Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/March 1892/Cotton Industry in Brazil

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COTTON is indigenous to Brazil. The oldest documents relating to that country contain many references to its existence there and to the uses made of it by the Indians at the time of the discovery. There is no indication, however, that it was then cultivated to any considerable extent by the natives. The picture of the indifference of the aborigines in regard to such matters is vividly suggested by the manner in which a few straggling plants are allowed to grow, even nowadays, about the houses of the civilized Indians, and by the poor classes generally throughout the interior of the country.

As soon, however, as the Portuguese came to Brazil, bringing with them a knowledge of the cultivation of cotton and of its uses, there was established an industry which has been an important factor in the material prosperity and development of the country. Although by the end of the seventeenth century cotton was quite generally cultivated throughout Brazil, it was used almost exclusively for domestic purposes until the last half of the eighteenth century. The earliest record of its exportation is given incidentally in the story of the shipwreck of Jorge de Albuquerque Coelho, who sailed from Pernambuco in May, 1565. The passage was a stormy one, and the sea became so rough at one time that they were obliged to throw part of their cargo overboard. "And seeing that all this was of no avail, and that the waves grew the higher, as if they wished to overwhelm us, we threw overboard the artillery and many boxes of sugar, and many bales of cotton."

Early Uses.—In early times—indeed, as late as 1747—cotton thread and cotton cloth were used throughout Brazil in lieu of money. In 1670 it was complained that, unless the exportation of cotton cloth was prohibited, "not a yard of cloth, or rather no money, would be found in Maranhão." Balls of cotton thread were used as small change, and circulated as such in all the shops and in all kinds of financial transactions. The manufacturers of these balls do not appear to have been always scrupulously honest, for the Legislature was finally obliged to take action to prevent the fraud of putting pieces of cloth, rags, and other such things in them. The trade in cotton between the neighboring captaincies became so large that the authorities of Maranhão, in order to keep all the money at home, prohibited the exportation of cotton from that place, and it was not until fifty years later (1756) that this law was repealed.

The manufacture of cotton cloth was carried on to such an extent ("the people generally, even the senators, were accustomed to dress in clothing made of cotton") that complaint was made to the King of Portugal by the Portuguese merchants that it was interfering with their export trade with the colony and with the receipts of the royal treasury. Instructions were, therefore, given (January 5, 1785) to the agents of the crown in Rio de Janeiro to prohibit all spinning-factories, and, if necessary, to confiscate the looms. This prohibition, however, did not extend to the factories and looms for making coarse cotton cloth, such as was used for clothing slaves and for like purposes.

Yet in the face of these obstacles cotton culture in Brazil rapidly increased. The only statistics to be obtained of the exportation of cotton up to the end of the eighteenth century are those of the captaincy or province of Maranhao. In 1760 Maranhao exported 24,960 pounds of cotton; and in 1800, 5,529,408 pounds. That captaincy, however, stood only second among those exporting cotton; Pernambuco exported more than twice as much as Maranhão, while Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, and Pará, together exported about as much as Maranhao. Cotton was also one of the principal products of Rio Negro, Piauhy, Rio Grande do Norte, Parahyba, Alagôas, and Sergipe. These facts give us an idea of the extent of cotton culture in Brazil at the end of the eighteenth century.

When, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the royal family of Portugal came to Brazil, it ceased to be a mere colony; the empire was established, and a new impetus was given to all industries. The ports were made free to friendly foreign powers, and the decree prohibiting the use of looms was revoked.

The Cotton Region.—The territory in Brazil capable of yielding cotton is coextensive with the country itself. From Sao Paulo all along the coast to the Amazon, and, for that matter, throughout the entire country, cotton might be grown in almost unlimited quantities. In reality, however, it is only cultivated to any considerable extent in the drier regions of the north, and along the valley of the Rio São Francisco, and in some parts of the province of Minas Geraes.

In the north—i. e., to the north of Sergipe—a belt along the coast about fifty miles wide is, for the most part, devoted to the production of sugar. Immediately beyond this is the region in which cotton is actually grown, the width of which region depends almost solely upon the distance which the producers feel themselves able to transport it.

