The Dutch rule over the Brazilian Northeastern state of Pernambuco and surrounding lands is certainly the cause for the biggest 'what if' in the five centuries long Brazilian history. Every now and then in my school life I was confronted with the "threacherous" question: "What if the Dutch managed to spread their conquest from Pernambuco to Salvador and Rio de Janeiro?" or "What if our working habits were not based on the conventions of a conservative, almost medievalist Catholic society, but on those of a liberal and mercantilist Protestant culture? Do you think we could be a 'first world' country today?"

Common opinion on the topic diverges into three branches: one says no, Brazil’s status as a third world country would not be changed by changing the colonizers because the explanation for our poverty lays not on by whom we were colonized, but on natural and inexorable causes such as climate, geography, etc.; other defend that yes, being colony of, say, England or even Holland would have granted us a place beside first world nations. And a third branch – towards which I’ll not conceal a restricted favoritism - says that it would depend not only on the origin of the colonizers, but also and chiefly on their purposes here. According to supporters of this tendency, there are two types of colonies: settlement colonies and exploration colonies. Wherever the colonizer viewed a land simply as a source of resources to be drawn to the motherland (exploration), no matter his nationality, religion or work ethic, the country that would eventually bounce from that land would be poor, corrupt and "delayed". Should the colonization process be otherwise based on occupation and settlement, such as in the United States, Australia and, to a very limited extent, Argentina, richness, strength and progress should come up.

The truth, as usual, probably lays someplace near a median of these three theories, greater weight being put on the third.

But... what was I saying? Ah, yes, the Dutch invasion of Pernambuco, of course. Everything begun with a so called "succession crisis" on the throne of Portugal, ignited most probably by what was a very weird sequence of misfortunes amongst the Portuguese royal family du jour then, the dynasty of Avis. The ill-fated events started with the death (disappearance?) of Dom Sebastião at the Battle of Alcazar, Morocco, where the Portuguese were unsuccessfully warring the infidels "for the cause of God", as customary. Dom Sebastião left no sons, and the closest relative able to hold the Crown was Cardinal Henrique IV, dead king’s sixty-six years old uncle. Henrique IV ruled Portugal for two years only: he died in 1580, also with no sons to be crowned. The House of Avis was therefore ended.

Felipe II from the House of the Habsburgs, king of Spain and Kaiser of the Reich I, a multi-national territory that happened to include the Netherlands, exploited the occasion and forced himself upon the throne of Portugal, alleging he was the grandson of the Portuguese king Manuel I. The crowning of Felipe II as king of Portugal sealed the formation of the Iberian Union, which in practice meant the Spanish annexation of Portugal. Until then, Portugal had a very good commercial relation with the Dutch, mainly because Dutch money was financing Portuguese sugarcane plantations all over the Brazilian Northeastern region, following the decadence and general bankruptcy of the Portuguese aristocracy. The Portuguese managed the plantation and sold mascavo (non-refined) sugar to Dutch merchants, who were responsible for transporting the sugar to Europe and refining it. But with the ascension of Felipe II to the throne, Portugal-Holland amicable relations were abruptly shut down.

In response, the Dutch formed the Dutch West India Company, whose purpose was to conquer and defend a commercial monopoly in the Spanish and Portuguese possessions in the New World and along the African west coast. The first Dutch strike on Brazilian lands was on 1624, when they attacked and occupied Salvador, then Brazil’s capital city. That invasion, however, endured for nine months only; until they were expelled by a mighty naval expedition, lead by the Spanish Admiral Don Fradique de Toledo.

In February 1630, a second invasion took place on the shores of Pernambuco. The Dutch General Hendrick Corneliszoom, conducting a 3,000 men army in 37 warships, seized the cities of Olinda and the state capital, Recife. Between 1630 and 1637, the Dutch fought painstakingly to consolidate their conquest. The fight spread all over the Northeast coast and into the country.

