The Iberian Union and the Dutch Invasion of Colonial Brazil

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The Iberian Union and the Dutch Invasion of Brazil

1. Introduction

In the first part of this chapter we will study the so-called “Iberian Union”, which represented the union of the Portuguese crown with the Spanish crown. This occurred due to the death of the king of Portugal, whose closest relative was the Spanish king Felipe II, who was crowned king of both crowns.

In the second part of this chapter, we will demonstrate that the dynastic union between Portugal and Spain was the stimulus for the so-called Dutch invasions of Brazil, as the Spanish closed Brazil to Dutch trade. This period is also referred to by historians as “Spanish Brazil” and “Dutch Brazil”.

União Ibérica e a Invasão Holandesa no Brasil

2. Iberian Union or Spanish Rule

In the second half of the 16th century, the Avis dynasty, which had ruled Portugal for more than 200 years, seemed to be running out of steam. At this time, only King João III and his brother Cardinal Dom Henrique were alive.


To better understand this issue, see part of the text “O domínio holandês no Brasil 1630-1654”, by historians Mozart Vergetti de Menezes and Regina Célia Gonçalves (2002, p. 9-10). Below is a extract from the text.

Vista panorâmica de Lisboa com as cidadelas romana e moura nas colinas ao fundo. Durante o século XVI, Lisboa alcançou grande riqueza com o estabelecimento do império marítimo português para a África, a Índia e o Extremo Oriente.
Panoramic view of Lisbon in 1572 with the Roman and Moorish citadels on the hills in the background. During the 16th century, Lisbon achieved great wealth with the establishment of the Portuguese maritime empire to Africa, India and the Far East.

Portugal, a kingdom without a king.

Dom João III had witnessed the death of his nine male children and was anxiously awaiting the birth of a grandson to continue his descent. If this didn’t happen, Portugal risked falling into the hands of a foreigner.

The old king died months before the birth of Dom Sebastião, the desired one, whose pregnancy had been accompanied by much praying by the Portuguese people.

The new monarch took office aged just 14. He dreamed of organising crusades against the Muslims and expanding the Christian faith.

As Dom Sebastião was very young, he didn’t bother to marry and continue the dynasty.

In 1578, he prepared an expedition to conquer Morocco. But his army was weak and poorly organised and was quickly annihilated by the Muslims.

In the battle of Alcácer Quibir, Dom Sebastião died and, with him, much of the Portuguese nobility.

King dead, king set.

When Dom Sebastião died, his great-uncle, the aforementioned Cardinal Dom Henrique, took the throne.

At a very advanced age, he did not remain in power for long, dying two years later.

The Portuguese nation thus lost the last representative of the Avis dynasty and saw the beginning of the dispute for the Portuguese throne, which would only end in 1580.

As we saw in the text “Portugal, a kingdom without a king”, Portugal’s doors were open to Spanish domination, as the dead king’s closest relative, Dom Henrique, was Felipe II of Spain.

Despite this, several candidates presented themselves to take over the Portuguese crown. Among the candidates were Dom Antônio and Felipe II, King of Spain, who claimed the right to the Portuguese kingdom because he was the grandson of a former king of Portugal called Dom Manuel.

Mapa de Portugal e Espanha de 1620. Excelente mapa da Espanha e de Portugal, incluindo Maiorca e Menorca. Gravado com muito requinte por Petrus Kaerius, com cartelas elaboradas, navios a vela, monstros marinhos e rosas de bússola. O mar está gravado em um padrão moiré arrojado.
Map of Portugal and Spain from 1620 Excellent map of Spain and Portugal, including Mallorca and Menorca. Exquisitely engraved by Petrus Kaerius, with elaborate cartouches, sailing ships, sea monsters and compass roses. The sea is engraved in a bold moiré pattern.
Antony had the support of the people, who didn’t accept the idea of seeing the throne handed over to a foreigner.

Philip II, a staunch Catholic and, of course, opposed to the Christian reformers, received the full support of the clergy and a large part of the nobility, as well as the bureaucrats and merchants.

