Pernambuco is a state in the northeastern part of Brazil and is the closest South American land to Europe. This area of about 38,585 square miles with a population close to 8 million in the late 20th century was the first area of South America occupied by the Portuguese.
Its geography consists of a coastal plain and a dry semiarid plateau. Pernambuco was originally a captaincy or province. For centuries, Brazil’s main exports were the sugar and cotton of this province, making the area important in Brazilian politics.
The name Pernambuco derives from a tree valued for its lumber, brazilwood, and the red dye it produces. The Native Americans of the area prized the red dye and made their weapons from the tree. The Brazil tree is now endangered, although its wood is still used to make violin bows.
The first European settlers from Portugal called the area Nova Lusitania, meaning “New Portugal,” and a capital was established called Olinda. It was a prosperous area, despite a high incidence of malaria.
The production of sugar and cotton required large numbers of slaves from Portuguese colonies in Africa to supplement the Native American laborers. The prosperity of Recife caused English adventurers to capture and plunder it in 1595.
Throughout the history of the area, landowners have formed an oligarchy that has maintained its own armies and strictly controlled the lives of those who work their lands. Education of the people was never a priority and transportation developed for the convenience of the landowners, not the people at large. Resentment of this toward the Portuguese-born officials grew in this area among the wealthy.
In 1630, the forces of the Dutch West India Company captured Pernambuco and other Portuguese colonies. They moved the capital to Recife on the coast of Pernambuco at the mouth of two rivers. This low-lying area reminded the Dutch of their homeland.
Canals and bridges were built and Recife became known as the Venice of South America. By 1640, Pernambuco sent 24,000 tons of sugar to Amsterdam. The Dutch prince Maurice of Nassau traveled to the area to govern it. Under the Dutch regime many mercantile buildings and homes were build in Recife in the Dutch style.
During the period of Dutch control, the first synagogue in the Americas was built in Recife, Pernambuco. At one time during this period, the Jewish population in Recife was larger than the Jewish community in Amsterdam, Holland. The Jewish presence in Pernambuco disappeared when the Spanish Inquisition of the Catholic Church came to the area with the return of Portuguese power.
Many Jews from Recife fled to New York City, then New Amsterdam. Others fled to the interior of Brazil, where they practiced their religion in secret. In 2000, the Jewish population of Recife sponsored an excavation to uncover the remains of the first synagogue built in the Americas in Recife.
The Dutch remained in power only until 1649. The Dutch forces were ousted not by the armies of the Portuguese monarchy, but by the local peoples themselves. The Mascate War took place in 1710 between the business class of Recife and the wealthy owners of the sugar mills around Olinda.
Later Pernambuco was the location of a revolution, which briefly set up a Republic of Pernambuco in the 19th century. Though the republic lasted only two months, the flag of the republic remains the state’s flag.