History of Dutch Brazil: And Division of the New World by the Pope

History of Dutch Brazil: A Tale of 63 Tons of Gold Dealings

During the colonial period, European powers sought control over Brazil's rich resources. Brazil was officially discovered in 1500 when a fleet commanded by Portuguese navigator and explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral, en route to India, landed in Porto Seguro, between Salvador and Rio de Janeiro. On February 16th, 1630, a significant turning point occurred in Brazil's history when Dutch forces, led by Hendrick Lonck, successfully captured Olinda, a crucial stronghold in the region. He was a Dutch naval hero and the first Dutch sea captain to reach the New World. Despite initial Portuguese dominance, the Dutch also made significant progress, establishing Dutch Brazil from 1630 to 1654. 

This period saw clashes with the Portuguese and troubles to Brazil's sugar industry. Despite its shortness, Dutch Brazil left a lasting impact, shaping Brazil's history and influencing its colonial legacy. The conquest of Olinda remains a pivotal moment in this fascinating chapter of Brazilian history.

💻 Table of Contents:

  1. Doctrine of Discovery & Division of the New World by the Pope
  2. The Treaty of Tordesillas & the Entrance of French-Dutch Explorers
  3. Iberian-Dutch Relations: Cooperation, Conflict, and Colonial Competition
  4. The Sugar War: Dutch-Portuguese Conflict for Control of Brazil's Sugar Trade
  5. Causes Leading to the fall of Dutch Brazil
  6. Role of the Amerindians and Africans
  7. Dutch Brazil: The Transfer of New Holland to Portugal

History of Dutch Brazil: And Division of the New World by the Pope
Image Source: Google, The Battle of Guararapes

This event not only highlighted the complex dynamics between European powers during the colonial era but also reshaped the socio-political landscape of Northeastern Brazil. To understand the significance of this event, it's essential to delve into the Doctrine of Discovery, the Division of the New World, the early Iberian-Dutch relations, the unsuccessful 1624 invasion, the Golden Age of Dutch rule in Northeastern Brazil, and the eventual demise of Dutch Brazil.

Doctrine of Discovery & Division of the New World by the Pope:

In the late 15th century, Spain and Portugal had a difficult relationship due to their competition for colonial territories along the African coastline. Despite diplomatic discussions, they couldn't agree on whom the right to govern newly had discovered lands. 

The division of the New World between Spain and Portugal began with Pope Alexander VI's issuance of the papal bull 'Inter caetera' on May 4, 1493. This decree established a line granting Spain control over lands to the west and south of a specified boundary. Here Papal bull refers a formal document issued by the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. It is typically used to establish laws, regulations, or decrees on matters of doctrine, discipline, or governance within the Church. 

It is noteworthy that the practice of seeking authority from the Pope for overseas exploration and territorial claims is also closely related to the Doctrine of Discovery. In simple terms, the Doctrine of Discovery is a concept or belief in international law that was used to justify European colonization of non-European lands. According to this concept or belief, when a nation "discovered" new land, it automatically gained rights and ownership over that land, even if it was already inhabited by other peoples. This doctrine ignored the fact that indigenous nations were already living on the land.

The authority for the Doctrine of Discovery was primarily granted by European monarchs and the Catholic Church during the period of European exploration and colonization. European monarchs, such as the kings and queens of Spain, Portugal, England, and other nations, issued charters, patents, and royal decrees that authorized their explorers to claim and colonize new territories. The Catholic Church, through papal bulls, also played a significant role in granting authority to European powers to claim lands that were not yet under Christian rule.

For example, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull known as the Bull Inter Caetera in 1493, which granted Spain and Portugal the rights to claim and colonize newly discovered lands in the Americas. These royal and papal grants gave explorers and colonizers the legal and moral justification to assert their authority over the lands they encountered, often disregarding the rights and presence of indigenous peoples already living there.

In modern times, the concept of terra nullius (land belonging to no one) no longer exists in international law, as all land is considered to be owned or occupied by existing states.