As cotton culture, replaced by the cultivation of sugar, has receded from the coast, the question of transportation has become a very serious one with Brazilian planters. Roads are usually so poor and markets so far away that the planters necessarily lose the greater part of their profits in the expense of transportation. The remedy generally recommended is railways; but railways, where they already exist, have not in all cases been found a remedy for this state of affairs. Cotton sent by rail from the interior of the province of São Paulo to the seaboard at Santos pays out in freight about thirteen per cent of its value. The planters of Pernambuco pay out from twenty-five to thirty per cent of the value of their cotton in freights. Along the large streams, where it is possible to ship cotton by water, it can be moved with some facility. As a rule, however, transportation is on horseback or mule-back, and it is thus brought to market often for a distance of from three hundred to four hundred miles, trips sometimes requiring three or four months for a troop of mules, over roads that are nothing more than bridle-paths, and often very bad ones at that.

Varieties cultivated.—It is not to be supposed that only native varieties of cotton are cultivated in Brazil. Indeed, the three varieties best known to and used by Brazilian planters are all exotic. The crioulo is a large bush from five to fifteen feet in height, is very hardy, and, if properly cared for, will last two or three years. The smooth, black seeds of the crioulo[1] cling so firmly to each other that they separate only when pressed very strongly between the fingers, and the fiber can be stripped from them without their being separated and without leaving any lint upon them. The cotton, when ripe, clings firmly and compactly within the boll, and it is for this reason more difficult to pick.

The variety known as the quebradinho is distinguished from the preceding by having seeds which readily separate from each other. The seeds are fewer in number and the bolls smaller than in the crioulo. Both of these varieties, and the yellow variety mentioned below, are known as "tree cotton." One occasionally hears of tree cotton lasting from five to ten years; but, while this may be literally true, the crops borne by these old plants are hardly worth the picking.

The herbaceous variety (called herbaceo) is an annual plant, growing from three to five feet high, and is identical with that generally cultivated in the United States. The seeds separate in the bolls, and the ripe cotton hangs from them in large flocks. This species produces more fiber, sometimes from five to six times as much as either of the preceding kinds, but the quality is considered much inferior. The yield on a given piece of ground of the herbaceous cotton is four times as large as that of tree cotton, and in picking one can gather twice as much from the herbaceous in a given time. Herbaceous cotton is said to have been introduced from the United States, and there is no doubt about its having been taken to Brazil within a comparatively short period.

The only other variety deserving attention is the yellow or light brown, which, however, is not grown in any considerable quantities, owing undoubtedly to its color and to Its small yield of fiber. The color is not generally considered an attractive one, but it is valued for certain household articles, such as hammocks, in which neutral tints and fast colors are desirable.

Cultivation.—Substantially the same system of cultivation is used to-day that was in vogue three hundred years ago. Auguste de Saint-Hilare wrote in 1812, "All the planter has to do is to burn off the woods and plant his seed at the proper season." This is the whole story. There is no uprooting of stumps, no digging out of sprouts, no breaking up with the plow, no preparation of the soil, no laying out of furrows, no cultivation other than the occasional chopping out with the hoe of weeds or sprouts.

Rotation of crops is almost entirely unknown. Fields are seldom laid out with any definite forms, as they would be if the plow were in common use, but vary in shape to suit the convenience of the planters, who adapt themselves to the natural features of the surface and character of the soil. If the place to he planted is forest, whether heavy or of only a few years' growth, the laborers, with bill-hooks for the undergrowth and axes for the trees, begin clearing it from one side, felling the trees and undergrowth toward the open space, and leaving stumps of any height that may make the work of clearing easier. No effort is made to pile the brush in heaps. This work is done in the dry season, and the brush is allowed to lie for several months, until the approach of the rainy season, when the whole, being thoroughly dried by long exposure to the rays of a very hot sun, is set on fire. The want of arrangement of the branches permits the burning of all the leaves and of the small limbs, twigs, etc., but the larger branches and the trunks of the fallen trees are only blackened by the passing fire. A more desolate sight than one of these "new grounds" can not be imagined. Sometimes a few of the half-burned pieces are piled together and set on fire, but usually they are allowed to lie where they happen to have fallen. The soil is now ready for the seed. The laborers go over the field with large, heavy hoes, and with powerful blows open holes to receive the seeds at intervals more or less irregular. The cotton seeds are planted in these holes, and with the foot or hand covered with a little earth. The spaces between the hills are generally supposed to be from five to eight palms, according to the fertility of the soil. Sometimes rows are attempted in a rude, rambling way, and in such cases the hills are about six palms apart in one direction and eight in the other, according as the stumps and logs and half-consumed limbs may permit.

