Sunday, July 22, 2007

Dutch history in Recife

I had the opportunity to be part of a film group that was making a documentary about the history of Recife, especially the part where the Dutch ruled this city for 24 years. Actually, founded the city.

The Dutch / Recife history goes quite a while back and most Brazilians here rever the period, as it was when Recife started flourishing and become a planned city. The Dutch first went to Salvador, because that's where the Portuguese were stationed and where the industry was. They took it for a very short time in 1924 or 25, but it was quickly retaken by the Portuguese. In 1630, they took Recife going through Olinda. Many of the churches and Portuguese symbols in Olinda were razed to the ground by the Dutch on this small crusade.

Maurits van Nassau (Mauricio de Nassau) started his rule of Recife in 1637. He started studying at the age of 14 and as he was part of the noble family line, he managed to secure a good position, I believe as army colonel. His problem was that he wasted a little bit too much money, was actually a squanderer. So when he was given the opportunity to rule Recife, he didn't think twice. He managed this region and brought other regions to flourish at the same time. In a short while, the Dutch rule extended from Sergipe south of Recife to beyond Fortaleza in the North, a place called São Luis de Maranhão.

The Dutch were actually attracted to the north of Brazil due to the abundance of sugar cane. Many of the colonizers brought over from Holland started trades. Maurits created schools, built bridges, infrastructure and made the fort and Mauritsstad much like the buildings in Holland. Some of these buildings even bear resemblances to this day, although a lot are in a very sorry state indeed.
Of course, in that time there weren't very many people living in The Netherlands, only 1 million in total. However, there were specific social developments underway. The Spanish and Portuguese were highly catholic and conservative in their thinking. Learning from the strong reform movement in Holland, they prohibited the reading of any document, including the Bible.

Holland was at the front of strong reforms through the thoughts of Calvin and Luther. This produced a climate of strong liberalism and a climate of high tolerance. The tolerance allowed people of different religions to live together in the country itself plus in the colonies.

Holland also already had very basic democratic management systems in place since the 13th century, for example the water council (hoogheemraadschap). This was a democratically run water management organization. Throughout the middle ages and later up to the start of the 20th century, Holland has been delayed somewhat in development mostly due to the battle against the sea. A couple of serious floods devastated parts of the country. As with other parts of Europe, the region was run through different families of nobility, which otherwise was called The Seventeen Provinces.

As for Recife and Pernambuco, the Dutch needed people to work on the sugar plantations. They were always after new trade agreements and selling their newly gathered exotic wares back home for very high prices. Since the number of people was insufficient, the Dutch (like the French, Belgians, English, Portuguese and Spanish) were looking for slaves to do this work for them. The west coast of Africa was a notorious region where the slaves were taken from. The Portuguese were in charge of many of these slave markets on the west coast, but during Maurits's rule in Recife, the best of these slave markets were taken over and so, Recife managed to get access to slaves, which started the flourishing of the region. Porto de Galinhas is also a remnant of this practice, albeit of a different period, where the word galinha (chicken) actually means slave. (the chickens are landing).

If you look at the map spanning the region of the Americas and Africa, the Dutch controlled ports and colonies in South Africa, along the west coast of Africa, the island of St Helena, Sergipe up to São Luis de Maranhão, the Antillen, New Amsterdam (later called New York) and Suriname. Peter Stuyvesant has been famous for establishing New Amsterdam in America, but it was later traded with the English for the control of Suriname.

There were two main companies around this time, the West Indië Company and the United East Indian Company. The WIC established the colonies around the Americas, whilst the VOC went around the Cape of Good Hope to countries like Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Australia.

During the rule of Maurits, the Jewish community found a place of quiet to practice their religion and also expand their own trade. The first synagoge of the Americas was built in Recife. However, in 1643, Maurits was ordered back by the WIC to serve back in Holland. He extended his rule against the company for one more year, but did return in 1644. The flourishing of the region without Maurits quickly declined and it was followed by a number of Portuguese sieges that diminished the control of the region bit-by-bit, both attacking from the south and from the north. The last stand was made in Recife.

So, it was great to be amidst a lively story-teller today. Parts of Dutch and Brazilian history were relived today with historians, document researchers, archeologists and people of the local Dutch community.

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