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Beautiful Historic Fazendas, Plantation Homes & Engenhos of Brazil

What is a fazenda?

Fazenda is the Portuguese word for farm. However, it specifically refers to a plantation. Fazendas were found across Brazil in the 16th to 19th century. Fazendas were typically established to grow sugar cane for sugar refinement and cachaça distillation. However, by the 19th century, many fazendas re-tooled to produce coffee. The fazenda in Brazil was similar to a plantation in the USA or the Caribbean. There was a casa grande (big house), crops, sheds, slave quarters, and in many cases, an engenho (mill). Fazendas, like American plantations, were almost always built, maintained and operated by African slave labour and were practically infeasible without slavery. The golden age of fazendas and plantations ended with slavery and the industrialisation of agriculture.

What is an Engenho?

Engenho is the Portuguese word for a sugar cane mill. The word refers to the whole operation surrounding the mill, including the lands, cane plantations, and the workers. The production of refined sugar and molasses from raw sugar cane required huge amounts of land and labour. Because sugar cane begins to ferment approximately 24 hours after being cut, the entire sugar production process needed to be integrated seamlessly to prevent any mishandling, delays and double handling. As a result, engenhoes were some of the first industrial operations to introduce the concept of ‘the division of labour’ where each position from field slave to overseer had a specific skill set that required training and experience. The concept of various atomised fazendas with engenhoes producing sugar, coffee and flour was made redundant as the agriculture industry began to be industrialised, consolidated and corporatised.

Fazenda Barba Negra

The beautiful entrance to the casa grande (big house) of Fazenda Barba Negra and its exquisite private chapel Nossa Senhora Aparecida (Source: @fazendas_antigas)

This beautiful fazenda is located in the state of Rio Grande do Sul between the Guaiba River and Lagos dos Patos, south of Porto Alegre. Founded in 1783 by Gonçalves Salgado family. The fazenda possess a cute little oratory, stables and the casa grande, all beautifully decorated blue and white with Portuguese tiles. The buildings are wonderful examples of domestic colonial baroque architecture that was popular at the time.

Fazenda Barba Negra was used to grow cattle which supplied the charqueadas in the neighbouring town; Barra do Ribeiro with the meat to produce charque (click here learn about charque). Between 1835 and 1845, several battles of the Ragamuffin War (Guerra dos Farrapos) were fought on the fazenda’s fields including a significant operation that resulted in the Empire of Brazil attacking the farm and killing an important revolutionary officer.

Oscar Pereira da Silva – Cena de Batalha no Sul do Brasil

Today the fazenda is preserved in pristine condition and is a charming tourist attraction. Visitors can explore the surrounding forests and discover more about the Ragamuffin War.

Engenho Poço Comprido

(Source: @fazendas_antigas)

Located in Vicência, Pernambuco, on the Rio Sirgi (river) banks sits an exceptional example of a mid-18th century engenho. The structures include the casa grande (big house), a chapel, stables, and part of the original engenho (mill or factory). The buildings are federal heritage listed and were restored to their original glory. This engenho is unique because the casa grande and chapel make up one large building. This is the only 18th-century building of this design still in existence in Brazil. Something to notice about this engenho’s design is its layout. The casa grande sits on a hill overlooking the mill so the master can have an ever watching view of his entire operation.

The view overlooking the engenho from the casa grande (Source: @fazendas_antigas)

Engenho Poço Comprido played a role in the Confederação do Equador, a short-lived rebellion led by wealthy landowners in the North East of Brazil against the Empire of Brazil, lead by Dom Pedro I. The rebellion was unsuccessful, and after a crushing defeat in Recife at the hands of the British Navy and Imperial forces, it was forced to retreat. One of the rebellion leaders was Joaquim da Silva Rabelo or better known as Frei Cancea; he and his men retreated to Poço Comprido for refuge. In the end, Frei Cancea was captured and executed by a firing squad.