In June 1580, the Duke of Alba, the best general in the Spanish empire, invaded Portugal with a strong army and put an end to Don Antonio’s pretensions, securing the Portuguese crown for Philip II, who was renamed Philip I in Portugal.

This was the beginning of the Habsburg dynasty in Portugal.

Philip II was succeeded by two more Felipes, the second (third in Spain) in 1598 and the third (fourth in Spain) in 1621, who remained in power in Portugal until 1640.

It was during the latter’s rule that the Dutch invasion of Brazil took place (MENEZES; GONÇALVES, 2002, p. 10).

In this sense, Portugal would remain under Spanish rule for sixty years. At this time, Spain became the largest empire in the world, as it united its colonies with the Portuguese colonies.

For Brazil, the Iberian union was healthy, as it cancelled the borders of the Treaty of Tordesillas, thus allowing Brazil to build an outline of its current borders.

According to Eduardo Bueno (2003, p. 85):

Under Philip II, and then during the reign of his successor Philip III, Brazil was able to move from a “regional” position, that of a mere supporting player in the game of commercial exchanges, to acquire a new and more honourable geopolitical role, integrating itself into the fabric of the Atlantic empire conceived by Philip II.

From 1580 to 1615, Brazil also expanded internally: Paraíba and Maranhão were definitively conquered, two dozen settlements were founded, new lines of trade were opened, new public offices were created, and the link between southern Brazil and the Plata region was definitively established.

In addition, the focus of economic activity shifted from agriculture and plant extraction to the search for mineral wealth – and this would cause a profound turnaround in the course and destiny of the future nation.

It was also during the time of the Felipes that the bandeirantes from São Paulo acted with an ease that would have been difficult to conceive of outside of a period in which the boundaries of the possessions of Spain and Portugal were not so intertwined.

When the Iberian Union came to an end, with the fragile reign of Felipe IV and the Portuguese restoration, the immense territory taken by the bandeirantes became part of Brazil.

Although fundamental to the country’s history, the period of the Felipes remains one of the least studied in Brazil.

It was after the Iberian Union that the São Paulo bandeirantes began to have a more constant presence in Brazilian history. Later, the São Paulo bandeirantes were responsible for finding gold in the hinterlands of Minas Gerais.

In the next section, we’ll study the Dutch invasion of north-eastern Brazil.

3. Dutch invasions of Brazil

The Dutch have always been trading partners of the Portuguese, but in times of Iberian union, they planned and executed two invasions of the colony.

The first Dutch invasion took place in Salvador in 1624 and 1625, but the Portuguese soon expelled the invaders.

The second Dutch invasion was longer-lasting and had greater consequences for Brazilian history. It took place from 1630 to 1654 and spread across almost the entire northeast.

According to Mozart Vergetti de Menezes and Regina Célia Gonçalves (2002, p. 4):

The period of Dutch rule in Brazil and the struggle to end it has, throughout Brazil’s history, constituted a theme constantly fuelled by the imagination of the local people and elites, while at the same time it has often been revisited by various historians from different eras.

Some highlight the cultural richness of the period, especially during the administration of Count João Maurício de Nassau-Siegen, who, with his court of artists, architects, cartographers, naturalists etc., promoted, among other works, the transformation, in just seven years, of the town of Recife into the most urbanised city in the Americas.

Idealising this moment, some say that it would have been better for the northeast not to have returned to Portuguese rule.

Before the advent of the Iberian Union, Portugal and the Netherlands, also known as the United Provinces, had prosperous trade relations.

Flemish and Dutch ships docked in Portuguese harbours. These ships unloaded a wide variety of goods, such as wheat, fish, butter and cheese, and imported coarse salt from Portugal.

Spices and other products from the Orient were shipped to the port of Antwerp, as well as sugar and wood from Brazil (MENESES; GONÇALVES, 2002).

When Philip II of Spain declared war on the United Provinces, he cancelled all of these merchants’ contracts with Portugal.

On the one hand, this restricted the entry of products that were vital to the survival of the Portuguese people; on the other, it jeopardised significant activities in the Dutch economy, since Portugal’s coarse salt was essential both for preserving Dutch fish and for producing dairy products.

