The Dutch attack!

Victory is near
Brazil fights back
The Dutch attack
The Dutch come in
Peace and quiet
Shrimp, cheese, pineapple
Taking sides
I feel a bit under the weather

The Dutch controlled the Brazilian northeast for around 25 years in the 17th century. On the heels of shaking off Spanish colonial control in the Netherlands, they managed to haul several Spanish and Portuguese flotillas, raked in moneys, and, with lenient religious freedoms, saw Iberian jews, who were tightly involved in the cross-Atlantic slave trade, move to the low lands, kickstarting the Dutch’ colonial adventures.

The Dutch set up their Brazilian colonial capital in Recife, now the capital of Pernambuco, in the north of Brazil, and, though only in control of the region for a mere quarter of a century, left a legacy that continues to this day. However, mostly, only in the hearts and minds of Pernambucans, many of whom look back at the Dutch period as a kind of enlightened period, some, to this day, wishing the Dutch had never left. “Oh, if only the Dutch had stayed, we would be much better off than we are now.”

This false sense of history betrays a lack of understanding of the Dutch colonial mindset, which put everything in the service of profit, with the Dutch chartered companies, extensions and replacements of the Dutch state in its colonial territories, often called, and rightly so, the first proper capitalist enterprises.

It’s well established that some 15% of African enslaved died on the journey from Africa to the Americas, while another estimated 25%, or so, died on the marches to the departing ports in Africa. Maurits, or, in Brazil, Mauricio, the governor of Dutch Brazil most associated with this Dutch period, purposefully took control of the slave trade to maximise profit. His policies in Brazil might have been more humanist, specifically in terms of religious freedom, as compared to the Portuguese, any instance of a more humanist approach was purely, and only, in the service of the profit all exploiting parties were pursuing, to the extent that, by the time the Dutch had been kicked out of Brazil and had traded New Netherlands (parts of modern day New York), for Suriname, slaves were not even given one day a week off, them being exploited to the maximum extent possible.

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Natalia and I visited Recife, to meet up with Marco Zero, the investigative journalism agency with whom I’m working on a project highlighting the Dutch colonial period in Brazil, and to attend a reenactment of the battle of Tejucopapo (in Portuguese).

This reenactment has been staged for over 30 years, and commemorates a battle between Dutch and local forces, specifically the inhabitants of the town of Tejucopapo, now a good hour north of Recife, in which the role of the women of the village in the defeat of the Dutch invaders stood out. Thanks to their commitment, and using boiling water, pepper, and sticks as weapons, they defeated about six hundred Dutch soldiers, in what is considered the first battle in Brazilian territory.
Calling this ‘Brazilian’ territory is of course a bit of a stretch, as both before and after the Dutch presence in the Brazilian northeast, Brazil was fully controlled by the Portuguese. So, if this was Brazilian territory during this battle, it was Brazilian territory during other battles, before and after, too. But, I suppose, Brazilians seeing their country as an extension of Portugal, to call any battle in which the Portuguese were enslavers or agitators doesn’t quite fit an idealised narrative.

So, here we were, on a rainy and muddy Sunday afternoon, on a green hillside as the stage, set around an actual historical trench, recently uncovered, dating back to the time of the battle. Little internet access, and stalls selling cheap snacks and bunches of pitomba, a local sour fruit somewhat similar to lychee, completed the scenery.

The reenactment is a colourful choreographed affair, with around 200 actors mimicking the actions over a narrated recording of the events.
The audience loved it, but had to sit through a two hour delay, as the director of the play, in charge for the 31st time, wanted to wait for the mayor to show up, probably because they wanted to put some organisational demands to him, requiring a public response before the start of the play.
His commitment was a bit of a waffle.

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During the play, those in the stands lived the events with the actors on the field. When the first Dutch were thrown in the trenches during the brawl, the audience cheered. When the women saved the day, the audience went wild.

After the play, satisfied, the public went to the town’s main square to continue celebrations, while we drove back to Recife.

Flying bull

This is not the only contemporary replay of historical events dating back to the Dutch period, but this is one of the few in which the Dutch are the villains.

A much more popular recurring display, though popular because it’s set in the center of Recife, is a re-enactment of Maurits’ flying bull.

When Maurits arrived in Recife in 1637, he inherited the planning of an as-yet unfinished bridge, which was to connect the island on which the Dutch had set up their capital, with the port. Word had started to spread that an ox would sooner fly across the span of the bridge, than that the bridge itself would be finished.
Maurits, a bit of a showman, took up the challenge. He dipped into his own financial reserves, and financed the completion of what was to be a toll-bridge. More so, he promised he would make an Ox Fly at the bridge’s inauguration.
The idea was to have a large audience and immediately raise money from the tolls, to try to ease the budget shortfall in the project.

With a huge and curious audience paying tolls, the Dutch count delivered. After first parading around a live ox, and having it enter the building from which the ropes across the water were spanned, with a mechanism of ropes and pulleys, he made a stuffed ox pass from one side of the bridge to the other. The event brought in an astonishing twenty thousand eight hundred guilders. At the time, a skilled craftsman would typically bring in around 250 guilders, per year, meaning the toll on that one day was the equivalent of around 80 annual salaries of a skilled craftsman.

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Sadly, we missed the reenactment of that spectacle, which this year happened in March.

But not the obvious

We spent actual Dutch King’s Day in Recife. I had thought that someone, somewhere, perhaps even the Dutch consulate, would host some kind of event in relation to this most Dutch of celebrations. But, not so. There are no Dutch restaurants, no Dutch cafes. The Dutch consulate didn’t return my messages. There’s a craft beer that, it seems, is named after a painter which was brought in by Maurits, and popularised pineapples in Europe, but they, too, were not putting anything together to commemorate the Dutch king (whose family profited from slavery to the tune of a half a billion euros).
Meanwhile, Amstel was throwing together a big party in São Paulo during King’s Day, though, oddly, though emphasising the beer’s connection to Amsterdam, did not mention the Dutch king, and the celebration of his birthday, in any of its communication in relation to the event.

Instead, we had lunch at a restaurant called The Flying Bull, and ordered items off the menu that connected with the city’s Dutch past.

Interestingly, the imagery that’s used in Recife to depict Maurits’ flying bull is very reminiscent of how the bulls of Bumba meu boi (in Portuguese), a folk festival very popular in the Brazilian north, are displayed.
For a moment, I was excited in thinking that the Bumba meu boi imagery had borrowed from Maurits’ flying bull, but, it appears to be the other way around, the northern spectacle being much more prominent and famous compared to the Dutch intervention.