 Murillo La Greca – The Execution of Frei Caneca, 1924. Oil on canvas. 
Murillo La Greca Museum Collection – Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_Execu%C3%A7%C3%A3o_de_Frei_Caneca.jpg)

Today Poço Comprido is a tourist attraction, and a museum occupies the main buildings. The museum host regular tours that go into the history of the property and discuss what life would have been like on this engenho. http://pococomprido.com.br/museu-comunitario-poco-comprido

Fazenda de São Tomé

(Source: @fazendas_antigas)

I could not find much on the history of Fazenda de São Tomé other than it was established in the 18th-century as a coffee plantation and is located in the state of Rio de Janeiro, approximately 60kms west of Rio de Janeiro city and 10kms south of Itaboraí. However, what makes this fazenda unique is it is owned by the American rock star Lenny Kravitz.

Lenny acquired this beautiful 1,000-acre property and transformed it into exactly what you would expect from an aging millionaire rock star. The casa grande is completely original on the outside and has kept all of its 19th-century colonial charms. The inside has been completely remodelled and designed to be modern and colonial fusion with great open plan living space. He has decorated it with beautiful artworks and mid-century antiques. Several farmhouses have been done up for his guests, a gym, a pool house, stables, and a recording studio.

Source: Simon Upton / Architectural Digest

“The interiors were very old-school colonial—matching wallpaper and upholstery, and lots of heavy wood furniture. My first impulse was to clean it all up, strip the wallpaper, weed out the endless armoires, and upgrade the plumbing and electrical,”

Lenny Kravitz1.

Fazenda Bom Retiro

(Source: @fazendas_antigas)

This 18th-century fazenda is one of my favourites. Located in Oliveira, Minas Gerais, it was established in 1777 by Ignácio Ribeiro da Silva and its full name, according to the will and testament of Ignacio dated 1798, is Fazenda Bom Retiro do Jacaré da Aplicativo Nossa Senhora de Oliveira. It listed the villa, agricultural lands, gardens, stables and the mill as part of the property. Incredibly it has remained the same more than 220 years later! The Ribeiro da Silva family made their wealth from mining gold in Minas Gerais during the great Brazilian gold rush. Ignacio established the fazenda when he married his wife, Francisca Felisberta de Góes e Lara, at ages 22 and 23, respectively, in 1777.

(Source: @fazendas_antigas)

The casa grande is designed in the typical colonial style of the time, with clean and simple rectilinear lines inspired by the military engineer architecture of the Pombaline style. The sloping walkway to the front entrance is unique and adds great character. A modern owner likely added the steps later, and the original design was the ramp that leads to a drop that was horse and carriage height. The Ribeiro da Silva family would have ordered the stable hands to have their horses and carriages waiting at the end of the ramp, mounting the horse or carriage from the ramp; the master and his family would never touch their feet on the ground.

Fazenda Bom Retiro has some unique original features that make it extra special. The most important was the slave cemetery that marks the final resting place for the poor souls forced into servitude on the fazenda and in the engenho. Hydraulic mills (engenhos) still exist and are operational; they were used to process sugar cane, corn and grain. Visitors are shown how rapadura (raw sugar in rock form) and cornmeal. An old stone wall surrounds the casa grande; the slaves built it in the 18th century. Also, original stables and buildings would likely have been used as servants quarters, slaves quarters, and storage or work sheds.

(Source: @fazendas_antigas)

The fazenda sits on acres of land covered with preserved forests, centuries-old fruit trees, water springs, waterfalls (cachoeiras) and domestic farm animals. Visitors can explore all of these on foot or book a horseback tour.

Carlos Justiniano Ribeiro Chagas

One final piece of history worth mentioning is in 1879, Fazenda Bom Retiro was the birthplace of Carlos Chagas, one of the worlds great sanitary physicians, scientists, and bacteriologists. He was nominated twice for Nobel Prize and discovered Chagas Disease. Chagas was an advocate for health-care and prevention services in Brazil and worked in the battles against Spanish flu, sexually transmitted diseases, leprosy, and tuberculosis.

