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The Americas


The Dutch established virtually all their colonies in the Americas during the war with Habsburg Spain, known as the Dutch Revolt (15681648). Although most lands and islands appropriated were formally under Spanish jurisdiction, Dutch colonies were usually carved out deliberately in areas where there was no prior enemy presence. The only Spanish colonies that the Dutch actually conquered were Saint Martin and Curaçao, while their attempt to subdue Puerto Rico failed dismally. The most ambitious Dutch invasions, however, took place in Portuguese Brazil, where the capital city of Bahia (Salvador) was occupied for one year (16241625) and where the annexation of the northeastern captaincy of Pernambuco (now Recife; 1630) was the springboard for further conquests. At its height Dutch Brazil comprised all territory from Rio Grande in the north to Cabo de Santo Agostinho in the south. The Dutch withstood Habsburg armies but could not check a local Portuguese revolt that never lost momentum, forcing the Dutch to surrender in 1654.

The Dutch colony in North America, New Netherland (fully settled 16241664), was made up of settlements on the Hudson, Delaware, and Connecticut Rivers and on Long Island. The Dutch presence on the Delaware received a strong boost after the conquest of New Sweden in 1655. The English takeover of 1664 was followed in 1673 by a successful Dutch capture that led to the proclamation of New Orange. After one year, however, the Dutch had to relinquish control again.

More enduring colonies were established on the Caribbean Islands and in northern South America. The Caribbean colonies included three Windward Islands, Curaçao (1634), Aruba (1636), and Bonaire (1636), just off the Venezuelan coast, and three Leeward Islands, Saint Martin (1631), Saba (1640s), and Saint Eustatius (1636). A Dutch colony on Saint Croix, begun in 1642, was overrun by English and Irish settlers of neighboring Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts) three years later. Similarly the Dutch settlers of Tobago (1628) surrendered to a Spanish military expedition in 1637. Despite the bloody nature of this encounter, which left forty-four unarmed Dutchmen dead, their compatriots returned to the island, where the Dutch maintained a presence until 1678.

Dutch colonization of Saint Martin was equally checkered. After the Dutch incorporation in 1631, it was lost to Spain (1633), only to be returned to the United Provinces at the Münster peace treaty (Peace of Westphalia, 1648), although the territory was immediately divided between Dutch and French settlers. In the next century and a half, Saint Martin, Saba, and Saint Eustatius frequently changed hands, but all eventually remained Dutch possessions. The last area of Dutch colonization was the "Wild Coast" or Guiana, the unsettled region between the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers. After Dutch trading posts were erected on the Amazon perhaps as early as the mid-1590s, permanent settlements arose along the Berbice, Essequibo, Demerara, and Suriname (1667) Rivers, where the thick forests receded as plantations were laid out to accommodate cash crop production. The colonies founded in Pomeroon (16581666) and Cayenne (16581676) were soon vacated.


Immigration to the Dutch colonies was modest compared to Spanish America, English America, or Brazil. Hopes of a massive immigration of farmers and farmhands from the Dutch Republic never materialized. The few settlers that did come usually intended to make their stay a temporary one. The ideal these transients shared was to strike it rich and then retire in the mother country. New Netherland's population benefited from the influx of English citizens taking up residence in the Dutch part of Long Island (16421646) and people arriving from Dutch Brazil (lost in 1654), while the annexation of the Swedish colony in Delaware (1655) added Swedes and Finns to the colonial mix. A sudden rise in migration from the United Provinces after 1655 accounted for the doubling of New Netherland's estimated population from 3,455 to over 7,000 by the time of the transition to English rule.

In Brazil the Dutch assumed control of the flourishing captaincy of Pernambuco, which in 1630 boasted a population of ninety-five thousand, concentrated in the valley of the Capibaribe River and in the regions of Goiana, Ipojuca, Serinhaém, and Rio Formoso. About forty thousand were blacks, forty thousand were whites, and fifteen thousand were Indians. Southward migration by members of these three groups to Bahia reduced that figure to about eighty-five thousand by 1640. The Dutch were always a minority, never numbering more than ten thousand.

The population increase of Suriname, captured from the English in 1667, reflected the emergence of a prospering plantation economy. After a difficult startthe European segment declined from fifteen hundred (1667) to five hundred (1679)the numbers kept rising steadily until the late eighteenth century. The overall population grew from 3,984 (1684) to 27,264 (1744) and further to 58,120 (1791); the last two figures do not include Maroons (escaped slaves) or natives. The increase of whites (from 652 to 3,360) in this period paled in comparison with the increase of black slaves from 3,226 (81 percent) to 53,000 (91.2 percent).

