By the mid-1500s, pau brasil supplies were already drying up. However, in Pernambuco and Bahia , sugarcane had been successfully introduced to the rolling coastal hills. Tomé de Sousa incentivized the cultivation of sugar, which at the time was an exorbitantly expensive rarity in Europe. As Indians, who wouldn’t become allies, were systematically wiped out, their lands were occupied by vast plantations that sprang up throughout the Northeast.
Although attempts were made to enslave Indians to work the plantations, those who were domesticated often fell prey to European diseases to which they had no immunity. The alternative was to take advantage of the thriving African slave trade that was already making fortunes for European investors, including Portugal.
Beginning in the 1550s, Portugal began importing vast quantities of slaves from its African colonies of Mozambique and Angola, as well as West Africa and Congo. Transported like sardines in the holds of ships, those that survived the suffocating voyage were herded into slave markets such as Salvador’s Mercado Modelo  and then sold to plantation owners. They were forced to work grueling 16–17-hour days in scalding heat only to be herded at night into senzalas, dark and filthy quarters, in which they were often piled on top of one another so that their body heat could warm their masters on cool nights.
Aside from horrible working and living conditions, slaves received cruel and unusual treatment for misbehaving or trying to escape. Punishments would range from being publicly flogged at pillories in main town squares (Salvador’s Largo do Pelourinho , or Square of the Pillory, was the site of one such whipping post) to being subject to extreme forms of torture ranging from balls and chains to waterboarding.
The production of sugar became the number one source of profits for the Portuguese crown. It also created a wealthy colonial elite who poured their wealth into building extravagant churches and ornate mansions to adorn the thriving capitals of Salvador and Olinda. Sugar would also lay the foundations for the organization of Brazil’s economy—as an exporter of monocultures (sugar, coffee, rubber, etc.), each of which would experience a boom-and-bust cycle—as well as its society.
Plantation life—with the slaves in the senzala and the white aristocrats in their ornate mansions, known as casa grandes—would come to permeate Brazilian society. And its extreme legacy of a dual society that pits rich vs. poor and black vs. white exists to this day. While on one hand, plantation owners were cruel and racist towards slaves, they had no compunction about fornicating with them. Masters who didn’t have a black mistress or legions of illegitimate mulato offspring were the exception, not the rule.
The consequence of this confusing behavior (aside from lots of slave women succumbing to syphilis) was the extreme miscegenation of Brazil’s population. In modern times, this has given rise to the myth of Brazil’s racial harmony, but it also set the standard for a hidden but deeply rooted racism and glaring inequality that still pervades Brazilian society and manifests itself in subtle but shocking ways.