You can visit Fazenda Bom Retiro and see this all for yourself. Fazenda Bom Retiro’s casa grande has been restored to all its former antique glory and you can wander the halls and yards, imagining how it would have felt to have lived here (and laboured here) in the 18th and 19th century. It is also an operating farm which has accommodation for you to stay in. Throughout the day, visitor can ride horses through long coffee plantations, bathe in the waterfall or in the natural pool, visit the mill, where rapadura (crystallised raw sugar) was made, the cornmeal mill and the monjolo, where the beans are ground, all of this powered by running water, without the use of electricity, as in the past.

At lunch, you will taste the country food, made on the wood stove (lenha a fogao), in stone pots and try the various types of fruit jams in the region. During the night, you can enjoy a glass of wine, with different types of local Mineiro cheeses (these are famous across Brazil); or a local cachaça (Brazilian sugar cane spirit). All of this to the sound of the accordion, around the fire, under the starry sky.

Fazendabomretiro.com use Google chrome to translate the website to English.

Fazenda do Castelo

(Source: @fazendas_antigas)

A former coffee plantation from the colonial period located at the entrance to the city of Rio de Janeiro, Resende. The 26-room house has gardens on the main facade and one of the sides. The main elements of its facade are the stairs in Carrara marble and Portuguese tiles. The case grande was built in 1835 by Commander Antonio de Paula Ramos. Ramos was later decorated for his service in the Paraguayan War. Fazenda do Castelo follows the neoclassical style of the 19th century. 

The nickname that became a name, “Castelo”, comes from two turrets built at the ends of the manor, in the fashion of medieval castles, in a circular shape, as if they were sentry boxes. Currently, these turrets are not easy to perceive, as ivy covers them.

Fazenda do Castelo is privately owned and not open to the public.

Fazenda Pao Grande

(Source: @fazendas_antigas)

Pao Grande was one of the most spectacular fazendas and engenhoes of its time. Located in Avelar, Rio de Janeiro, the land was partitioned in 1714 and became an operating economic fazenda in 1760 under the control of the Portuguese brothers Antonio Ribeiro de Avellar and José Rodrigues da Cruz, and Antonio dos Santos. It produced sugar cane that was refined into sugar and distilled into liquor, in the engenho, for export. The first proper casa grande was built in 1795 when the fazenda becomes the primary residence of Maria da Conceição Ribeiro de Avellar, the widow of Antonio. In 1805 a new Casa Grande was built, the one that still stands today. The plan is grand, and the materials are mostly imported from Portugal and France.

Oil on Canvas of Pao Grande C.1844. See the Casa Grande overlooks the mill, stables and slave quarters. These slaves quarters house over seven hundred people. Source: http://acasasenhorial.org/acs/index.php/pt/casas-senhoriais/pesquisa-lista/350-fazenda-pau-grande

In the 1830s, the primary economic activity switched from sugar to coffee, and by 1840 it was very successful in producing coffee on an immense scale. Fazenda Pao Grande had more than seven hundred slaves. In the 1870s, it was one of Brazil’s most prosperous coffee plantations, employing hundreds of slaves and salaried immigrants from Europe. However, this was its peak, and the effects of over-cultivation were showing in the 1880s. Over the next 100 years, coffee production crashed, and by 1990 it was producing on 20 bushels a year.

Today, Fazenda Pao Grande is the private residence of business man, Walter Soares Ribas, and its main economic activity is breeding horses and dairy cows.

Fazenda Pao Grande described by French Botanist Augustin Saint-Hilaire

After three days of travel, we arrived at Pau Grande, the most important sugar mill I saw in Brazil, with the exception, perhaps, of the sugar mills on the Colégio farm, near S. Salvador de Campos, and built by the Jesuits.