With a shortage of wheat, the cereal used to make bread, the Portuguese population pressurised the Spanish court to give in and reopen the contracts that had previously existed between the two countries.

Thus, a truce, the Twelve Year Truce, was enacted, re-establishing Portuguese-Dutch trade. This truce, which lasted from 1609 to 1621, gave the Dutch the opportunity to intensify their contacts with Brazil.

The Dutch had been frequenting the Brazilian coast since the 16th century.

The earliest record of the presence of their ships in Brazilian ports dates back to 1587, when an attack by English privateers in Bahia trapped a 250-tonne Flemish-flagged ship.

There are also reports of a sugar mill acquired by an Antwerp banker at the end of the 16th century, in the captaincy of São Vicente – the Engenho dos Erasmos – as well as the record of the ship São João, of Portuguese origin, which, when it set sail from Brazil in 1581, was carrying a total of 428 crates of sugar, of which 350 crates belonged to three Flemish merchants and one German.

During the Twelve Year Truce, the Dutch devoted themselves intensely to the sugar trade, shipping more than 50,000 boxes of the product a year.

When the truce expired in 1621, the Dutch merchants felt that all their hard work would come to an end and they tried at all costs to prevent this from happening.

As they already had the example of the successful East India Company, they decided to found another company, the West India Company, which would raise capital, uniting the merchants involved in the sugar trade to fight the Spanish and remain in such an advantageous business (MENEZES; GONÇALVES, 2002, p. 14-15).

With the end of the truce in 1621, the Dutch merchants decided to take hitherto unthinkable measures, as they could not afford the losses resulting from the closure of the Portuguese and Brazilian markets.

These hitherto unthought-of measures concerned the invasion of north-eastern Brazil. The Dutch therefore began to organise an invasion, targeting the city of Salvador, the capital of the colony.

3.1. First Dutch invasion: Salvador

The first invasion took place on 4 May 1624. For this task, the Dutch organised a powerful squadron, made up of 28 vessels, manned by around 3,300 men.

Urbs Salvador, Montanus, Arnoldus - 1671
Engraving of Salvador da Bahia from 1671 – Montanus’ work was perhaps the largest illustrated book on the New World produced in the 17th century. The plates vividly depict forts, festivals, occupations, Dutch fleets, battles, religious rites and customs of the native inhabitants. Beautiful copper engraving of the walled city of Salvador with ships and boats filling the harbour in the foreground. A key with letters in the top left-hand corner identifies various locations. “Urbs Salvador”, Montanus, Arnoldus

The invaders soon took the city and arrested its governor, Diego de Mendonza, who was deported to Holland.

However, in July 1624, Dutch Admiral Jacob Willekens, commander of the squadron, decided to return to Holland, leaving around a third of his forces in Bahia.

This decision proved to be a strategic mistake, as the Portuguese and Spanish would soon send forces to retake the city.

So when, in April 1625, the Portuguese-Spanish armada commanded by Dom Fradique de Toledo arrived in São Salvador, made up of 31 galleons, some caravels and 7,500 men at arms, the Dutch forces found themselves in a difficult situation.

The Portuguese and Spanish forces stationed themselves at the entrance to the bar and set fire to the Dutch ships. With frequent attacks on land undermining the enemy forces, until finally, at the beginning of May, the Dutch troops were forced to surrender.

Under the terms of the capitulation, all weapons were to be handed over to the victors, and the Dutch were allowed to return to their country in the boats they had left (MENEZES; GONÇALVES, 2002, p. 17).

Invasão holandesa de Salvador
Dutch invasion of Salvador in 1624

The first Dutch invasion of Brazil was a great failure. It also brought huge losses to the West India Company. Decades later, the Dutch would once again invade north-eastern Brazil, but this time they were more successful, remaining here for around 24 years.

3.2. Second Dutch invasion: Pernambuco

The Dutch invasion of Bahia in 1624 failed due to a series of factors explained in the previous section.

