The Dutch presence in the Americas was integral to the worldwide competition for empire among European powers in the early modern era. Among the most important national actors in the newly discovered lands of the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch rapidly lost influence and power to the French, English, and Portuguese in the mid-1600s, though their impact on the history of the Americas was profound and long-lasting.
The Dutch influence in Latin America was greatest in Brazil, where they began to challenge Portuguese dominance in the 1620s. Dominated by Calvinists and fierce enemies of Catholic Spain in the great power rivalries of Europe, the Dutch began challenging Portuguese claims to Brazil soon after the union of the Portuguese and Spanish Crowns in 1580.
Their first assaults on Portuguese and Spanish commercial interests began in West Africa in the 1590s, culminating in their 1606 attack on the Portuguese trading station of São Jorge de Mina, which after several attempts they captured in 1637, opening up the African trade to Dutch merchants.
In Asia, too, the Dutch challenged Spanish and Portuguese dominance, seizing several key ports in India, Ceylon, and elsewhere and becoming a major commercial power in the seas and ports of the Middle and Far East.
The upshot of these far-flung conflicts in the jockeying for power in Latin America was to make Brazil Portugual’s most important overseas possession, thus intensifying the Portuguese Crown’s efforts to solidify their hold on the colony.
Eager to participate in the lucrative sugar trade, the Dutch formed their West India Company (WIC) in 1621, modeled after the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602. The WIC’s goal was to weaken and plunder the Spanish and, where possible, to displace the Portuguese.
Three years after the WIC was created, in May 1624, under the leadership of Piet Heyn, a massive Dutch force launched a military assault on the Portuguese Brazilian capital port city of Salvador (Bahia). Holding the town for nearly a year, the Dutch were expelled by a joint Spanish-Portuguese counterassault in April 1625.
After failing to retake the port, the Dutch turned their attention north, to the port of Recife, at the heart of the sugar trade in the rapidly growing province of Pernambuco. With some 67 ships and 7,000 men, the Dutch attacked and took Recife and Olinda in 1630. They held the town and its outlying districts for the next 24 years, extending their influence along some 1,800 kilometers of coastline in Brazil’s burgeoning northeast.
In keeping with the Netherlands’s mercantile orientation, Dutch rule in Brazil was characterized by an emphasis on trade; increased production of sugar, tobacco, hides, dyewood, and other tropical export commodities; and an overall policy of generalized tolerance toward Roman Catholicism despite a strong undercurrent of tension between Dutch Calvinists and Spanish and Portuguese Catholic monasteries and nunneries. The Dutch hold on the Brazilian northeast prompted the Portuguese Crown to redouble its efforts to strengthen its hold on the colony.
Two years before taking Recife, in 1628, a fleet of 30 Dutch ships captured the Spanish silver fleet off the coast of Cuba—the only instance in which an entire Spanish flota (convoy) was captured by enemy forces.
The Dutch victory stunned Europe, prompting Italian bankers to withdraw their credit from Spain, causing the Spanish Crown to intensify its efforts to find new sources of credit for their overseas enterprises, and ultimately leading to revolt by the Portuguese and Catalans.
For the Dutch, the costs of defending their Brazilian holdings against Portuguese counterattacks, by land and by sea, proved very high, while the revenues gained by commerce in sugar, tobacco, and African slaves proved disappointingly low. In the 1630s, despite their frequent successes in plundering Portuguese ships, the Dutch began to rethink the extent of their commitment to holding Brazil.
The Dutch regime in Brazil was governed by Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1637–44), who attempted to diversify agricultural production, extend the sugar zones, and institute mechanisms of nominal self-rule among the colony’s European inhabitants, including the Portuguese.
In late 1640, Portugal revolted against Spanish domination, a few months after a Catalan revolt prompted largely by intensifying fiscal demands of Madrid. In December 1640, the Portuguese rebels threw off Spain’s rule and named the duke of Braganza as King João IV. In June 1641 the newly independent Portuguese Crown and the Netherlands signed a 10-year truce, though through the 1640s the Dutch continued to assault and chip away at Portuguese power in the Americas.
By the late 1640s, as the costs of holding Dutch Portugal continued to rise, the Dutch leadership decided to cut the country’s losses and withdraw its forces, a withdrawal completed in 1654. During the period of Dutch rule in northeast Brazil, the WIC imported an estimated 26,000 African slaves. After their withdrawal from Brazil, the Dutch remained a major player in the transatlantic slave trade.
Elsewhere in the Americas, the Dutch also decided to cut their losses rather than pour more blood and treasure into enterprises they accurately calculated they were bound to lose.
In the Treaty of Breda of 1667, the Dutch relinquished New Amsterdam to the English (renamed New York) but gained formal title to Suriname on the north coast of South America, as well as several islands in the Lesser Antilles, including Curaçao, St. Eustatius, Saba, and St. Maarten, the latter island shared with the French.
Dutch sugar production in Suriname, their largest holding in the Americas, never approached that of the other sugar producing zones of the circum-Caribbean, a consequence of low Dutch population and the high cost of maintaining a viable sugar colony.
By 1700, there were approximately 8,000 African slaves in Suriname, a substantial proportion of whom escaped from the sugar plantations into the interior, where they established Maroon societies and mixed with the region’s indigenous inhabitants.
By the late 1720s, growing numbers of these “Bush Negroes” prompted the Dutch colonial state to launch a series of assaults on the interior, which nonetheless failed to defeat or dislodge the Maroon communities.
In 1749, the Dutch concluded a treaty of peace with a Bush Negro leader, one Captain Adoe, though a major slave uprising rocked the colony in 1763, while hostilities between Dutch planters and runaway slave communities continued through the rest of the 18th century.