Absorbing the Story of Slavery and Cachaça in Redenção, Brazil

Slaves turning the stones to grind sugarcane (©Coen Wubbels)

Slaves turning the stones to grind sugarcane (©Coen Wubbels)

In 1873 Colonel Simião Jurumenha bought a sugarcane farm and built the cachaça factory of Douradinho, some 80 kilometers south of Fortaleza in northeast Brazil. Ten years later slavery was abolished here, five years before the rest of Brazil. 130 years later, I visited the still functioning factory-cum-museum, which both produces cachaça (a rum-like liquor made from fermented sugarcane juice) and keeps alive the images of those first ten years.

This steam machine dates from 1927 and is still used to annually produce 8,000-15,000 liters of cachaça (©Coen Wubbels)

This steam machine dates from 1927 and is still used to annually produce 8,000-15,000 liters of cachaça (©Coen Wubbels)

My guide for the visit was Juvenaldo, a young man who had been hired as a guide only a week earlier. He had evidently done his homework. As we walked around the premises he explained the cachaça brewing process, talked about the last days of slavery, and easily answered all my questions.

The museum has an almost visceral sense of detail. Juvenaldo pointed out the original round, flat millstones, and then gestured to the wall, to a drawing of two slaves using manpower to turn these stones to grind the sugarcane in order to extract the juice. The drops of sweat around the slaves’ heads are typical of the details in this this museum’s displays, making them more alive than I have seen anywhere else.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You want to learn about the history of Brazil and/or slavery.
  • You are interested in the production of cachaça, and like to taste it.
  • Worth a visit to anybody interested in museums, cachaça and/or history.

The Production of Douradinho Cachaça

The ground sugar cane is burned to generate energy (©Coen Wubbels)

The ground sugar cane is burned to generate energy (©Coen Wubbels)

I had arrived during the last weeks of cachaça production for the season, which runs from June/July through December/January. Trucks were delivering the harvested sugarcane. The production process is pretty much automated nowadays. The machine works 80% on steam (produced by burning the sugarcane stems after the juice has been extracted) and 20% on electricity.

After the extraction the liquid is funneled into large barrels for fermentation, after which the cachaça is bottled. It is mostly sold within Brazil but also exported to a couple of European countries.

The machine stands right next to what used to be the owner’s home, la Casa Grande (which dates from 1750). Inside, Juvenaldo and I walked through the rooms, with him pointing out original utensils, letters, ledgers and furniture. The wooden floor of the house has wide cracks.

“This was done on purpose,” Juvenaldo said. “This way the owner could keep an eye on the slaves.” Although I speak reasonable Portuguese, I wasn’t sure if I had understood correctly. How does a floor with cracks help you keep an eye on slaves?

The Slave Quarters

“Let’s go to the senzala,” he suggested and I obediently followed, still trying to make sense of what he said. On most farms and factories, slave quarters (senzalas) were far away from the main house. But here the slave quarters were right underneath the main house.

Castigation of a slave in the slave quarters (©Coen Wubbels)

Castigation of a slave in the slave quarters (©Coen Wubbels)

Juvenaldo pointed out that nowadays the quarters are lit, but that in the days of slavery it was dark here, day and night. With uneven floors and wooden beams protruding from the ceiling, slaves really had to watch their step, which minimized the chances of escape. It was easy to trip and alarm the owner upstairs.

The place is gruesome. Castigated slaves were put right here, in the regular sleeping quarters. On the wall are replicas of iron bands that were put around the slaves’ neck, hands and/or feet. Wall paintings leave nothing to the imagination.

The pelourinho (the pillar used to tie the slaves to before punishing them) still stands here and Juvenaldo pointed out the tiny quarters for solitary confinement, where it’s impossible to stand up straight or lie down at full length. All this is situated within the regular quarters to serve as an example.

This part was divided up in solitary cells. In the front ones slaves could still stand up straight, but the floor is on a slant and in the farthest cells they no longer could (©photocoen)

This part was divided up in solitary cells. In the front ones slaves could still stand up straight, but the floor is on a slant and in the farthest cells they no longer could (©photocoen)

There were no bathrooms; slaves had to do their business on the same floor they slept on. Each room has additional iron bands on the wall. Some were for ten-year-old kids who hadn’t done anything but who had to be ‘initiated’ in how it felt to be chained. Each room has another horrifying story.

On the side of the house is one more room: the macama — room for women, where six to ten of the prettiest women were kept. They worked in the house, watched the family’s kids and served the master when his wife was absent (and were ruthlessly punished when she found out).

I can’t remember ever having been ready for a drink at 10am, but by the end of the tour I was. The tour ends in a shop where I can taste and buy the factory’s one-year old Douradinho cachaça in two versions: cachaça to be drunk pure and cachaça used to make the famous Brazilian cocktail called caipirinha (with lemon, sugar and crushed ice).

“Would you like to try the 30-year-fermented version as well?” an employee said. asks. I thought he’d never ask.

Time for a drink (©photocoen)

Time for a drink (©photocoen)

Practical Information

  • Fortaleza lies in northeast Brazil (state of Ceara, known for its beautiful beaches) and has flight connections to Brazil’s major cities.
  • Redenção is easily visited on a day trip from Fortaleza, especially if you have your own transportation (highway CE-060, 50 kms south of Fortaleza).
  • You can find more info on Museum Senzala Negro Liberto on their website.
  • Across from the museum, in the median strip of the road, is a monument dedicated to the abolition of slavery.

Photos by Coen Wubbels.

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