The Iron Industry in the Colony

Attempts to produce iron in Brazil began late in the 16th century in the interior of São Paulo

A 1987 photo of the ruins of the iron factory

Archeological History Collection/Museu Paulista/USPA 1987 photo of the ruins of the iron factoryArcheological History Collection/Museu Paulista/USP

The story of the successes and failures experienced by Real Fábrica de Ferro de Ipanema, a 19th-century iron and steel enterprise in Brazil, has already been told and analyzed several times. Today we are very familiar with the technical difficulties faced by Swedes and Germans who were brought here to successfully produce large volumes of good quality iron in the inland regions of São Paulo State, a goal never achieved. That was a time when iron and steel production had already reached an advanced stage in Europe, where blast furnaces were built using scientific knowledge accumulated in previous centuries. But little is known about attempts to produce iron before the days of the Real Fábrica. Then, ore was converted to iron using smelting methods carried out in the middle of the forest, using very small furnaces. Once produced, there were difficulties in distributing the output.

Many practices employed in metal-working and smelting, and miners who specialized in gold, silver, and precious stones were brought to Brazil in 1598 by Dom Francisco de Sousa, seventh governor-general of Brazil, who served from 1591-1602. Sousa kept abreast of information about the occurrence of valuable ores in a region near what was then Vila de São Paulo de Piratininga, on Araçoiaba Hill, 15 km from the present city of Iperó. Exploration at the site had begun a year earlier by Portuguese bandeirante and merchant Afonso Sardinha who, according to historian Pedro Taques (1714-1777), had hoped to find precious metals there.

In Araçoiaba, however, the abundance of iron ore was limited to magnetite. In order to take advantage of the potential of that area, furnaces and forges were built to make bars and simple pieces such as knives, spades, tools, and nails. “The smelters used practical knowledge in their work. They had no scientific understanding of the factors involved in the smelting process, especially with regard to what happens when the materials burn,” said historian Anicleide Zequini, an expert in the field at the Museu Republicano in Itu, affiliated with the Museu Paulista at the University of São Paulo (USP). “Those elements were not revealed until the so-called scientific revolution that occurred between 1789 and 1848, with the advances made in chemistry, and proceeded step by step with the Industrial Revolution.”

Vestiges of the furnace

Archeological History Collection/Museu Paulista/USPVestiges of the furnaceArcheological History Collection/Museu Paulista/USP

The efforts at Araçoiaba Hill by Dom Francisco and Sardinha were short-lived. At the time, all or part of the investment funds had to be furnished by the entrepreneur. If capital was limited and the returns not immediate, the investor went bankrupt, as happened with Dom Francisco. His attempts were futile and he died in extreme poverty. Two similar initiatives followed. In the 17th century, in 1684, the Portuguese Luiz Lopes de Carvalho built an iron mill at that same site. To raise money he mortgaged his properties in Portugal, but soon went bankrupt. During the following century, in 1763, it was Domingos Pereira Ferreira’s turn to try. “He must have been the last to produce iron on that hill, with the help of the smelters,” Zequini says. It was not until 1810 that the Real Fábrica was built, a few kilometers from that site.

Araçoiaba was not the only place in São Paulo where iron was manufactured in the 17th century. The Fábrica de Ferro de Santo Amaro opened at Vila de São Paulo in 1607, the result of a partnership among Diogo Quadros, Francisco Lopes Pinto, and Antonio de Souza. It lasted a few years before shutting down.

The activities carried out from the 16th to 18th centuries in inland São Paulo were researched between 1983 and 1989 by archeologist Margarida Davina Andreatta, one of Brazil’s pioneers in architectural history, according to Zequini. The site researched and dug up by Andreatta was located with the help of José Monteiro Salazar, a history researcher in the region. She identified the site, known as Afonso Sardinha, and found rubble, tiles, various kinds of ceramics, vestiges of the furnace, and other structures. When Zequini wrote her doctoral dissertation about the site, she had the pieces she found dated and so proved that they were from the period she had studied. “That was the first 16th century site to be dated in São Paulo,’” says Andreatta. Now retired from USP, she still goes to the Museu Paulista twice a week and coordinates an archeological history group at the Bras Cubas University, in Mogi das Cruzes (SP).