Final victory for the Dutch, however, would not come through just the strength of arms, but by pecuniary persuasiveness. A Brazilian Creole, Domingos Fernandes Calabar, a profound connoisseur both of the Portuguese combat tactics and the local geography, betrayed the Portuguese (some say it was a case of 'opposition of consciousness') providing inestimable help to the invading armies. Later, Portuguese forces captured Calabar and hung him under the charge of high treachery. By 1637, the situation somewhat settled down and the Dutch were able to concentrate on what they came to do here: to make profit.

As soon as triumph was secured, the House of Orange sent Maurice of Nassau to administrate the new colony. Albeit a member of the Dutch Royal Family, he was in fact an employee of the Dutch West Indian Company, to which he should pay obedience. He was considered to be a great expert on warfare and administration, and was also a very habile politician. Much of the success of the Dutch administration can be attributed to the way Nassau conducted the W.I.C. businesses here. He not only invited the Portuguese local leaders (businessmen, that is to say) to participate on the government, but also convinced the WIC to finance the reconstruction of the Portuguese engenhos (sugar producing agro-industrial complexes).

The changes imposed by Maurice of Nassau on the way the colony was administered provided Brazilian Creoles a glimpse of how a profit-oriented society could be, given the conditions at that time. The Dutch rationalized the administration, reformatted Recife’s urban perimeter, paved roads from the engenhos to the port in the city. Moreover, Nassau gave explicit orders according to which the Portuguese religious beliefs should remain unspoiled. The Dutch also brought scientists and artists from Europe to discover as much as possible about the new conquered lands. All of this, of course, was in Netherlands' best interest, because they were the ones selling the sugar to Europe. Pernambuco was then seeing a phase of unforeseen organization and opulence, not likely to occur under Portuguese or Spanish rule; everyone was happy (usual exception made to the black slaves), from the Dutch capitalists to the Portuguese landlords and bureaucrats. But, as we all know, around these parts such things are not meant to last...

The beginning of the demise of Nassau’s government was a prosaic bad weather incident: on 1643, it rained way less than customary, and the sugar production was reduced proportionately. The senhores de engenho were thus unable to fulfill their commitment with their Dutch financers from the W.I.C., which could not tolerate any postponement in the payment because it was itself assailed by its own debts. Nassau, however, took the side of the landlords, because he knew very well that the only reason the W.I.C. was being successful in Pernambuco was a certain permissiveness regarding the behavior of the Portuguese. The 'powers that were' in the W.I.C. in Amsterdam got annoyed by Nassau’s alignment with the locals, and showed him the door out.

After that it was all downfall for the Dutch in Pernambuco. They set a military government, made the religious, fiscal and political policies more and more unsympathetic to the natives, until the Portuguese elite, whose members were now secretly professing they never ‘did like the pagans’, started to organize an improvised military force, in the backstage, to expel the foreign barbarians of weird talking.

Now that the money source of the Amsterdam bankers had dried out, not only the landlords were not willing to support the invaders, but also it was very unlikely that a new Calabar would appear to save the day. The Portuguese started to advance towards Recife following their best pattern of passion and disorganization, and managed to confine the Dutch into Olinda and Recife, until the expulsion was finally completed by 1654.

The Dutch, however, did not depart from Pernambuco with their hands empty. In 1661, the two nations made an agreement according to which Portugal should indemnify Holland for the money spent in the thirty years of occupation and give both Ivory Coast and the Setúbal Islands in exchange for Angola, also occupied by the Dutch. The Netherlands, by its turn, should deliver Angola and Brazil. The peace was sealed, but the Dutch had then the complete know-how for the production of sugar, from cropping to refinement. They also were plentiful of slaves, since they were given Ivory Coast. Then, they invested heavily on the sugar industry in the Antilles Islands, eventually kicking Portuguese Brazilians out of the business, because Antillean sugar was cheaper and better.

Talk about pathos!...

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