Maurits, Johan (1604–1679)

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Maurits, Johan (1604–1679)

Johan Maurits (John Maurice, Count of Nassau-Siegen; b. 17 June 1604; d. 20 December 1679), governor-general of Dutch Brazil (1637–1644). Born in Dillenburg in what is now Germany, Maurits was the eldest son of Johann VII, count of Nassau-Siegen (1561–1623), and his second wife, Margaretha, princess of Holstein-Sonderburg. Johan's paternal grandfather was Johann VI (1536–1606), younger brother of William the Silent of Orange. Maurits served with distinction in a number of campaigns in the Thirty Years' War with the army of the Dutch States-General. In August 1636, Maurits formally accepted an offer from the Dutch West India Company to be governor-general of Netherlands Brazil. Soon after his arrival in Recife on 23 January 1637, he successfully ousted the Portuguese military forces from the region north of the Rio São Francisco and forced them to retreat across the river to the captaincy of Sergipe del Rey. The entire captaincy of Pernambuco fell into Dutch hands.

Maurits then returned to Recife to restore order and encourage the Portuguese inhabitants to settle down and continue sugar production. As incentive, he allowed both Catholics and Jews to worship publicly and promised them good treatment. At the same time, he improved fortifications, formed alliances with the neighboring Indians, and tried to encourage more northern European immigration. Later that year, he sent an expedition under Colonel Hans Coen to capture São Jorge da Mina (Elmina) on Africa's Gold Coast. Another expedition, under Admiral Jan Corneliszoon Lichthart, sailed along the coast of Brazil to intercept Portuguese shipping and raided the captaincy of Ilheus, south of Bahia. In November 1637, Colonel Sigismund von Schoppe attacked the captaincy of Sergipe del Rey. By the end of Maurits's first year in Brazil, the northern captaincy of Ceará was also in Dutch hands.

On 17-18 May 1638, Maurits attempted to capture the Brazilian capital of Bahia, but failed even though he had a force of 3,600 Europeans and 1,000 Indians. In 1640, he successfully defended Dutch Brazil from the count of Torre's large Spanish-Portuguese armada. In reprisal for the damage done by Portuguese troops to plantations in Dutch Brazil, Maurits sent another expedition under Lichthart to attack Portuguese sugar mills in the region around Bahia, and twenty-seven of them were destroyed. Other raids were made along the Brazilian coast, but not all were successful. After the Portuguese overthrow of Spanish rule (December 1640) and while a treaty between Portugal and the Netherlands was being negotiated, Maurits sent 3,000 men, including 240 Indians, to capture Luanda and Benguela in Angola, the islands of São Tomé and Ano Bom, and the fortress of Axim on the coast of Guinea, a task successfully completed during the second half of 1641 and early 1642. In November 1641, São Luis do Maranhão was captured, giving the Dutch control over more than a thousand miles of Brazilian coastline. At this point, the Dutch West India Company reached its greatest territorial extension in the Atlantic world.

During his seven-year stay in Brazil, Maurits rebuilt Recife and founded a new town (Mauritsstad) on the neighboring island of Antônio Vaz. He also built two country houses (Vrijburg and Boa Vista) on the island. On his properties he collected a wide variety of Brazilian flora and fauna. Maurits brought with him to America a large entourage of scholars, artists, and craftsmen. The most important were Georg Marcgraf (1610–1644), the German naturalist and astronomer; Willem Piso (1611–1678), the governor-general's personal physician, who published on tropical medicine and diseases; the landscape painter Frans Post (1612–1680); and Albert Eckhout (ca. 1610–1665), whose paintings depicted Brazilians and the country's animals and plants. Also of interest are the paintings by the amateur Zacharias Wagener, a German soldier in the service of the Dutch West India Company.

After more than seven years of rule, Maurits, greatly beloved by the populace of Dutch Brazil, was recalled by the directors of the Dutch West India Company. He left for Europe in May of 1644. He became stadholder of Cleves (1647–1679) and was made a prince of the Holy Roman Empire in 1652. He served in various Dutch military posts, distinguishing himself in battle as late as 1674.

See alsoDutch in Colonial Brazil .


José Antônio Gonsalves de Mello, Tempo dos flamengos: Influencia da ocupaçao Holandesa na vida e na cultura do norte do Brasil (1947).

Pieter J. Bouman, Johan Maurits van Nassau, de Braziliaan (1947).

Charles R. Boxer, The Dutch in Brazil, 1624–1654 (1957).

E. Van Den Boogaart, ed., Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, 1604–1679: A Humanist Prince in Europe and Brazil (1979).

Hermann Wätjen, Das Hollandische Kolonialreich in Brasilien (1921).

Peter J. P. Whitehead and Marinus Boeseman, A Portrait of Dutch 17th Century Brazil: Animals, Plants, and People by the Artists of Johan Maurits of Nassau (1989).

Additional Bibliography

Herkenhoff, Paulo, and Evaldo Cabral de Mello. O Brasil e os holandeses, 1630–1654. Rio de Janeiro: Sextante Artes, 1999.

Mello, Evaldo Cabral de. O negócio do Brasil: Portugal, os Países Baixos e o Nordeste, 1641–1669. Rio de Janeiro: Topbooks, 1998.

                                       Francis A. Dutra

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