History of Dutch Brazil: And Division of the New World by the Pope
Image Source: Wikimedia, Portret van Hendrick Cornelisz. Loncq

The Treaty of Tordesillas & the Entrance of French-Dutch Explorers:

Spain's request to the Pope led to the expansion of Spanish authority, sparking tensions with Portugal, which had its own territorial ambitions. On June 7th, 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed between King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile and King John II of Portugal establishing a new dividing line between the two crowns. According to the treaty, all lands to the east would belong to Portugal, while lands to the west would belong to Spain. Spain, represented by the Crowns of Castile and Aragon, ratified the treaty on July 2nd, 1494, and Portugal ratified it on September 5th, 1494.

Despite these agreements, disputes over the Pope's authority and competing territorial claims persisted among European powers. Indigenous groups have since protested the legacy of these agreements, mentioning their role in colonization and exploitation. The outcomes of these events vibrated through history, shaping how people explored and settled new lands. They also fueled many years of conflict among European powers for control in the New World.

On the other hand, French colonial history in Brazil had two important parts: they set up settlements in Rio de Janeiro (1555-1567) during the "France Antarctique" time, and in São Luís (1612-1614) during the "France Équinoxiale" period. But these French colonies didn't last long. Portuguese forces, helped by Jesuit missionaries who taught the native people about Christianity, eventually pushed the French out. The Dutch presence, notably Dutch Brazil, posed a lasting challenge to Portugal.

Iberian-Dutch Relations: Cooperation, Conflict, and Colonial Competition

Early Iberian-Dutch relations were characterized by both cooperation and conflict. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain and Portugal, collectively known as the Iberian powers, dominated global trade routes and colonial territories. The Dutch, seeking to challenge their dominance, engaged in various economic and military endeavors, often resulting in tensions. 

History of Dutch Brazil: And Division of the New World by the Pope
Image Source: Wikimedia, Map of Dutch Brazil

The Dutch's attempts to establish trade networks and colonies in regions controlled by the Iberians, including the Americas and Asia, resulted in confrontations and armed conflicts. These early interactions laid the groundwork for a complex relationship marked by competition, diplomacy, and occasional cooperation in trade and commerce. Such as: Battle of Gibraltar (1607), Dutch Revolt (1568-1648), Capture of Bahia by the Dutch (1624), Battle of Matanzas Bay (1628), Recapture of Salvador by the Portuguese (1625), Siege of Fort Elmina (1637), Peace of Westphalia (1648), Treaty of Münster (1648) & Recapture of Recife by the Portuguese (1654) etc.

The Battle of Gibraltar, fought in 1607, was a significant naval engagement during the Eighty Years' War between the Dutch Republic and the Spanish Empire. The Dutch fleet, under the command of Admiral Jacob van Heemskerk, launched a surprise attack on a Spanish fleet anchored at Gibraltar, resulting in a decisive victory for the Dutch.

On 9 May 1624, Dutch forces under the command of Jacob Willekens, serving the Dutch West India Company, seized control of Salvador Bahia from the Portuguese. In response, Philip IV, the king of Spain and Portugal, mobilized a joint army, supported by local militias and indigenous allies, and mounted a fierce resistance, forcing the Dutch to abandon their conquest within a year.

The Sugar War: Dutch-Portuguese Conflict for Control of Brazil's Sugar Trade

In the summer of 1629, the Dutch made a second and more determined attempt to capture Pernambuco, the most valuable sugar colony in Brazil. Under the leadership of Hendrick Corneliszoon Loncq, a fleet of 67 ships carrying 7,000 men and 1,170 guns arrived at Pernambuco in February 1630. They launched their attack on February 15, 1630, and by the evening of February 16, the Dutch had taken control of Olinda. 

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This military action marked a significant event in the Dutch-Portuguese War, known as the Sugar War, during which the Dutch sought to gain control of the lucrative sugar trade previously monopolized by the Portuguese in the region. The Dutch-Portuguese War itself was an extension of the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), as Portugal was in a dynastic union with Spain from 1580 to 1640. Following the capture of Olinda, the Dutch continued their conquest by seizing the state of Pernambuco.

By March 3, all Portuguese resistance had ceased, and the Dutch became the rulers of Recife, Olinda, and the island of António Vaz. A political council was established to govern the Dutch conquests from March 14, 1630.

