Absorbing the Story of Slavery in Redenção, Brazil

In 1873 Colonel Simião Jurumenha bought a sugarcane farm and built the cachaça factory of Douradinho in Redenção, some 80 kilometers south of Fortaleza in northeast Brazil. Ten years later slavery was abolished here, 5 years before the rest of Brazil. 130 years later, I visit the still functioning factory-cum-museum and am impressed by how well the images of those first ten years have been kept alive.

I meet with a friendly reception by Juvenaldo, a young man who was hired as a guide only a week ago but I quickly notice he has done his homework. As we walk around the premises he explains the cachaça brewing process and talks about the last days of slavery. 

In the museum he points out the original round, flat millstones and subsequently to the wall, on which is 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 characterize the details of this museum’s images, making them more alive than I have seen anywhere else.

steam machine 1927

The Production of Douradinho Cachaça

I have arrived during the last weeks of cachaça production for the season, which runs from June/July through December/January. Trucks are delivering the harvested sugarcane and the production process is pretty much automated nowadays. The machine works for 80% on steam (produced by burning the sugarcane stems after the juice has been extracted) and for 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) and inside Juvenaldo and I walk 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 says. “This way the owner could keep an eye on the slaves.” Although I speak reasonable Portuguese, at this moment I’m not sure what he is saying. How does a floor with cracks help you keep an eye on slaves?

The Slave Quarters

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

Juvenaldo points 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 you really had to watch your step, which, I am told, was done to minimize 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 and wall paintings depicting these situations leave nothing to the imagination.

The pelourinho (the pillar used to tie the slaves to before punishing them) still stands here and Juvenaldo points out the tiny quarters for solitary confinement, where you can’t stand up straight nor lie down at full length. All this is situated within the regular quarters to serve as an example.

There were no bathrooms and 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.

Tasting cachaça.

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 10 am. I am now. The tour ends in a shop where I can taste and buy the factory’s one-year-old Douradinho rum in two versions: rum to be drunk pure and rum used to make the cocktail called caipirinha (with lemon, sugar and crushed ice).

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

Practical Information

  • Fortaleza lies in northeast Brazil (state of Ceara, known for its beautiful beaches). 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).
  • Across from the museum, in the median strip of the road, is a monument dedicated to the abolition of slavery.

Additional Reading

For more on Brazil, read here, or check out the Brazil stories on our Landcruisingadventure website.

All photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow him on Instagram here & here.

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