Mapa de Recife em Pernambuco de 1679 - Brasil - Rara planta aérea da cidade do Recife e arredores com destaque para as fortificações holandesas. Embora inicialmente fundada pelos portugueses, os holandeses decidiram invadir várias cidades de Pernambuco devido à indústria local de cana-de-açúcar. De 1630 a 1654 os holandeses controlaram a cidade do Recife, que se tornou a nova capital do Brasil holandês, a cidade de Mauritsstad. Mauritsstad (aqui chamada de Mauritiópolis) tornou-se uma das cidades mais cosmopolitas do mundo sob o domínio holandês e é conhecida por abrigar a primeira comunidade judaica e sinagoga, jardim botânico e zoológico das Américas. "Mauritiopolis Reciffa, et Circumiacentia Castra", Merian, Matthaus
Map of Recife in Pernambuco from 1679 – Brazil – Rare aerial plan of the city of Recife and its surroundings with the Dutch fortifications highlighted. Although initially founded by the Portuguese, the Dutch decided to invade several towns in Pernambuco because of the local sugar cane industry. From 1630 to 1654 the Dutch controlled the city of Recife, which became the new capital of Dutch Brazil, the city of Mauritsstad. Mauritsstad (here called Mauritiopolis) became one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world under Dutch rule and is known for housing the first Jewish community and synagogue, botanical garden and zoo in the Americas. “Mauritiopolis Reciffa, et Circumiacentia Castra”, Merian, Matthaus

Despite this, the Dutch didn’t give up on the project to invade north-eastern Brazil, as it was part of the Dutch intention to dominate sugar production, the kingdom and trade in Europe.

Vila de Olinda em Pernambuco em 1630
Vila de Olinda in Pernambuco in 1630 – These splendid views illustrate the Dutch attack on the Portuguese city of Olinda in 1630. For most of the 17th century, Portugal and Holland had a trade agreement in which the Portuguese colonies in the New World produced sugar and the Dutch distributed it throughout Europe using their fixed trading network. After the merger of the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain, the Dutch lost their monopoly on distribution and created the West India Company in 1621. Shortly afterwards, the Dutch began their attack on Pernambuco, first in Salvador and then in Olinda. From above, the view of Povo (which later became Recife) and Olinda from the sea. In the background, a great panoramic view of the region full of ships, some in battle, and the city of Povo already in flames.

According to Eduardo Bueno (2003, p. 91):

The invasion of Bahia only brought losses for the nascent West India Company. In 1628, however, the company captured the annual Spanish silver fleet off Cuba and obtained a booty of 14 million guilders (double its initial capital).

Enriched, the company planned another invasion of Brazil.

The target chosen this time was the largest and richest sugar-producing region in the world.

As well as having 130 sugar mills (responsible for a thousand tonnes of sugar a year), Pernambuco was a private captaincy, not a royal one, and was therefore poorly equipped for defence.

On 15 February 1630, an armada with 77 ships, 7,000 men and 170 pieces of artillery appeared in front of Olinda.

Although the resistance of Governor Matias de Albuquerque (grandson of the old grantee Duarte Coelho) was once again heroic – and, before leaving, he even managed to set fire to 24 ships anchored in the harbour – Recife was quickly taken.

This time the occupation would last more than 20 years.

As we saw earlier, the captaincy of Pernambuco was very rich and its sugar production was the largest in the world, so it was no wonder that the Dutch chose this region.

Over the next twenty-four years, a large part of north-eastern Brazil would experience Dutch rule.

For many, it would have been more advantageous for the north-east if the Dutch had not been expelled, as this region, during Dutch rule, was transformed into the most urbanised and wealthy region in the Americas.

