Dutch Brazil: Conquest, Reconquest and Legacy

This is a detailed historical map of northeastern Brazil, focusing on the region around Pernambuco, by Nicolaes Visscher. The map is divided into three main sections. The left portion depicts a geographic map with yellow and white shaded areas representing territorial divisions, and a variety of ships sailing the ocean labeled "Mar Del Nort". Central and right parts of the map show detailed landscapes and settlements along river valleys, marked with numerous towns and fortifications. The bottom central section includes an ornate title cartouche reading "PHARNAMBUCI", decorated with a portrait and indigenous figures. In the upper right corner, there is an inset depicting a scene titled "SUYCKER MOLENS", illustrating the production of sugar with several figures working and socializing around a sugar mill. The map features meticulous topographic details, road networks, and nautical elements, capturing a vivid historical snapshot of colonial Brazil.
A map celebrating the Dutch capture of the town of Olinda, Brazil, by the Dutch West India Company, in 1630. Public domain image by Nicolaes Visscher.

During the 17th century, the Dutch conducted several invasions of Brazil, primarily targeting the Northeast region, which was a hub for sugar production in Portuguese America. They were motivated by the desire to establish their own stronghold in the Americas and seize control of lucrative sugar-producing areas. Initially, the Netherlands sponsored a series of raids in the regions of Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, as well as in the island of Fernando de Noronha. Later on, they established a significant occupation of the province of Pernambuco, beginning in 1630. The Dutch Brazil, also called New Holland, lasted for nearly a quarter of a century, until the Portuguese successfully expelled the occupying forces in 1654. It was a pivotal chapter in the colonial history of Brazil, with enduring consequences for the Portuguese Empire.


  • The Dutch heavily supported sugar production in Brazil, capitalizing on their superior maritime capabilities and financial systems.
  • However, the union of the Portuguese and Spanish crowns under Philip II in 1580 led to Dutch exclusion from the Brazilian sugar market, prompting military responses.
  • The Dutch aimed to dominate the sugar trade by controlling significant parts of Brazil. Early attempts at invading the country were unsuccessful, but the Dutch asserted control over Pernambuco in 1630.
  • Johann Maurits of Nassau governed the New Holland from 1637 onwards, implementing various modernizing reforms.
  • From 1645 to 1654, Portuguese forces launched an insurrection in Pernambuco, gradually weakening Dutch control until the end of the Dutch rule in Brazil.
  • The most important consequences of the Dutch invasions of Brazil were the reinforcement of local identities in Pernambuco and the emergence of sugar plantations, sponsored by the Dutch, in the Caribbean. These sugar farms would eventually compete with Brazil in the international market for sugar.

Dutch interests in Brazil

The sugar trade was the main economic activity in Brazil in the 17th century. It was heavily intertwined with Dutch support in all stages:

  • Production: Building sugar mills was a costly endeavor, and it was bankrolled by Dutch financiers who extended increasing amounts of credit to Portuguese settlers in Brazil. This funding was crucial for establishing and expanding sugar production facilities.
  • Transportation: Freighters from the Netherlands were often responsible for taking Brazilian sugar to Europe. Portuguese ships were small and minimally crewed, making them vulnerable to piracy. They had earned a reputation of being ineffective against threats — a sentiment echoed by Father Vieira, who criticized them as “schools of cowardice”. In contrast, Dutch vessels, disguised as Portuguese ones, were better equipped and faster. From 1649 onwards, the Portuguese settlers in Brazil were required to export sugar in escorted Dutch vessels, to ensure the protection of the valuable cargo.
  • Refinement: Upon reaching Europe, the raw Brazilian sugar underwent a refinement process in specialized Dutch refineries. This step was essential to enhance the sugar’s quality and prepare it for market.
  • Final distribution: The Netherlands, known for its long-standing expertise in trade, played a pivotal role in the commercialization of Brazilian sugar. Dutch merchants leveraged their trading networks to distribute the refined sugar to various markets across Europe, capitalizing on their trading prowess to meet the demand for this valuable commodity.