The planting season varies in different localities according to the time when the rains generally set in. Most of it is done in the months of February and March, though planting-time may vary a month or two either way, according to the season and the nature of the ground, low, rich soil generally being planted later than the dry uplands. Difference is also made with the kind of cotton, the tree cotton generally being planted a month or two earlier than the herbaceous. Sometimes other things are planted between the rows of cotton, such as beans, rice, or corn.

Shortly after the planting the season of rains sets in,and cotton, weeds, sprouts, and all come up and grow with a vigor and rapidity only to be seen in the tropics. When the cotton is about to be choked out by useless vegetation, the hoes are sent to chop it out—an operation that is performed two or three times, or as often as circumstances are supposed to require it, during the year. The amount of cleaning required by a field depends upon the richness of the soil and upon the length and character of the winter or wet season, rich soil and long, wet winters producing more weeds and requiring more attention. So far as tillage is concerned, this chopping out of the weeds and sprouts is the nearest approximation to cultivation the plants receive, and the soil naturally becomes as hard as a brick.

Insects.—While Brazil is the home of the cotton plant, it is at the same time the home of insects affecting that plant. Besides the "cotton-worm" (Aletia argellacea), which occurs in that country at times in vast swarms very much as it does in the Southern States, there are other moths whose larvæ attack the cotton in a similar manner. The "boll-worm" (Heliothis armigera) is also a native of Brazil, and occasionally does great injury to the cotton crop. But, while these insects exist in Brazil under climatic conditions more favorable to their multiplication than are those of the United States, these favorable circumstances are offset very materially by the vast number of insect enemies which these same climatic conditions foster. As a rule, the Brazilian planter feels himself utterly at the mercy of Fate when the "cotton-worms" attack his crop. No remedies for the evil are known, and none are ever attempted. They seem to think that to combat the plague would be to "fly in the face of Providence"; that when God wishes it stopped he'll send rains and stop it himself. The percentage of loss through these insects varies greatly, but I have known of many instances of a loss of fifty per cent of the crop. Such a loss, however, is unusually large for that country.

Picking.—Cotton-picking does not assume the importance in Brazil that it does in the Southern United States. Fields are never large, and picking is done more at the leisure and convenience of the planter. With the varieties of tree cotton there is but little risk of loss in leaving the ripe cotton in the bolls longer than could be done with the herbaceous variety, for the seeds of the former, being more compact when they ripen, do not cause the fiber to thrust the mass in a loose flock from the boll, as is the case with the latter. The cotton-pickers carry baskets or bags with them, in which the cotton is placed as it is gathered, very much as is the custom in this country.

Ginning.—What kind of a gin to use has been a question of importance among Brazilian planters. The question was not between the various kinds of saw-gins, but between saw-gins and the old-fashioned way of cleaning cotton with two small wooden cylinders revolving close to each other.

The roller-gin is simply two short wooden cylinders, less than an inch in diameter, geared together and revolved close to each other after the fashion of a modern clothes-wringer. The raw cotton is fed slowly between the cylinders, and the seeds are removed by being pinched from the cotton and thrust back on the side from which. it is fed. This machine is objectionable on account of the slowness with which it operates, and also on account of its often crushing the seeds and thus soiling the staple.

The saw-gin was introduced into Brazil during the civil war in the United States, when it was necessary to put into the market at once a large supply of cotton. The saw-gin is said to break the fiber of the cotton much more than the roller-gin, and for that reason many efforts have been made by the English spinners to suppress it. But in spite of these efforts the saw-gin remains master of the situation, and nowadays it is but rarely that any other kind is seen in Brazil, even in the remote interior. In every community in which cotton is grown there is at least one gin, the proprietor of which buys the unginned cotton from the planters and small farmers, cleans and bales it, and sends it to market. No use is now made of the cotton seeds. They are usually thrown out as so much waste. The cattle are allowed to eat what they choose, and sometimes they are used for fuel.

