Elias Herckmans

Pablo Magalhães (Universidade Federal do Oeste da Bahia)

Birth: 1596, Amsterdam

Death: 1644, Recife

Soldier, writer and administrator

Link to BRASILHIS Database: https://brasilhis.usal.es/es/personaje/eliaselijas-herckmansharkmans

Was a Dutch soldier, writer and administrator who worked in Dutch Brazil between 1635 and 1644. He was born in Amsterdam, in the year 1596, but little is known about his early years. As a young man, Herckmans studied History and Latin, before starting his professional career in Russia, for the company De Vogelaer. Gaspar Barleus, a friend of Elias Herckmans, described him in 1647 as “a man who, in addition to many virtues, was endowed with acute ingenuity and given to the ear of Dutch poetry. Furthermore, hardened in the hurdles of navigation, an experienced seafarer, he showed unwavering loyalty to his masters and defenseless industriousness” (Barleus, 1974: 76).

Biographical studies on Elias Herckmans and his intellectual production date back to the end of the 19th century. The first to dedicate an article to him was Jacob Adolf Worp, a historian of Dutch literature, who in 1893 published a brief trajectory of the aforementioned character, focusing on his literary production (Worp, 1893: 162).

It fell to José Hygino Duarte Pereira and Alfredo de Carvalho to insert Elias Herckmans into the historiography of Dutch Brazil. The second defined him as an adventurer-poet (Carvalho, 1930: 97). In 1958, Eduardo Tourinho wrote a brief article about Herckmans, based on the studies of Hygino and Alfredo de Carvalho (Tourinho, 1958: 11). Recently, in 2012, the performance of Herckmans in Dutch Brazil was recovered by historian Britt Dams (Dams, 2010: 19).

Before coming to Dutch Brazil, Herckmans ventured into the world of letters and was a poet of some merit, according to his contemporaries. His first printed poem dates from 1624, the year the West India Company (WIC) conquered Salvador, entitled Slach van Vlaenderen gheschiedt tusschen den prince van Oranien.

The most recognized work by Elias Herckmans Der zee-vaert lof (Praise to Maritime Voyages) would be published ten years later, in 1634. The artistic quality is superimposed on the literary one. Der zee-vaert lof contains a splendid allegorical engraving of Neptune and his horses on the frontispiece and 18 exquisite engravings illustrating the text, one by the celebrated painter and engraver Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and the other 17 along with the frontispiece, made by Willem Basse. The print is thus recognized for bringing one of the few engravings that Rembrand made for books, in one of the “first prints”, as noted by Hollstein. Willem Basse’s illustrations also deserve praise, though overshadowed by the only one by Rembrandt, which was given the title of La Fortune Adverse.

In addition to the etchings, Der zee-vaert lof is also interesting. The preliminaries contain features additional short poems and a 6-page note to the reader by the author, as well as complimentary verses by Barlaeus, Marcus Zverius Boxhornius, Jacobus Revius, P. Scriverius, C. Lov, and S.V. Swol. The main poem spans six books or chants, in honor of sea voyages from the biblical times of Noah to the year 1632, in chronological order, with extensive marginal annotations. The first book ends with Artaxerxes, king of the Medes. The second book covers navigations in the classical period, from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar, and the third from Augustus to Muhammad II. The fourth book chronicles navigation in the period of European expansion, including the voyages of Christopher Columbus (Herckmans, 1634: 157), Amerigo Vespucci (Herckamns, 1634: 161), Vasco da Gama, Sir Francis Drake and other explorers who ventured into the sea. East, West and Arctic, reaching the year 1588. The fifth book recounts the actions of the Dutch admirals in the West and East Indies, including the conquest of Salvador in 1624. The sixth book describes the daily life of sailors. It is followed by a short 9-page poem (Herckmans, 1634: 226-235) in honor of ship voyages on Dutch rivers, Rhyn en Mase Schipvaerts Lof, followed by a one-page poem dated 1633, in honor of Cornelis Jansz de Haen (1580 – April 19, 1633).

The song V of Der zee-vaert lof was reprinted on the initiative of Isaac Buchoorn in 1641, while Herckmans was in Brazil, under the new title Theatrum victoriæ, ofte het thooneel der zee-slagen, uyt-beeldende alle de (Theater of Victories of Naval Battles). Alfredo de Carvalho draws attention that in this edition Buchoorn “I add a prose introduction to it and omitted about a hundred lines at the end”.

Herckmans’ last printed text before his departure for Brazil was the Encomium calvitii ofte Lof der kael-koppen, dedicated to Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687).

Herckmans arrived in Recife on December 23, 1635, as recorded in one of the dagelijkse notulen (daily notes) of the Recife Supreme Council. According to the document “Soon after late afternoon, Captain Cornelis Dirckse’s ship De Holandsche Tuijn (The Dutch Garden) arrived here from Amsterdam, carrying the noble Mr Elias Herckmans, appointed by the XIX Council as political representative of the Chamber of Amsterdam and in this capacity joined us”.