Causes Leading to the fall of Dutch Brazil:

In the 17th century, Dutch Brazil was a significant story in Europe's media, capturing headlines and sparking discussions in newspapers and pamphlets across Amsterdam, the continent's media hub. Initially, reports painted an optimistic picture of opportunities in the New World, with mentions of lucrative sugar trade and geopolitical advantages. 

History of Dutch Brazil: And Division of the New World by the Pope
Image Source: Wikimedia, Flag of the Dutch West Indies Company

Despite initial successes, the Dutch Brazil existed for approximately 24 years before they were expelled by the Portuguese-led coalition. The downfall of Dutch Brazil was caused by a combination of military resistance, the challenges of maintaining overseas colonies and the eventual intervention of a Portuguese-led coalition.

The Portuguese crown, determined to reclaim its lost territories, launched a series of counteroffensives against the Dutch colonies. Additionally, internal divisions and conflicts within the Dutch West India Company weakened Dutch control over the region. By the mid-17th century, the Dutch were facing mounting pressure from Portuguese and Spanish forces, as well as indigenous uprisings.

However, as battles were lost and corruption emerged, public opinion shifted. Amsterdam's elite, once supportive, faced growing uncertainty over their handling of the colony. The Dutch West India Company struggled to maintain its colonial holdings in Brazil amid escalating conflicts and financial difficulties. 

The company faced competition from other European powers and struggled to generate sufficient revenue from its Brazilian operations. In 1654, the Dutch were forced to surrender their last remaining stronghold, the island of Itamaracá, effectively bringing an end to Dutch rule in Brazil. 

Role of the Amerindians and Africans:

Throughout the period of Dutch rule in Brazil, the Amerindians and Africans slaves played crucial roles in shaping the region's economy and society. Indigenous tribes often allied with either the Portuguese or Dutch, depending on their own strategic interests. African slaves were brought to Brazil to work on sugar plantations and in other industries, contributing to the colony's economic prosperity but also enduring harsh conditions and exploitation. 

In this context, Amerindians (This word is a combination of words “American” & “Indian”) refers the indigenous peoples of the Americas, with diverse cultures and languages. They have a long history on the continents, with their ancestors having lived in the Americas for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.

Dutch Brazil: The Transfer of New Holland to Portugal

From 1648 to 1649, the Luso-Brazilians, supported by the Portuguese Crown, successfully defeated the Dutch during the First and Second Battles of Guararapes. Here, the word "Luso" refers the Latin word "Lusus," which carries the meaning of "relating to Portugal" or "related to the Portuguese people."  It is often used as a prefix to describe something related to Portugal or the Portuguese language. For example, "Lusophone" refers to someone who speaks Portuguese or a country where Portuguese is spoken, and "Lusitanian" refers to something or someone from ancient Lusitania, an area that roughly corresponds to modern-day Portugal. Similarly, "Luso-Brazilians" refers to people who were of Portuguese or Portuguese-Brazilian descent.

The Dutch power was further weakened by the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654) against England. In January 1654, the Dutch surrendered and signed the provisional Treaty of Taborda. However, the Dutch Republic, under pressure from Johan de Witt, a prominent Dutch statesman, began demanding the return of New Holland (Dutch Brazil) in May 1654. However, the Portuguese firmly rejected these demands, leading to the continuation of Portuguese rule in Brazil.

Eventually, a peace treaty was signed in The Hague on August 6, 1661. As part of the agreement, New Holland was sold to Portugal for the equivalent of 63 tons of gold, valued at approximately $4 billion in 2023. The transfer of New Holland to Portugal marked the end of Dutch control in Brazil and had broader implications for territorial agreements between the Netherlands and Portugal, establishing a period of peace and stability between the two powers.


The end of Dutch Brazil marked a significant chapter in the history of South America. Portuguese control over the region was reaffirmed, and Brazil remained a colony of the Portuguese Empire until gaining independence in the 19th century. 

Despite facing numerous challenges, the Dutch West India Company established a prosperous colony that left a lasting legacy on the region. However, the eventual demise of Dutch Brazil emphasized the complexities and uncertainties of colonial missions during the early modern period. Today, the memory of Dutch Brazil serves as a reminder of the complicated interactions between European powers, indigenous peoples, and enslaved Africans in the shaping of the Americas.