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What If


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View Brasil 06/07 on Alex-H's travel map.

It has been a while since I posted, and I am actually already miles away from Pernambuco, but that is another story. This post is going to be nearly completely in the conditional tense, because it is all about a very hypothetical question:

What if Brazil had started off as a Dutch colony?

Forte Orange was built by the Dutch near Recife in 1631

Because it nearly did.

In 1624, the Dutch West Indies Company (WIC) conquered Salvador, then the biggest city in the Americas (north or south.) The Dutch freed the slaves (only to annoy the Portuguese slave owners, it didn't exactly stop the Dutch from trading slaves elsewhere) and put freedom of religion in place. Soon the economy started to grow, but it all ended after a year when the Portuguese, helped by the Spanish (Portugal was actually part of Spain at that time.)

In 1631, the Dutch tried again and this time it went better. They conquered the area known as Pernambuco, and started building a new city across the river from Recife, called Mauritsstad (now Mauritsstad and Recife Antigo form the centre of the modern day city of Recife.)

The Maurits Bridge was the first river crossing bridge in Brazil. (This is a rebuilt version, but it is still called Ponte do Príncipe Maurício.)

The Dutch occupation of Pernambuco ended in 1654 but it is amazing how 23 years at the beginning of Recife have given the city an unmistakeably different feel from, for example, Rio de Janeiro or Salvador. WIth its river, canals and bridges, the city actually feels and looks Dutch, because its basic layout was planned by the WIC.

Again, during the Dutch occupation of Pernambuco, freedom of religion was put in place (by force - Portuguese Catholic priests who did not co-operate with the new separation of church and state were locked up, in Forte Orange.) This meant that Recife / Mauritsstad became an attractive destination for Portuguese (Sefardim) Jews, who were being forceably converted to Christianity in Portugal. Many Portuguese Jews had already fled Portugal to Amsterdam, and now thew were more than willing to help build the Dutch version of Brazil in Pernambuco. Recife / Mauritsstad became the first city in the Americas (north or south) with a Synagogue, and many of the soldiers and sailors occupied with the city's defenze were Jewish.

The first Synagogue in the Americas, north or south, was founded in Recife during the Dutch occupation of Pernambuco.

But in 1654 everything ended when the Portuguese kicked the Dutch out of Pernambuco again. Freedom of religion ended, slavery returned. Just in time, two ships, especially sent from Amsterdam, rescued the majority of Recife's Jewish population from certain persecution. Some of Recife's Jews returned to Amsterdam, most went on to Nieuw Amsterdam (currently New York) and they became the first Jews to arrive in North America.

In Holland, the Dutch history in Brazil is almost forgotten. However, in Brazil, there is quite a little industry of what I call "What-If-Journalism". A Brazilian author, Aydano Roriz, has written a number of novels set during the Dutch occupation of Salvador in 1624, and a recently published book, "Outros Brasis" ("Other Versions of Brazil") examines what could have been if the Dutch, and not the Portuguese, had colonised Brazil.
In general, these books seem to idealize the Dutch period, because slavery was (more or less) abolished and because freedom of religion was imposed. Would Brazil be a more equal society today if it had started off Dutch?

I'm not even sure if it is worth asking that question, because you might as well ask what life would be like if the world was flat, or the sky yellow. What those Brazilians who idealize the period of Dutch occupation in Pernambuco don't seem to realize, is that a perfect example of what would have been a Dutch version of Brazil indeed exists - right next door. It is called Suriname. Of course you can't compare one to the other because one is a giant and the other one a fairly small country, but Suriname is not exactly utopia.

Posted by Alex-H 16:54 Archived in Brazil Tagged postcards

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