The Iberian Union and the immediate causes of the Dutch offensives in Brazil

Following the death of King Henry of Portugal, in 1580, there were significant shifts in the landscape of European international relations. The subsequent dynastic crisis led to the Spanish monarch Philip II ascending to the Portuguese throne that same year, placing the Portuguese and Spanish crowns under a single ruler. It was the beginning of the Iberian Union, which would last until 1640 and would have profound implications for the Dutch.

Philip II, also known as Philip the Prudent, was one of a series of Catholic Spanish kings who staunchly opposed the Protestant Dutch and refused to acknowledge Dutch independence. Because Spain was embroiled in a conflict with the Netherlands, the Dutch ended up being barred from the lucrative sugar trade in Brazil. Initially, trade restrictions were eased by a 12-year truce, but they began to be stringently enforced after this period. This motivated the Dutch to fight against both Spain and Portugal in the Americas.

The conquest of Brazil

The Dutch initially targeted Portuguese trading posts in Africa, then attempted to invade two of the most important Brazilian cities — Salvador and Rio de Janeiro — in 1599. The renowned navigator Oliver Van Noord was in charge of this raid, but it ultimately failed. In 1604, the Netherlands staged another attack against Salvador, but it failed once more, due to insufficient local support. A truce signed in 1609 provided a temporary halt to hostilities until 1615, when Admiral Joris van Spilberg attacked the coastal province of São Vicente, looted the São Jorge dos Erasmos mill, and set it on fire, causing local proprietors to flee.

In 1621, the Dutch retaliated against the Spanish crown by establishing the Dutch West India Company (WIC). This company was formed from a mix of public and private capital, and it had a single overarching goal: to reassert Dutch control over the Brazilian sugar trade and over the supply of African slaves that it depended upon.

In 1624, Dutch forces under Jacob Willekens captured Salvador in under 24 hours. It was the first WIC-sponsored invasion of Brazil, but it ended prematurely. The Portuguese settlers staged a guerrilla resistance, led by the new governor of the province of Bahia, Matias de Albuquerque, and by the Catholic bishop Dom Marcos Teixeira. They prevented the Dutch from controlling the region until the arrival of the Jornada dos Vassalos (Journey of the Vassals): an expedition of European warriors sent by the Spanish king to expel the invaders from Brazil. In 1625, the city of Salvador was swiftly recaptured.

Further attempts in 1627 resulted in minor pillaging in Salvador, and in 1628 the Dutch briefly controlled the island of Fernando de Noronha. Dutch mercenaries also invaded sugarcane lands across the Northeast, aiming to take control of sugar mills on their own.

Finally, in 1630, the Netherlands targeted the province of Pernambuco, which was also engaged in the sugar trade, with over a hundred sugar mills. Dutch forces quickly took the city of Olinda but encountered stronger resistance in Recife, where they had to resort to guerrilla tactics. By 1635, the Dutch troop strength in Pernambuco peaked at around 5500. Meanwhile, Portuguese resistance, led by Matias de Albuquerque, was lacking in strength and had little help from Europe. That year, Albuquerque’s men retreated to Bahia, while the Dutch solidified control over Pernambuco and attempted to secure other areas, like the provinces of Paraíba and Sergipe, as well. Amidst the war, African slaves in Brazil profited from the chaos to escape from their owners and form the Quilombo dos Palmares, an autonomous Black community located in what is today the Brazilian state of Alagoas.

Domingo Fernandes Calabar significantly assisted Dutch efforts to conquer the Brazilian Northeast. Although he was born in Brazil, he was of mixed Portuguese and African descent. Initially, he was loyal to the Portuguese Crown, but in 1632 he switched his allegiance to the Dutch. The reasons behind Calabar’s defection are not fully understood but are thought to involve a mix of personal grievances with Portuguese authorities and the perception that engaging with the Dutch could be beneficial for him. Once becoming a friend of the invaders, he became an invaluable asset to them, due to his extensive knowledge of the local geography and of the Portuguese military strategies. Serving as a military advisor, Calabar helped the Dutch capture key locations such as Porto Calvo and establish a foothold in Northeastern Brazil.

The Nassau administration

By 1637, the whole of Olinda and Recife belonged to the Netherlands. Johann Maurits of Nassau, a military officer from the Holy Roman Empire, was sent by the Dutch West India Company to govern the Dutch colony in Brazil. His administration was marked by significant efforts to revitalize and develop the region following many years of destructive battles.

