Silk Industry and Trade

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Silk Industry and Trade

Brazil never assumed an importance comparable to that of Mexico within the context of colonial trade with Asia. Nevertheless, by the mid-seventeenth century, Portuguese East India merchantmen were calling at major Brazilian ports on their return voyages, in spite of official restraints regarding direct trade with the American colony. Silk ranked high among the products "illicitly" sold in Brazil, and studies based on estate inventories have demonstrated that fine textiles, including silk, were an important component of the possessions of wealthy Brazilians, as they were in Mexico. The discovery of gold in Minas Gerais led to an intensification of this direct trade in Asian goods during the eighteenth century. During the phase of Pombaline monopoly trade companies (1755–1777), silkworms and the cultivation of mulberry trees were successfully introduced to Maranhão, and Brazilian silk was actually exported to Lisbon. However, the experience was apparently shortlived. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century the provincial government of Minas Gerais attempted to promote silk production there, but these efforts resulted in failure. Similar efforts had been made in the province of Rio de Janeiro since 1811, and government subsidies were to prove vital to the success of a silk enterprise established at Itaguaí in the 1840s. Cloth produced by the Imperial Companhia Serapédica de Itaguahy figured at the Paris Exposition of 1851, but this vertically integrated "factory" did not survive beyond the last decade of the nineteenth century. Silk production was not taken up again until the 1920s, when a factory was established at Campinas in the state of São Paulo. The key to the success of this Paulista enterprise was the availability of Japanese immigrants who were familiar with the various phases of production. This immigrant element explains the near total concentration of the present-day Brazilian silk industry in São Paulo.

See alsoTextile Industry: The Colonial Era; Textile Industry: Modern Textiles.


The silk trade is dealt with in C. R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415–1825 (1973). For a brief account of silk production in Brazil see Andrée Mansuy-Diniz Silva, "Imperial Re-organization, 1750–1808," in Colonial Brazil, edited by Leslie Bethell (1987), p. 268.

Additional Bibliography

Maria y Campos, Teresa de, and Teresa Castelló Yturbide. Historia y arte de la seda en México: Siglos XVI-XX. Mexico City: Banamex, 1990.

                                    Douglas Cole Libby