Portugal, Sugar, and the African Slave Trade


Portuguese efforts in establishing plantation economies begin with the exploration of Africa’s coast but end with New World opportunities heavily dependent on slavery.

During the fifteenth century, Portuguese explorers established a number of proto-colonies along the coast of Africa, chiefly to exploit the growing sugar industry which would soon produce great wealth for European merchants. Eventually, sugar would become the primary export commodity from Portuguese Brazil as well as the many “sugar islands” dotting the Caribbean. Along with sugar came African slavery, transplanted from Sao Tome to the shores of Brazil and eventually all of the Americas.

Sugar and the Rising Plantation Economy

Sugar made its way to Europe from India via Muslim trading routes. Muslim sugar enterprises were established in North Africa in which the first slaves working the labor intensive industry came from Balkan Europe. Portugal, one of the first early modern nation states to venture into the Atlantic in search of new trade opportunities, first attempted a plantation economy in the Azores.

The Portuguese, however, found that sugar production was best suited in warmer regions. Attempts in the Madeira chain, the Canary Islands, and Cape Verde provided minimal results. It was not until the Portuguese established sugar enterprises at Sao Tome, on Africa’s Gold Coast, that profits justified the efforts and investments. Additionally, Africa provided an abundant and seemingly limitless source of slave labor.

Brazil and the Americas

The voyages of Columbus began a European frenzy of New World colonization. By 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas awarded Brazil to Portugal, leading to the establishment of sugar plantations. The sea route from Brazil to the Dutch ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, where the sugar would be deposited and then resold, was actually shorter than from Sao Tome in Africa.

Native Indians proved poor laborers and were swiftly replaced by African slaves. This became the norm for all sugar plantations. Although English efforts on islands in the Caribbean began with English colonists, tropical diseases soon ravaged these early communities. Africans, however, seemed to be immune to these diseases. African slaves wrested from sub-tropical Africa had natural immunities. Biological explanations, however, were unknown to the Sixteenth Century Europeans who chose to explain the anomaly in terms of faulty Biblical exegesis.

More Sugar, More Slaves

Sugar cultivation became the most lucrative commodity for Europeans investing in overseas enterprises. One story holds that Benjamin Franklin, attending the conference ending the Seven Years’ War, urged the British government to take Canada from the French rather than a small sugar island, Guadalupe, in the Caribbean. The potential value of sugar appeared to out weigh ownership of all of Canada!

But more sugar also meant more slaves. Of the 92% of all Africans brought involuntarily to the Caribbean region and South America through the “Middle Passage,” most ended up in plantation economies producing sugar and tobacco. Long before the first slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, hundreds of thousands had toiled and died in sugar production.


The sugar trade led to the establishment of plantation enterprises that began along the coast of Africa, facilitated by the Portuguese, and ultimately led to the vast plantation economies in the New World. Supported by royal as well as merchant investment, the ensuing African slave trade inexorably tied all aspects of European trade and marketing groups to an economic system heavily dependent on slave labor.


  1. Philip D. Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex, 2nd Ed., (Cambridge University press, 1999)
  2. Betty Wood, The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997)