Discovering Brazil with Albert Eckhout
Albert Eckhout: A Dutch Artist in Brazil
In 1578, King Sebastião I of Portugal decided to re-Christianize Morocco. The crusade would have been a dubious proposition in the best of times. This one, however, would have taken a miracle. The King was little more than a boy, and a boy so inbred that he only had four great-grandparents, one (or two) of whom, Queen Juana, was known as “La Loca.” After the Portuguese army crossed into Africa, events took a predictable course: the forces of Sebastião were smashed at Alcazarquivir, south of Tangiers. The young Portuguese king simply vanished.
His death was so ruinous for Portugal that two years later, when Cardinal Dom Henrique, Sebastião’s elderly successor, died, King Philip II of Spain, asserting a dynastic claim, managed to attach Portugal and its empire to the kingdom of Castile. The united empire—all of Latin America, much of Northern France, the northern and southern Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, large parts of Italy, chunks of Africa, the Philippines—was far too big to administer or defend, so there was less to it than met the eye. One contemporary remarked that “the skin alone was of a lion; the flesh was of a lamb.”1
That flesh was being devoured by ceaseless wars with England and France. But the most costly was the Eighty Years’ War against the united provinces of the northern Netherlands, which, though nominally under the control of Spain, had become a first-rank power in its own right by the end of the sixteenth century. The Dutch were always seeking creative ways to hit their old Catholic nemesis, and eventually resolved, in the 1620s, to take the battle to Spain’s rich sugar colony, Brazil. They conquered Recife and Olinda, the principal cities of Pernambuco, in 1630, and eventually extended their control across the whole northeastern hump of South America. The possession of part of Brazil—and of Elmina and Luanda, conquered in expeditions that departed from Recife—meant that the Dutch dominated the world sugar market: the labor supply in Africa, the plantations in Pernambuco, and the refineries in Amsterdam.
The Dutch transformed Recife into South America’s richest and most diverse city. It was populated by Africans and Indians, Dutch and Portuguese, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Englishmen, and Poles. Because “a greater degree of religious freedom was allowed in Netherlands Brazil than anywhere else in the Western world”2—including in Holland—Jews flocked there: so many that at one point they may have outnumbered white Gentiles in Recife.3 One priest muttered that Recife and its twin city, Olinda, were “como a Sodoma, & Gomorra.”4
That the Dutch period has remained widely known in Brazil is mainly owing to the achievements of its greatest figure, Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen. His governorship, from 1637 to 1644, sparked a brief golden age, a reflection of the luminous renaissance at home. He reorganized the colony politically—the New World’s first parliament convened at Recife—and temporarily reconciled the local Portuguese planters to Dutch rule. He planned cities and built forts and conquered…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.