Home Consumption.—Owing to the ease with which cotton is produced, the extent of its culture, the difficulty of getting the raw material into market from remote points, the evenness and mildness of the temperature, which, as a rule, does not require the warmer clothing of a more rigorous climate, the number of domestic purposes for which it is used, and the high tariff upon foreign manufactured goods, the home consumption of cotton is very large, and has steadily increased. In consequence of the decree prohibiting the use of looms, the cotton consumed in the country, until the beginning of the present century, was manufactured in the most aboriginal manner. About 1845 cotton factories began to spring up, and there are now no less than fifty spinning and weaving establishments in Brazil.

The manufacturing industry is at present confined almost wholly to the provinces of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Geraes, São Paulo, and Bahia, where the demand for the better grades of cotton cloth is greatest. But the factories have by no means done away with direct domestic consumption of raw material. To the traveler in the interior of Brazil there is no more familiar sight than that of spinning with the ancient distaff and spindle. In some parts of the country this custom is so common that the children learn it as a matter of course, and it would be very difficult to find a person who did not know how to spin. In order to show the wide-spread knowledge of this art in the interior, a Brazilian gentleman once assured me that it might be taken for granted that the then Brazilian prime minister could spin cotton in this aboriginal fashion. Very nearly all the hammocks used throughout the northern part of Brazil, together with considerable quantities of coarse cloth, are still made of thread spun in this manner. The direct domestic consumption is about 1,162,000 pounds annually, which, with the amount made up by the factories and used in the country, makes the whole consumption of raw material in Brazil 18,481,600 pounds annually since the factories began operation.

Production.—The total export from the whole empire from 1851 to 1876, inclusive, was 1,095,304,075 pounds. Add 27,900,000 pounds for the direct domestic consumption for the same period, and 69,270,400 pounds for the amount used by the factories during the four years from 1872 to 1876, and we have as the production of cotton by the whole empire, during the twenty-four years from 1851 to 1876, an average of 74,680,700 pounds per annum, or about twice as much as that of the State of Arkansas.

During the civil war in the United States, the exportation of cotton from Brazil assumed proportions hitherto unknown to that country. From the year 1850 to 1861 the average annual amount of cotton exported was 28,300,000 pounds. The exports rapidly increased from 21,400,000 in 1801 to 102,600,000 in 1868. As the United States recovered from the effects of the war, the amount of cotton exported from Brazil, although still large and fluctuating from year to year, was gradually decreasing, until in 1876 the exportation had fallen to 63,609,000 pounds. An impetus, however, was given to cotton culture in Brazil by the civil war in the United States which has been of great permanent benefit to the industry in that country.

Cotton in Brazil grows on its native soil, and, it is to be presumed, under climatic and other conditions best adapted to its highest development. But, though Brazil began to export cotton more than a hundred years before the United States, her annual product to-day is only about one eighteenth as much as our own. To be sure, the population is only one fifth as large as ours, but there almost the whole population lives in a cotton-growing region, while only a small part of our people live in the cotton belt.

Under normal conditions Brazil can scarcely become a competitor of the United States in cotton production; but the disappearance of slavery and the consequent adoption of some system of small farming will, in the near future, materially increase the present production. Slavery has fostered a remarkable conservatism in agriculture, which must, with the aid of educated planters, soon disappear. Cotton-factories are already rapidly springing up and prospering, and the day is not far distant when they will supply the Brazilian market.

The same agricultural tools and methods now employed by the average planters were in use more than two hundred years ago—methods learned from their Portuguese ancestors and from their African slaves. It is far from my intention, however, to criticise these methods or the men who use them. The climate in which they live and the circumstances which have produced and retained these methods are so entirely different from our climate and our surroundings that any criticism from our standpoint would almost necessarily be unjust. The lack of capital and the lack of common roads are serious matters, no doubt, but they are not insuperable difficulties. Insect plagues that destroy from a fourth to a half of their crops are great drawbacks, but such questions should be regarded, not as visitations of God, before which man is powerless, but as practical matters to be met and dealt with as our planters are meeting and dealing with similar plagues in this country.

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  1. This variety takes its name from the black color of the seeds, the word crioulo being sometimes applied to negroes in Brazil.