Dutch Wars in Brazil

The Dutch West India Company, determined to take Spanish and Portuguese colonial holdings in the Americas and Africa for its own trading monopoly, successfully occupied Portugal’s rich sugar-producing colonies in the northeast of Brazil. The Dutch named the region New Holland. The company also took Portuguese slaving posts in West Africa, which provided labor for New Holland.

Summary of Event

The Dutch Wars in Brazil pitted the rising maritime power of the Netherlands against the declining sea power of Portugal. The king of Spain was also king of Portugal, and Spain was the bitterest enemy of the Netherlands. Catholic Spanish kings resolutely suppressed the Protestant-inspired movement for Dutch independence. In capturing Brazil, the Dutch enhanced their own resources while weakening those of their enemy. [kw]Dutch Wars in Brazil (1630-1660’)
[kw]Brazil, Dutch Wars in (1630-1660’)
[kw]Wars in Brazil, Dutch (1630-1660’)
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1630-1660’: Dutch Wars in Brazil[1100]
Colonization;1630-1660’: Dutch Wars in Brazil[1100]
Trade and commerce;1630-1660’: Dutch Wars in Brazil[1100]
Economics;1630-1660’: Dutch Wars in Brazil[1100]
Expansion and land acquisition;1630-1660’: Dutch Wars in Brazil[1100]
Organizations and institutions;1630-1660’: Dutch Wars in Brazil[1100]
South America;1630-1660’: Dutch Wars in Brazil[1100]
Brazil;1630-1660’: Dutch Wars in Brazil[1100]
Dutch Wars in Brazil (1630’-1660’)

The Dutch West India Company Dutch West India Company was established in 1621 as a privately funded, government-sponsored monopoly trading enterprise. It was authorized to organize its own armed forces to acquire the treasure and lands of Spain and Portugal in the Caribbean, South America, and Africa for Dutch colonization and commerce. Its enemies considered it no more than organized piracy on the high seas. The prizes it first sought were the rich, sugar-producing colonies of Brazil. These curved along the coast of northeast South America, descending from the equator to the Tropic of Capricorn.

The capital of Brazil was Salvador, located on the coast in the province of Bahia. Northward lay the richest colony, Pernambuco, with its coastal cities of Olinda and Recife. Far south of Salvador lay Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The initial objective of the Dutch West India Company was to capture Salvador. With a force of two dozen ships and more than three thousand soldiers, the company took Salvador in May of 1624.

The capture of Salvador sent shock waves through both Portugal and Spain. The rich sugar Sugar;Brazil plantations of Brazil were lost, and the silver mines of Upper Peru Mining;Peru (Bolivia) were now exposed to enemy routes. Philip IV Philip IV (king of Spain) , king of Spain, ordered a multinational force that massed nearly five dozen ships and more than twelve thousand soldiers to recapture Salvador, doing so the following year.

The Dutch West India Company, however, did not desist in its objectives for Brazilian sugar. It was determined to capture the richest sugar colony, Pernambuco. In early 1630, with a force of more than five dozen ships and nearly seven thousand troops, the Dutch launched a two-front attack, capturing the provincial capital of Olinda and the nearby port city to the south, Recife. The wealthy landowners of Pernambuco organized guerrilla resistance to the Dutch, restraining them from moving beyond the coast. Inadequate arms and supplies, together with betrayals and desertions, hindered this local resistance. The Dutch, from their base at Recife, advanced up and down the coast. By 1637, they held key settlements and forts from Rio Grande in the north, to several settlements near Recife in the south.

Named New Holland New Holland , the region experienced its peak period beginning in 1637, when the Dutch West India Company appointed Prince John Maurice of Nassau John Maurice of Nassau as civil governor and military commander. Enamored of Brazil, he governed New Holland until 1644, providing an administration of singular skill and effectiveness. He also expanded the Dutch hold on Brazil. Moving westward along Brazil’s northern coast, the Dutch occupied Fortaleza, in the province of Ceará, by the end of 1637. Advancing farther toward the mouth of the Amazon River, they occupied São Luis, in Maranhão, four years later. In 1638, the Dutch attempted once more to conquer the Portuguese capital, Salvador, but the Portuguese soundly defeated them. New Holland, or Dutch Brazil, therefore, never extended farther south than above Bahia.

