The plantation manor (‘casa-grande’: literally ‘big house’) was the residence of the landlords on rural properties in colonial Brazil from the 16th Century.
The whole plantation revolved around the plantation manor, as it was a type of local, political and economic social-organisation centre.In colonial Brazil, the plantation manor was strategically constructed near the plantation itself (factory), the ‘senzala’ (slaves quarters), the flour mill and the chapel. Some sociologists believe that the spatial layout of the plantation’s construction enabled more contact between the different social classes, which would have made the Brazilian colonial experience different from others.
At that time, the power and wealth of the plantation owners was displayed through luxurious clothing and the large number of slaves they possessed.
There was a greater concern with personal appearance than there was for residences or diet. The plantation manors were modestly furnished.
Hammocks and mattresses were used for sleeping, stools and benches for sitting. In the kitchen, utensils were indigenous ceramics or tin, silver and glass objects.
Portuguese colonists did not reproduce the Portuguese style of housing in Brazil, preferring to create a house that corresponded with the Brazilian physical environment and which at the same time met the working and personal needs of its residents. Plantation houses were built with safety in mind, not aesthetics. Plantation owners, later called plantation barons, felt insecure about the possibility of attacks by Indians and black people, as these houses represented Brazilian feudal power. Plantation barons had total power over the lives of slaves, employees and residents on their properties.
For this reason, houses were constructed with deep foundations using whale oil and thick walls made from ‘taipa’ (crushed clay to fill the spaces created by a type of grade made from sticks or bamboo); rock and lime; a straw, thatch or tiled roof steeply-inclined to serve as protection against the harsh sun and tropical rains; packed or sundried earthen floor; few doors and windows; and porches on the front and sides. However, these near-fortresses, made to last for centuries, were not good enough to last to the “third or fourth generation”, when they began to fall apart through lack of repair.
Architectural studies consider it possible that plantation manors assimilated traditional elements of indigenous habitations, such as large undivided spaces, similar to Indians’collective tents. The plantation house, besides being a fortress, served as a school, infirmary, harem and guest house, and was also a bank, as inside its walls or in the ground were kept and buried money, jewels and gold. Even the chapels had jewels decorating the saints (at that time thieves wouldn’t dare enter the chapels to steal the saints, at least not as much as today).
Another peculiarity of plantation houses was the custom of burying their dead inside the chapels, which from the 18th Century, mainly in Bahia and Pernambuco, began to be constructed as a type of annex to the house. There was even a private access for the plantation baron’s family in some of them. An example of this type of construction was the plantation manor on the PoçoComprido plantation, in the Northern Forest zone of Pernambuco.
Saints were considered part of the family, as much as dead family members. In many plantation houses, portraits of dead family members were kept in the sanctuary, among images of saints. It is interesting to note that some churches withstood the test of time better than some plantation houses, as was the case of St Matthew’s chapel at the Massangana Plantation, where Joaquim Nabuco spent eight years of his childhood.
In the celebrations of the International Year of JoaquimNabuco (2010), the plantation manor and chapel at Massangana Plantation, which has become the Massangana Plantation Cultural Centre, situatedat KM 10on PE 60, in the municipality of Cabo de Santo Agostinho, Pernambuco, were restored and opened for public visitation on Monday to Friday between 8amandmidday, and from 2pm to 6pm.
Besides the proximity of the dead and saints, communication between the living and the dead was common. For this reason, plantation houses were frequently considered to be haunted. With the custom of burying treasure inside the house, many times the plantation baron died without having time to say where he had hid the treasure. Because of this, “lost souls” wanting to reveal the place where they had buried their (and other’s) treasures, which were called ‘botijas’ (booty), were common; on other occasions, uneven floors, loose bricks and other things made rocking chairs rock or doors open by themselves, causing the living to believe that there was a soul moving about or using a chair. There were many stories of hauntings.
The concern of plantation barons for safety dissipated over the 17th and 18th Centuries. With the arrival of the Portuguese court in Brazil, at the beginning of the 19th Century, changes in the general conditions of the plantation houses began. They became larger and more luxurious, and their owners started spending more money on furniture, artworks, decoration and domestic utensils.
During this period, construction materials also became more diverse. Besides the already existing materials, stone masonry and bricks began to be used in walls; wood covered with ceramic tiles on the roofs; clay tiles and/or wood on the floor. Also used was a type of circular brick that served to build columns for the porches of chapels, plantation manors, ‘senzalas’and occasionally factories. All depended on the financial situation of the plantation baron and the availability of material in the region.
The beginning of steam engine use on plantationsin Bahia and Pernambuco, in 1815 and 1817, respectively, caused great changes, especially in regards to increasing production. However, being an expensive investment, not all plantation barons had the financial resources to install the new technology in their factories. Because of this, many plantations were incorporated by others whose owner had greater purchasing power. In this way, a sole plantation baron or a single family became the owner of various plantations, through purchasing, inheriting or marriage. The fact is that the number of plantation barons diminished, but those who survived became richer and more powerful.
Wealth changed the lives of plantation barons and their families, enabling the construction of new plantation manors and the reform of others. During this time, three types of plantation houses appeared: the bungalow, the neoclassical home and the chalet. The agrarian, patriarchal, enslaving society of sugar began to occupy the highest social class of the age. The image of wealth was evident through the beautiful and comfortable houses, ably equipped with hardwood furniture, porcelain crockery of the highest quality, noble titles, coats-of-arms engraved above doors and on other objects.
Women began frequenting balls and the theatre, and travelled to the Provincial capital. Children were sent to study in Europe.
Even today in various Brazilian states, plantation manors from different historical periods of sugarcane plantations can be found, especially those from the golden age of sugar (between the 16th and mid-18th Centuries). At the Poço Comprido plantation in Vicência, Pernambuco, the plantation house and chapel are maintained with their original 18th-century characteristics; at the Freguesia plantation in Candeias, Bahia, the manor and chapel show the wealth of the age; in Quissamã, Rio de Janeiro, sumptuous mansions from the sugarcane cycle are preserved.
Some of these manors have been converted into museums that bear witness to this long period of Brazilian history. Another local option for learning a bit about this period is the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation’s Museum of the Northeast Manin Recife, which contains in its archive objects and utensils used in the daily life of plantation manors.
Recife, 15 april 2011.
Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2012.
ANDRADE, Manuel Correia de. Historia das usinas de açúcar em Pernambuco. 2.ed. Recife: UFPE, Editora Universitária, 2001.
FREYRE, Gilberto. Casa-grande & senzala: formação da família brasileira sob o regime da economia patriarcal. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1975.
PIRES, Fernando Tasso Fragoso; GOMES, Geraldo. Antigos engenhos de açúcar no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1994.
WANDERLEY, F. J. Casa Grande, Engenho e Capela: um reencontro com o passado. Revista do Museu do Açúcar, Recife, v.1, p.91-96, 1968.
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Source: ANDRADE, Maria do Carmo. Plantation Manor (Casa-Grande). Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009