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Vassouras (2005 est. pop. 33,206), a city in the highlands Paraíba Valley in Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil, dedicated to cattle raising and mixed farming. In the nineteenth century, this city's coffee production for the foreign market was the highest in the world. The name Vassouras ("broom") derives from a locally grown bush that was used to make brooms. From humble beginnings, Vassouras was settled by migrants from Minas Gerais and by court favorites who were awarded crown grants to settle along the Paraíba River to cultivate coffee. By the time of the census of 1872, the population was over 39,000, half slave and half free.

Vassouras was one of the most prosperous coffee counties in the Paraíba Valley. The neoclassic urban architecture that made its debut in Rio de Janeiro in 1816 was introduced after mid-century in the palatial mansions that successful planter elites constructed on the banks and tributaries of the Paraíba River. Prosperous planter-merchants who diversified their property among rural estates, slaves, commerce, urban real estate, and investments in budding financial institutions were recipients of prestigious nobility titles (baron and viscount) conferred in the imperial court. Vassouras became a frequently visited and popular highlands cultural center with the advent of railroad communication from Rio de Janeiro in the 1870s.

Crises beset the coffee economy in the 1870s, and planters whose investments were restricted to slaves and land faced reversals of fortune as creditors foreclosed on their property. The urban-based abolition movement that contributed to slave unrest and the departure of ex-slaves from the coffee plantations in the aftermath of the 13 May 1888 emancipation decree shattered the mainstays of the commercial plantation system.

Postemancipation Vassouras never fully recovered from the demise of the slave-based plantation complex. Cattle now graze the hills where coffee trees once flourished. As in other towns in the Paraíba Valley, the barren and eroded hills of Vassouras are grim reminders of the legacy of the coffee boom. Today the city is a tourist destination. Visitors are attracted to its historic buildings, such as the Mansion of the Baron of Vassouras and the old railway station.

See alsoCoffee Industry; Slavery: Brazil.


Stanley J. Stein, Vassouras, a Brazilian Coffee County, 1850–1900: The Roles of Planter and Slave in a Plantation Society (1985).

Nancy Priscilla Smith Naro, "Customary Rightholders and Legal Claimants to Land in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1870–1890," in The Americas 48, no. 4 (April 1992): 485-517.

Additional Bibliography

Gomes, Flávio dos Santos. Histórias de quilombolas: Mocambos e comunidades de senzalas no Rio de Janeiro, século XIX. Rio de Janeiro: Arquivo Nacional, 1995.

Silva, Rudy Mattos da. Galeria vassourense. Vassouras, Rio de Janeiro: EVSA, 1999.

                            Nancy Priscilla Smith Naro

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