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The Dutch presence in Brazil during the 17th century had a major impact on the whole of the New World. In 'The Legacy of Dutch Brazil', twelve international academics explain why. University of Amsterdam (UvA) historian Michiel van Groesen edited the book, which is to be published this week by Cambridge University Press.

Old Map Brazil
Photo: Special Collections

Not everybody is aware that in the 17th century, the Brazilian city of El Salvador (where the Dutch team will play its first match in this year's World Cup) was briefly part of the colony of Dutch Brazil, or 'New Holland'. From 1624 until 1654, this region was the Netherlands' most important overseas colony, with Recife as its capital (then called 'Mauritsstad'). Large coastal forts still hark back to this period today.

The New World

'I want The Legacy of Dutch Brazil to show people the wealth and influence of the Netherlands' history in Brazil. Many people in the Netherlands are unaware of the existence of this colony. Even more striking is the fact that our shared history still speaks strongly to people's imaginations in Brazil, even today,' says Van Groesen.

So what did the 'Hollanders' do to leave behind such a distinct impression? The Legacy of Dutch Brazil offers several explanations. The incredible religious tolerance in Dutch Brazil, for example, was an inspiration to some English colonies in North America. The rich court culture of Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (a distant ancestor of the current Oranje family) also continued to fire European imaginations for a long time. On the other hand, the Netherlands' participation in the slave trade (a direct consequence of the efforts in Brazil) would continue to affect relations in western Africa for some time.

The amalgamation of various peoples and cultures was also unique at the time. Van Groesen: 'This mixture of ethnicities is the main reason that Brazil today still looks back on this period in history with a degree of nostalgia. In the Netherlands, the 19th and 20th centuries were characterised mostly by shame regarding the unnecessary loss of the colony. It is for this reason that memories of that time slowly disappeared from Dutch schoolbooks.' 

The Legacy of Dutch Brazil  will be released this week by Cambridge University Press.

Publication details

Michiel van Groesen, ed.: The Legacy of Dutch Brazil (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).