The next most populous colony was Curaçao, where six hundred Europeans were counted in the mid-1660s, when the African segment was still small. By 1789 the number of whites was 4,410, whereas nonwhites numbered 16,578 persons. Slaves made up the bulk of the population (12,864 or 61.3 percent). An even more dramatic rise of the enslaved African population occurred in Essequibo, from 276 in 1691 to 21,259 one hundred years later. By then Essequibo's demographic weight in Dutch America was second only to Suriname. Slaves also outnumbered whites by a wide margin in Berbice, which helped the spread of a rebellion in 1763 and almost drove out the whites. The revolt ended after fourteen months with the execution of 128 blacks.


Suriname and Essequibo were plantation economies that revolved around the production of one crop in particular: sugar. Planters in Suriname were inspired by the example of Dutch Brazil, where sugar had been cultivated on a large scale and in a highly modern fashion. However, sugar production in Brazil was severely disrupted by warfare between the Dutch and Portuguese. Suriname blossomed into an important plantation colony producing sugar, coffee, cacao, and cotton in spite of natural obstacles. The coastal strip where many plantations were located was flooded time and again by high tides. The planters succeeded, nevertheless, in making Suriname the colony with the highest productivity in the Americas. Massive drainage and irrigation helped increase the number of plantations from one hundred to four hundred in the course of the eighteenth century.

Since conditions for cash crop production were far from ideal in their Caribbean Islands, the Dutch transformed Curaçao and Saint Eustatius into entrepôts. The African slave trade propelled Curaçao to regional significance. From 1662 through 1716 the island functioned as an important way station between Africa and Spanish America. Curaçao owed its development in large part to its suitable position close to the Spanish Main and its excellent natural port, Willemstad. By 1700 it had become more than a slave-trading center. Large amounts of cocoa, tobacco, indigo, sugar, coffee, and hides were sent to the United Provinces; ships were repaired, fitted out, bought, and sold; several financial facilities were available; and sailors were enlisted for voyages to all parts of the Caribbean.

The second quarter of the eighteenth century saw the rise of Saint Eustatius, an even smaller island than Curaçao, owing to its intensive trade with the French West Indies. Commercial relations with British North America expanded after mid-century, and the island reaped the full benefit of the disruptions caused by the American War of Independence, when the thirteen colonies were cut off from Great Britain and were in need of weapons and ammunition. By the end of 1775 daily shipments of Dutch and French gunpowder were sent from Saint Eustatius to ports in North America. The island paid a severe penalty in 1781, when a British attack left it in ruins.

After 1621 Dutch activities in the New World had been coordinated by the West India Company (WIC), which was founded as a joint-stock enterprise. A private company, the WIC also had the attributes of a state. The States-General not only granted the company a monopoly of trade and navigation in its domain, they officially allowed the WIC to administer justice, make treaties with foreign princes, and maintain an army. Apart from an occasional windfall, the financial performance of the West India Company was miserable. The war in Brazil, first with Habsburg Spain and then with local and Portuguese forces, was costly, and the supply of African slaves on credit to Portuguese planters led to the company's bankruptcy, which was finally declared in 1674. Thereafter the WIC was replaced by an organization that had little in common with its predecessor except the name. Having already lost most of its commercial monopolies in previous decades, it was dismantled as a military machine.

After 1628 the company encouraged private initiatives to stimulate migration to the Americas in an effort to economize on the expensive task of colonization. Patroonships were assigned to applicants, the so-called patroons, who were granted land in fief, which they were expected to people. Patroons were also entrusted with certain administrative and judicial powers. The Caribbean islands of Saint Martin and Saint Eustatius were delegated to patroons shortly after the Dutch took possession in the 1630s, while Berbice was from the outset the private domain of the Van Pere family from Zeeland. North American patroonships were granted a short life, and the second WIC gained control of all three Dutch Leeward Islands in 1680. But the patroonship of Berbice survived until 1720, when the colony was passed on to a joint-stock company, the Society of Berbice. Suriname was never a patroonship. The Estates of Zeeland, which conquered the English colony, sold Suriname to the WIC, which entrusted it to a new joint-stock company, the Society of Suriname.

See also Colonialism ; Dutch Republic ; Dutch Revolt (15681648) ; Trading Companies .


Goslinga, Cornelis C. The Dutch in the Caribbean and in the Guianas, 16801791. Assen and Maastricht, Netherlands, and Dover, N.H., 1985.

. The Dutch in the Caribbean and on the Wild Coast, 15801680. Assen, Netherlands, 1971.

Jacobs, Jaap. Een zegenrijk gewest: Nieuw-Nederland in de zeventiende eeuw. Amsterdam, 1999.

Klooster, Wim. Illicit Riches: Dutch Trade in the Caribbean, 16481795. Leiden, Netherlands, 1998.

Meiden, G. W. van der. Betwist Bestuur: Een eeuw strijd om de macht in Suriname, 16511753. Amsterdam, 1987.

Mello, José Antônio Gonsalves de. Tempo dos flamengos: Influência da ocupação holandesa na vida e na cultura do norte do Brasil. 3rd ed. Recife, Brazil, 1987.

Wim Klooster

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