In order to appease local landowners, he resumed the slave trade, lowered taxes, redistributed abandoned mills, and created the Câmaras dos Escabinos — legislative assemblies where landowners had a say in the government.

Facing a shortage crisis, he determined that cassava production be increased, so as to feed the slaves properly.

Also, he introduced reforms that improved sanitation and urban infrastructure in Olinda and Recife, the latter being renamed Mauritsstad and becoming the capital of Dutch Brazil. Under Nassau’s authority, the Dutch built water canals, bridges, palaces and religious temples, and they imposed strict rules to ensure peaceful coexistence within the region, among which laws forbidding littering and ensuring religious freedom for Christians and Jews.

Finally, the government attracted European artists and scientists to the colony, such as Albert Eckhout, Frans Post and Zacharias Wagener. These foreigners would be responsible for documenting Brazilian culture and nature at the time.

War of the Divine Light: the reconquest of Pernambuco

In 1640, the Iberian Union came to an abrupt end following a coup d’état and the rise of John IV, from the Braganza dynasty, as King of Portugal. Even though the Spanish attempted to restore control over the Portuguese crown, these endeavors were unsuccessful. In the following years, the new Portuguese regime concluded a truce with the Dutch, temporarily ending hostilities, but the Dutch remained in Brazil.

Meanwhile, Nassau’s tenure in Brazil was being disrupted by constant disagreements with the Dutch West India Company. The colonial administration, too concerned with developing the economy of Pernambuco, failed to provide enough profits to the company. Hence, in 1643, Johann Maurits of Nassau was summoned back to Europe, and the WIC implemented harsher measures in New Holland, notably a series of tax increases. These measures deteriorated the relationship between the new administration and several indebted estate owners, who mounted a resistance.

This shift heightened Portuguese resolve to reclaim their territories, ultimately setting off the Insurrection of Pernambuco, also known as the War of the Divine Light, in 1645. The local forces had the military support of both Portugal and England against the Dutch. They were comprised of sugar mill owners, slaves and indigenous people, united under various leaders: André Vidal de Negreiros (the governor), João Fernandes Vieira (a rich landowner), Filipe Camarão (an American Indian) and Henrique Dias (a Black slave).

During this period, the Netherlands was in dire straits. The Dutch West India Company was nearing bankruptcy, and few people were willing to finance it. Most investors believed that the profits from Brazil were insufficient and that it was best to focus on trading the salt from Setúbal. In addition, the onset of the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654) made the Netherlands lose huge amounts of money, critically undermining the Dutch investments in the defense sector.

In 1648 and in 1649, the Dutch suffered major losses in the Battles of Guararapes, in which they were overwhelmingly defeated. In 1654, a decisive Portuguese squadron surrounded Recife. This successful military action reclaimed Recife and other territories, effectively ending 24 years of Dutch colonial presence in Brazil. The conflict also extended to Africa, where the Portuguese managed to expel the Dutch from areas they had seized in the 1630s.

The end of Dutch rule in Brazil was formally recognized in 1661 with the Treaty of The Hague, in which Portugal and the Netherlands settled their disputes. The Portuguese retained the reconquered territories in Northeastern Brazil and Africa, while the Dutch received financial compensation in the ballpark of four million réis, the Portuguese currency. From then on, the Dutch would never again control parts of Brazil.

The legacy of New Holland

The expulsion of the Dutch from Brazil had far-reaching effects on the region and beyond. One of the most immediate impacts was fostering a sense of autonomy among the inhabitants of Pernambuco. They became proud of their identity, partly as a reaction to the long period under foreign control.

In the aftermath of the Insurrection of Pernambuco, the Portuguese intensified their efforts to consolidate control over Northeastern Brazil, including conflicts with indigenous populations that had been allied to the Netherlands. However, an emerging issue was the fact that the Dutch, upon leaving Brazil, transferred their sugar plantations to the Caribbean. The proliferation of Dutch-operated farms in Central America introduced fierce competition to Brazilian sugar, contributing to the decline of the sugar economy in the Portuguese Empire.




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