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Abstract Race is a fundamental aspect of historical inequality and institutions, yet it is at times overlooked within the literature on comparative development in the Americas. This article investigates the nature of staple production in Brazil and attendant changes in the racial composition of 20 modern states from its discovery by the Portuguese to the present. The Indigenous population was surpassed by that of African descent in the north-east, south-east, and north, respectively, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; not until decades after the abolition of slavery did people of European heritage come to constitute a majority. These transitions were guided by the relative productivity, natural increase, and price of Native and African slaves, contingent on the extent of natural resource wealth (mineral deposits or land suitable for growing cash crops) and supply of free labour. In those areas where slavery was most profitable, a 1 per cent increase in the relative cost of Native labour raised the proportion of people of African ancestry by up to 2 per cent, depending on the measures of slave prices and racial classifications considered. This relationship is robust to changes in output prices or the populace of European descent, and alternative scenarios of aboriginal population decline.