In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dutch Brazil

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historiography and Primary Sources
  • Printed, Edited, and Translated Sources
  • The West India Company and Dutch Brazil
  • Sugar
  • The Indigenous Population
  • Slave Trade and Slavery
  • Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen
  • Religion and Tolerance
  • Art, Architecture, and Science
  • Legacy

Atlantic History Dutch Brazil
Michiel van Groesen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0283


Dutch Brazil was the most important colony of the West India Company, and constituted the only truly imperial moment of the so-called Dutch Golden Age. In May 1624 a Dutch fleet invaded Salvador de Bahia, the capital of Habsburg Brazil, but surrendered the city to a Luso-Spanish armada eleven months later. The West India Company returned to capture Pernambuco in February 1630, gradually extending their territorial control from Maranhão in the north to Sergipe in the south, and retaining power in Recife until January 1654. The war the Dutch waged in Brazil, first against Habsburg Spain and then against the restored Portuguese monarchy, was the main geopolitical conflict in the Atlantic world in the first half of the 17th century. Despite its importance, Dutch Brazil is often regarded by historians of the Atlantic world as an incongruity. The Dutch Atlantic is considered an anomaly among more durable empires, while Brazil occupies a distinct position in scholarship on South America. Yet the implications of the northern European infiltration into the Iberian sphere of influence were profound. The establishment of the colony undermined the notion of Habsburg supremacy in Latin America and increased Luso-Spanish tensions at home. It brought a hitherto unimaginable (albeit often mythologized) form of religious tolerance to the Americas, and created a multicultural society in which Protestant soldiers, Catholic sugar planters, African slaves, and Sephardic Jews all lived alongside the colony’s various native groups. The charismatic governor Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen, who ruled in Recife from 1637 to 1644, financed prestigious scientific and artistic studies of the tropics and imported to Pernambuco his European notions of cosmopolitan court culture. The possession of northeast Brazil enabled the West India Company to transform the sugar market, and after conquering Portugal’s African strongholds in Guinea and Angola, it looked set to dominate the transatlantic slave trade too. A revolt from Portuguese sugar planters in June 1645, however, supported openly from Bahia and behind the scenes also from Lisbon, heralded the colony’s downfall, effectively sealed by two military encounters at Guararapes in 1648 and 1649 which the Dutch both narrowly lost. The fall of Recife, exceptionally well-fortified against an invading naval force, was postponed for another four and a half years. A lack of support from the political elite in the Dutch Republic, amid accusations of corruption, meant that the West India Company would abandon Brazil and shift their focus from empire building to commerce and trade in the Caribbean.

General Overviews

There are two classic 20th-century overviews of Dutch Brazil that are still being used by historians today. Gonsalves de Mello 1947 is a Braudellian, occasionally slightly nostalgic account of the influence of the Dutch occupation on Pernambucan society, based mainly on archival material in The Hague. Boxer 1957 offers a typically forceful narrative of political and military developments in Brazil, placed in the context of the global war between the Dutch Republic, Portugal, and the Habsburg monarchy. Both authors write glowingly about the role of Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen, to whom Van den Boogaart 1979, an influential collection of essays including a contribution by the great Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, is entirely dedicated. Three recent works have opted for a somewhat broader perspective, reconfiguring the position of Dutch Brazil within Atlantic history. The essays in Van Groesen 2014 focus on the colony’s multiple legacies from the restoration of Portuguese rule until after Brazilian independence, with specific attention devoted to the emergence of regional and national mythologies. Klooster 2016, rich in detail, emphasizes the crucial role of Brazil in the concerted Dutch policy of anti-Spanish aggression, focusing mainly on trade and the ravages of war in the Atlantic world, while Van Groesen 2017, using printed sources from across early modern Europe, argues that the Amsterdam media turned Dutch Brazil into a major news story in the 17th century, which gave rise to a “public” Atlantic world.

  • Boxer, Charles R. The Dutch in Brazil, 1624–1654. Oxford: Clarendon, 1957.

    A traditional account of Dutch Brazil, detailing the rise and fall of the colony. Almost exclusively focused on political and military events, it remains a classic. Still a very good place to start for those unfamiliar with the topic. Reprinted multiple times and translated into Portuguese (Os Holandeses no Brasil, 2004) and Dutch (De Nederlanders in Brazilië, 1993).

  • Gonsalves de Mello, Jose Antonio. Tempo dos Flamengos: Influência da ocupação holandesa na vida e na cultura do norte do Brasil. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Livraria José Olympio, 1947.

    The first modern overview of Dutch Brazil that has stood the test of time. Occasionally succumbs to regional mythologizing of the colony, but its discussions of Dutch influence on life in Recife and on the sugar plantations of Pernambuco remain useful and often revealing. Translated into Dutch in 2001, as Nederlanders in Brazilië.

  • Klooster, Wim. The Dutch Moment: War, Trade, and Settlement in the Seventeenth-Century Atlantic World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016.

    Broad overview of the West India Company’s policies and achievements in the Atlantic world in the period between 1620 and 1670, with considerable attention on Dutch Brazil. A good introduction for undergraduates and graduates interested in the idiosyncratic Dutch Atlantic and the geopolitical importance of Dutch Brazil.

  • van den Boogaart, Ernst, et al., eds. Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, 1604–1679: A Humanist Prince in Europe and Brazil. The Hague: Johan Maurits van Nassau Stichting, 1979.

    Sharply focused collection of seventeen essays, exploring the achievements of Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen as a humanist or even proto-enlightened ruler, mainly in Brazil. Covers a broad range of topics, including art, architecture, science, cartography, and indigenous alliances.

  • van Groesen, Michiel, ed. The Legacy of Dutch Brazil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    Twelve essays, bookended by an extensive introduction and an even longer historiographical epilogue, discuss the long-term impact of Dutch Brazil on Europe, Africa, and the Americas, taking scholarship on the colony beyond national historiographies. Divided into three sections dealing with geopolitical, cultural, and national legacies respectively.

  • van Groesen, Michiel. Amsterdam’s Atlantic: Print Culture and the Making of Dutch Brazil. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

    Synthetic study of Dutch Brazil, focusing on the flow of information between the Americas and Europe and on public debate. Demonstrates the relevance of Atlantic history for the Dutch Republic and vice versa by arguing that the “Amsterdamnification” of Dutch Brazil, triggered by publishers with a keen eye for commerce, ultimately led the authorities to withdraw their support for the colony.

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