the production unit where the milling of cane and the preparation of sugar took place. This term was eventually extended to encompass the entire agrarian structure, including the cultivation of cane, manioc, corn, rice, and beans in addition to the preparation of food, the weaving of cotton and wool, and manufacturing, processing, and various other services not exclusively related to agriculture.

Seen by some as a self-sufficient establishment, the engenho was a complex hierarchical, social, and economic unit involving field and domestic slaves, qualified salaried workers, tenants, and resident farmers in a network of kinship and nonkinship dependencies, at the center of which was the patriarchal figure of the senhor do engenho. Considerable conflict existed between the engenho and independent cane producers over the milling schedule, because a long delay could destroy a farmer's crop. As the sugar economy expanded in colonial Brazil, the engenho absorbed increasing numbers of African slaves and free cane farmers. In the aftermath of slavery, cane growers working under a variety of labor arrangements became the principal suppliers of cane to the engenhos. In the late nineteenth century, modern steam mills led to the disappearance of the older engenhos.

See alsoPlantations; Sugar Industry.


Caio Prado, Jr., The Colonial Background of Modern Brazil (1971).

Auguste De Saint-Hilaire, Viagem pelas províncias do Rio de Janeiro e Minas Gerais (1975).

Ruy Gama, Engenho e tecnologia (1983).

Stuart B. Schwartz, Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society: Bahia, 1550–1835 (1985).

Additional Bibliography

Araújo, Tatiana Brito de. Os engenhos centrais e a produção açucareira no Recôncavo Baiano, 1875–1909. Salvador, Brazil: FIEB, 2002.

                             Nancy Priscilla Smith Naro