Mapa da Capitania de Pernambuco de 1698 - Este magnífico mapa da província brasileira de Pernambuco foi um dos 23 mapas deste raro relato da guerra colonial luso-holandesa. Escrita por João José de Santa Teresa, conhecida entre os bibliófilos como a Santa Teresa, é considerada uma das mais suntuosas obras do século XVII sobre o Brasil. Santa Teresa, carmelita portuguesa, passou doze anos nas missões jesuítas da América do Sul e depois voltou para a Europa onde se tornou bibliotecário do colégio dos jesuítas em Roma. Sua conta foi fortemente subsidiada por Pedro II de Portugal, e alguns dos principais artistas e gravadores do período, incluindo Antonio Horacio Andreas, foram contratados para trabalhar no projeto. Foi publicado por Giacomo Giovanni Rossi. O mapa em si é lindamente desenhado e oferece uma excelente visão da região com rios e córregos cuidadosamente delineados. São registradas as localizações de vilas, missões e fortes, inclusive Olinda. Mesmo os perigos de navegação são mostrados ao longo da costa. Uma grande rosa dos ventos orienta o mapa com o norte à direita. O mapa é adornado de forma elaborada com putti que sustentam a cartela do título, o brasão real e a chave do mapa. "Provincia di Pernambuco", Horatius, Andreas Antonius.
Map of the Captaincy of Pernambuco from 1698
Dutch rule in Pernambuco was divided into three phases:
  • The first, from 1630 to 1637, was marked by the resistance of the Luso-Brazilians, waging war in the interior against domination.
  • The second phase, from 1637 to 1644, was the period when Dutch Brazil flourished. During this phase, the main urbanisation works in Recife were carried out by Maurício de Nassau;
  • The third phase, from 1644 to 1654, is characterised by the war of reconquest, which resulted in the expulsion of the Dutch.

It’s important to emphasise that the main phase of Dutch rule in north-eastern Brazil was that represented by the administration of Count Maurício de Nassau.

He arrived in Brazil in 1637 and soon proved to be a great administrator. Through his mediation, the Luso-Brazilians were pacified and began to sell their sugar production to the Dutch.

The main measures of the Dutch government were:
  • Granting credits: the company granted credits to the mill owners, which were used to re-equip the mills, recover the cane fields and buy slaves, thus reactivating sugar production.
  • Religious tolerance: the various religions (Catholicism, Judaism, Protestantism) were, to a certain extent, tolerated by the government of Maurício de Nassau-Siegen. The Dutch did not set out to expand their religious faith in Brazil. However, the official religion of Dutch Brazil was Calvinism, and it was therefore the most encouraged.
  • Urban works: the city of Recife benefited from the construction of bridges and sanitary works. The city of Maurícia, now a neighbourhood of the Pernambuco capital, was also created.
  • Cultural life: Nassau’s government promoted the arrival of artists, doctors, astronomers and naturalists. Among the painters were Franz Post and Albert Eckhout, authors of several paintings inspired by Brazilian landscapes. In the scientific sector, Jorge Marcgrave, one of the first to use our nature, and Willen Piso, a doctor who researched cures for the region’s most common illnesses, stand out.

See also Recife of the Dutch

As a result of all these measures mentioned above, Nassau’s government was very prosperous, as at this time Dutch Brazil reached its greatest splendour.

Vista de Olinda, Frans Post (1662)
View of Olinda, Frans Post (1662)

Despite the successful experience of Nassau’s government, after his departure there was a change of mentality in the way the colony was governed. The other rulers who succeeded Nassau radically changed their behaviour, creating discontent among the Luso-Brazilian population.

Interested only in increasing its profits, the West India Company began to pressurise the plantation owners to increase production, pay more taxes and settle their debts.

The West India Company threatened to confiscate the mills of their owners if their demands were not met. Even religious tolerance had come to an end. Catholics were forbidden to practise their religion freely (COTRIM, 1999, p. 104).

Angered by the Dutch pressures on the way the colony was administered, groups of Brazilians and Portuguese began to revolt, demanding that the invaders leave the north-east of Brazil. This happened from 1645 onwards and was called the Pernambuco Insurrection.

What’s interesting is that this movement brought together various social sectors of Brazilian society, which began to fight side by side: plantation owners, slaves and Indians.

Some historians claim that the movement that led to the expulsion of the Dutch from Brazil was the first expression of Brazilianness and identity in Brazilian history. This movement demonstrated the maturity of the colony, as it was the Brazilians themselves who were most committed to the expulsion.