After travelling through a region where traces of human activity are found only from time to time, the traveller is surprised to see such a large house surrounded by large power plants. Pau Grande resembles the appearance of one of our castles less than that of a monastery.

Its owner’s residence has a floor outside the floor, and there are sixteen front windows, with iron balconies, cast in Europe. At the center of the building and on the same level, there is a large chapel, whose coverage, however, is quite different.

The other side of the house, which is leaning against a hill, has two wings with a courtyard.

The costumes. Room division.

The ground floor, as in Portuguese and Spanish residences, is not occupied by the owner. A wooden staircase, badly built, leads to the rooms: the later ones are reserved for the ladies; those at the front have a series of large rooms that connect and are sparsely furnished. At the bottom of these rooms, small alcoves, dark with doors, serve as bedrooms. This distribution is not only peculiar to the Pao Grande house, but common to the old houses, somewhat important, and adapts to the habits of its residents.

Women, who live very little with strangers, and rarely show up, spend the day in an entirely separate room. The men, ignoring the pleasure of reading and studying, left to their outside affairs, need only a room where they can meet.

To sleep, it doesn’t matter whether the rooms are dark or full of light; the alcove without light is preferred by those who want to sleep during the day.

The mills and slave quarters of the making of Pao Grande, are more or less in a semi-circle in front of the owner’s residence. The distillery, the boilers, the cane mill, follow in this order, assembled in a large building constructed of wood and clay.

The “baraúna” belonging to the legume family, is the tree that provides the extremely hardwood used in the construction. The cover uses leaves of a palm tree that they call ‘heart of palm’ (palmito). A balcony surrounds the part where the boilers are located with a balustrade, from which the owner, without being bothered, can watch the workers.

The cane mill, which runs on water, was assembled by a mechanic that Pombal sent to Brazil. Other machinery, more or less useful but which have not been used, is connected to the mill. There is a pestle mill to break corn, another to make cornmeal, and a grater for manioc flour in another building. In another place is the sawmill, and everything moves by the force of the water “.

Saint-Hilaire, Auguste de.  Travels through the province of Rio de Janeiro 1816 and 1819 . Rio de Janeiro, Typ. Of Jornal do Commercio, Rodrigues & C, 1937

Fazenda Santa Justa

(Source: @fazendas_antigas)

Fazenda Santa Justa is located in Rio das Flores, Rio de Janeiro state. It was founded in 1820 by Geraldo Belens and then inherited by his son, Brás Belens. In 1852 Brás turned the fazenda into a German immigrant farming colony with the motive of operating without enslaved people. Unfortunately, the venture only lasted approximately, and the German immigrants all left and moved south. Brás passed away in 1862 and his widow sold Santa Justa to Jacintho Alves Barbosa, Barão (Barron) de Santa Justa (a noble title created by Dom Pedro II). Alves Barbosa acquired Santa Justa to be part of a greater coffee production portfolio. He came to own approximately two thousand slaves and export 720,000 kilograms (1.6 million pounds) of coffee. Sadly, slavery was reinstituted on Santa Justa and did not end until abolition at the end of the century.

After a string of owners, by the end of the 20th century, Fazenda Santa Justa was in a state of disrepair. The Cardão family purchased the property and restored it to its former glory. Today it is one of the most beautiful fazendas in Brazil.

Want to see more photos of beautiful Fazendas?

A special thank you to @Paulo_victor_fa and @elisa.fig of www.instagram.com/fazendasantigas/ for letting me use some of their photos and research. Please follow them on Instagram to see many more photos of amazing old fazendas, engenhos and plantation homes. Their posts are in Portuguese but with Google Chrome you can translate everything to English, and beautiful photos have no language.

Written by Elliot Lindsay 2021

  1. Rus, Mayer, “Set Foot Onto Lenny Kravitz’s Otherworldly Brazilian Compound,” Architectural Digest, 17 April 2019, https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/set-foot-onto-lenny-kravitzs-otherworldly-brazilian-compound []
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