Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen
Governor-General of Recife, Pernambuco, New Holland
The same flag that flew over New Amsterdam, New Netherland, in North America flew over the city of Recife, New Holland, in South America.* As New Amsterdam was only a backwater in the great Dutch world empire, exporting a small amount of tobacco leaf and smelly stacks of beaver pelts. Recife was a sweet prize on account of the growing demand for the product of its sugar plantations. Recife's name was derived from the Portuguese word for reef, referring to the city's location behind a long and protective coastal reef.
Johann Moritz von Nassau-Siegen
Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679) "the Brasilian," grandnephew of William the Silent, was in Nieuw Holland for only seven years, 1637-1644, as military commander and Governor-General for the Dutch West India Company, but he left a mark on the land. With a series of military actions he secured the Brazilian coast line from the Portuguese.
When he arrived in Recife, it was only a small fishing village, but when he left it was the major port of Dutch Brazil. He built up the state Pernambuco, and rebuilt the city of Recife. The city is called the Venice of Brazil because of its numerous canals, bridges, and short streets. But Maurits has also been described as a humanist visionary. Recife was known for its religious toleration with Jews** and Catholics living peacefully alongside the Calvinists of the Reformed Dutch Church. He had wealth and connections with Dutch aristocracy and was well versed in the arts and sciences.
Maurits brought with him a group of scientists, cartographers and artists to record and document the landscape, plants, animals and peoples of the area. Numbered among that group were George Marcgraf, cartographer, astronomer, and naturalist; Willem Piso the physician; Frans Post the landscape painter; and Albert Eckhout the portrait and still life painter. This survey of Brazil during Dutch occupation was unequalled for 200 years. In 1643 Johan was recalled to the Netherlands because of all the money he had spent on these military, civic, scientific, and cultural activities.
Johann Moritz left Brazil to become Prince of Nassau-Siegen of the Holy Roman Empire and rescuer of the Calvinist reformed faith in the Siegerland. His residence at the Hague in the Netherlands was the famous Mauritshuis.
* The Dutch held north-eastern Brazil between 1630 and 1654, named Nieuw Holland.
** About 1,450 Jews lived in New Holland in 1642 when Aboab da Foncesca arrived in Recife from Amsterdam to be the first rabbi of the Americas.
A Brief Bibliography
Source: Boxer, Charles R. The Dutch in Brazil 1624-1654. Oxford, 1957.
Van den Boogaart, E., ed. Johan Maurits van Nassau Siegen 1604-1679, a Humanist Prince in Europe and Brazil. The Hague, 1979.
Whitehead, P. J. P. and Boeseman, M. A Portrait of Dutch 17th Century Brazil. Animals, Plants and People by the Artists of Johan Maurits of Nassau. Amsterdam 1989.