Essential to sugar production was African slave labor, so the Dutch captured and occupied Portugal’s slave territories in Africa. In 1637 and 1641, they occupied Portuguese slave settlements in west-central Africa (Ghana) and southwest Africa (Angola). Slavery;Brazil

Dominating now the former Portuguese strongholds around the rim of the South Atlantic, the Dutch West India Company reaped considerable rewards from New Holland. Developing new methods of sugar cultivation and marketing, the Dutch increased their wealth. John Maurice of Nassau invested in Recife’s infrastructure, improving its streets, bridges, ports, and physical amenities. Although a Protestant, he followed the Dutch practice of tolerating all religions to secure peaceful conditions for commerce. Recife had a sizable Jewish community that built the first synagogue in Latin America.

However, the Dutch could not keep their hold on Brazil. In 1640, Portugal regained its independence from Spain, restoring its own monarchy and removing the Spanish king from Portugal’s throne. Of paramount importance to the restored Portuguese monarchy was reasserting control over its wealthiest colony, Brazil. This restoration also was critical to Portuguese landowners in New Holland. The conflict between the Dutch and Portuguese had allowed many slaves to mutiny and flee into the interior to establish independent communities known as quilombos. To get new slaves, landowners had to“purchase” them through Dutch-controlled markets. While revenue became unstable and costs increased for some Portuguese landowners, the Dutch collected taxes regularly and thoroughly. These economic difficulties exacerbated the sociocultural differences between the Portuguese and their Protestant and Jewish, Dutch-speaking occupiers.

John Maurice returned to the Netherlands in 1644, and the vulnerability of New Holland increased. By 1647, the Portuguese mounted two fleets, one to retake Recife, the other to retake Luanda Luanda . The first attacked Recife, supporting the guerrilla movement besieging the city from the interior. This movement was made up of a historic alliance of landowners with blacks, Indians, and mixed-blood contingents, who were dependent on the landowners. Blacks were led by Henrique Dias, Dias, Henrique and the Indians were led by Felipe Camarão Camarão, Felipe . In 1648 and 1649, in two battles in the heights of Guararapes outside Recife, this local alliance defeated the Dutch. The second fleet, led by the governor of Rio de Janeiro, Salvador Correia de Sá e Benevides, Sá e Benevides, Salvador Correia de reoccupied Luanda, eventually driving the Dutch from nearly all occupied Portuguese African territories.

Besieged in Recife beginning in 1650, the Dutch surrendered Recife and all the territories of New Holland to Portugal at the beginning of 1654. Conclusive treaties, involving Portuguese indemnities to the Dutch, were signed a decade later.


The Dutch Wars significantly changed both the Dutch and Portuguese empires. The Dutch had initial success holding Brazil, but once they lost Brazil, they were successful only in securing peripheral areas in the Americas. These areas were Suriname, the region west of the Amazon River, Curaçao, and some other small Caribbean islands. In Africa, the Dutch ultimately kept a hold on the southern tip of the continent only. The heart of the Dutch empire moved to Asia, where it fortified its position in the country that became Indonesia.

Portugal made the restored Brazil the heart of its empire, and progressively the colony became more critical economically. The colonies that Portugal regained in Africa were subordinate to Brazil as the source of its labor supply. The alliance of Portuguese landowners with black and Indian leaders to expel the Dutch led to forging Brazilian nationalism and the Brazilian interracial national character.

Both empires had been brief maritime powers. In the seventeenth century, they steadily became subordinate to the rising sea power of Britain. During the eighteenth century, Britain became the dominant maritime empire and, in its global conflicts with France, it fortified itself strategically by alliances with Portugal and the Netherlands.

Further Reading

  • Boxer, Charles R. The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600-1800. New York: Knopf, 1965. A classic account of the rise of the Dutch maritime empire in competition with that of Portugal. Follows their rivalries in South America, West Africa, and Southeast Asia.
  • Price, J. L. The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. A concise overview of internal economic, political, and sociocultural issues propelling international expansion of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century.
  • Von Donselaar, J. “On the Vocabulary of the Dutch in Their Seventeenth-Century South American Colonies.” In The Low Countries and the New Worlds: Travel, Discovery, Early Relations, edited by Johanna C. Prins et al. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000. Examines the social and economic factors of Dutch settlement in Brazil, Suriname, and Berbice (now Guyana) that affected the development of the Dutch language, particularly in relation to terms for flora and fauna.
  • Whitehead, Peter James Palmer. A Portrait of Dutch Seventeenth Century Brazil: Animals, Plants, and People by the Artists of Johan Maurits of Nassau. Amsterdam: North Holland, 1989. A collection of detailed plant, animal, and anthropologic images, some in color, from Dutch scientific expeditions in Brazil.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Maurice of Nassau; Njinga; Philip IV; António Vieira. Dutch Wars in Brazil (1630’-1660’)