With the expulsion of the Dutch, which took place definitively in 1654, another problem arose for Portugal, as the Dutch, on leaving Brazil, took sugar cane seedlings to be planted in the Antilles, a region in the Caribbean.

The Dutch decision to produce sugar led to a serious crisis in Brazil, as the sugar produced in Central America had a lower selling price than the sugar produced in the north-east of Brazil. In addition, this sugar generated competition, as previously only Brazilian sugar had been sold in Europe.

Portugal therefore realised that it had to encourage the inhabitants of Brazil, especially the bandeirantes who lived in São Vicente and São Paulo, to undertake expeditions with the aim of finding precious metals in the Brazilian hinterland.

Brazil could not rely solely on sugar cane to power its economy.

We will deal with this issue in the next chapter, because the incentive given to the bandeirantes would bring a return to the crown and they would soon discover gold in the “minas gerais”.

Forte Orange na Ilha de Itamaraca de 1671 - A obra de Montanus foi talvez o maior livro ilustrado sobre o Novo Mundo produzido no século XVII. Continha mais de cem placas, vistas e mapas lindamente gravados da América do Norte e do Sul. As placas retratam vividamente fortes, festivais, ocupações, frotas holandesas, batalhas, ritos religiosos e costumes dos habitantes nativos. Esta importante obra foi traduzida para o alemão por Olivier Dapper e para o inglês por John Ogilby. Várias das placas foram posteriormente adquiridas por Pierre Vander Aa. Uma bela vista do holandês Fort Oranje, na ilha de Itamaraca, na costa nordeste do Brasil. Povos nativos e barcos ocupam o primeiro plano e uma legenda na parte inferior identifica os locais importantes. "I. Tamaraca", Montanus, Arnoldus
Fort Orange on the island of Itamaraca from 1671 – A beautiful view of Dutch Fort Orange on the island of Itamaraca off the north-east coast of Brazil. Native peoples and boats occupy the foreground and a caption at the bottom identifies the important sites. “I. Tamaraca”, Montanus, Arnoldus

4. Historical events related to the Iberian Union and the Dutch invasions of Brazil

  • 1566-1609: War of Independence of the Netherlands against Spain.
  • 1578: Defeat of Alcácer-Quibir, the death of Dom Sebastião, King of Portugal.
  • 1580: Beginning of the Iberian Union, which lasted until 1640.
  • 1602: Foundation of the Dutch East India Company.
  • 1609: Signing of the “12 Year Truce” between Holland and Spain.
  • 1621: Foundation of the Dutch West India Company. Beginning of the reign of Philip III in Portugal (Philip IV in Spain).
  • 1624: First Dutch invasion: seizure of Salvador.
  • 1625: Luso-Spanish armada commanded by Dom Fradique de Toledo recaptures Salvador.
  • 1630: The Dutch invade Pernambuco: seizure of Olinda and Recife.
  • 1631: Evacuation of Olinda and Recife by the Luso-Brazilians.
  • 1633: Dutch takeover of Itamaracá and Forte dos Reis Magos.
  • 1634: Conquest of Paraíba by the Dutch.
  • 1636: Field battle of Mata Redonda, with Dutch victory.
  • 1637: Arrival of Maurício de Nassau-Siegen in Recife, beginning of Nassau’s rule.
  • 1639: Foundation of the city of Mauritius.
  • 1640: End of the Iberian Union.
  • 1641: The Dutch conquer Maranhão and Sergipe.
  • 1643: Portuguese Restoration.
  • 1644: Return of Nassau to Holland.
  • 1648: First Battle of Guararapes.
  • 1649: Second Battle of Guararapes.
  • 1654: The Dutch surrender in Recife.

In the next chapter we will study the founding of the city of São Paulo and the settlement and colonisation carried out by the bandeirantes.

5. In this topic you learnt that:

  • The historical process determined the Iberian Union.
  • The Dutch invaded Brazil and stayed until 1654, when they surrendered in Recife.

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