After three days of rest, possibly acknowledging Recife’s particularities, Herckmans participated, on December 27, in its first meeting of the Political Council, taking a seat in another held on January 3, 1636. Herckmans was soon dispatched in his first field mission. He arrived in Dutch Brazil at a time when the War of Resistance (1630-1637) waged by the Pernambuco Army, still led by the inept D. Luis de Rojas y Borja, was in full swing in the northern captaincies. The resistance had been moved from Arraial Velho do Bom Jesus to the south, towards Porto Calvo, in the current territory of Alagoas.

On January 7, Elias Herckmans and Willem Schott headed south, reaching Cabo de Santo Agostinho the following day, from where they sent an order for Captain Maulpas to park his company, with 100 men from Paraíba and 150 indigenous people, in Ipojuca and Salgados. Schott returned to Recife, but Herckmans went to Barra Grande, on the coast of Alagoas, under the command of Sigsmund von Schoppe. The objective of his mission was of an administrative nature, providing logistical support for the establishment of an outpost capable of facing the Portuguese-Spanish forces that sought to fortify themselves in Porto Calvo. On January 15th, according to Duarte de Albuquerque Coelho, “we lodged in the same village as Porto Calvo” (Coelho, 1981: 280).

The Dutch response was immediate. Also according to the Daily Memoirs of the Brazilian War (1654), on January 16, “the enemy disembarked people from Barra Grande and it was Segismundo [von Schoppe’s] entourage” (Albuquerque, xxxx: 280). There was fear that Cristóvão Arciszewski would march with 1500 soldiers from his fortification in Paripueira, thirteen leagues from Barra Grande, joining forces with von Schoppe’s contingent. In the battle, which took place on the 18th, the Dutch did not obtain the expected victory, but they managed to kill, in the midst of combat, General D. Luiz de Rojas y Borja, with the command of the Portuguese-Spanish forces from then on. to the Count of Bagnuoli (Coelho, 1981: 284).

The military support sent by the WIC was not dispatched in a timely manner, departing Recife on the 19th. According to the daily notes, “This morning the ships Salamander, Walcheren, Het Wapen van Medemblick, De Faem, Overijssel departed from the harbor. Have Toolen, Goeree so that, in accordance with the resolution taken on the 17th of that month, they would depart towards Paripueira”. The plan was to meet Arciszewski’s forces there and, if he agreed, transport “the army to Barra Grande where the Noble Lords the Governor [Schoppe] and Herckmans meet, so that from the moment they join, they will be able to make a stronger opposition to resist enemy attacks”. On the 20th, the ships De Haes and De Winthond va Hoorn left Recife for Barra Grande carrying material for the construction of two ovens, along with “a letter to Mr. Governor and Mr. Herckmans, in which we present the report made by Mr. Carpentier, in connection with his instruction on the hiring of Tapuias”. Unfortunately, we do not know the contents of this report, but it was too late for the Dutch. Porto Calvo was under the command of Bagnuoli.

The small fort at Barra Grande was no longer secure and proved unable to sustain that position. In the first days of February, he suffered two attacks from Porto Calvo. On the 12th of that month, “the De Duijff (The Pigeon) sandeel arrived from Barra Grande, aboard which Noble Elias Herckmans came, reporting that the Governor had already decided that the Barra Grande fort would be demolished”. The baptism by fire of Elias Herckmans, after little more than a month on the coast of Alagoas, resulted in a fiasco for the Companhia das Índias. As a matter of fact, the fault was the WIC’s own delay in dispatching the necessary military aid.

Back in Recife, Herckmans took care of improving the city’s fortifications. On March 7, alongside President Wijntjes and Major Bayart, he inspected Fort Afogados, seeking an agreement with a contractor who would reform it. On March 20 he was assigned to interrogate eight captains of Dutch vessels that had suffered a naval defeat against two galleons and a Spanish patacho in the waters of Bahia, to “find out who had failed.” Among these ships was the Salamander, which with Herckmans himself would return to the waters of Bahia four years later.

On May 12, Herckmans presided over the Political Council for the first time. On October 6, 1636, the Political Council sent Elias Herckmans and Ippo Eissens to take care of the administration of Itamaracá. They would go to Igarassu to capture rebel slaves who belonged to the WIC, but they were taken by the priests to the south of Pernambuco. They left Igarassu for Goiana, and on October 7th, leaving Goiana, Elias Herckmans and Ippo Eissens arrived in Várzea do Capibaribe.

As director of the West India Company, he governed the captaincy of Paraíba from 1636 to 1639. He left a manuscript report on his period of government in Paraíba, of great historical and ethnographic value, published for the first time in Utrecht in 1879 (Herckmans, 1879: 318). José Hygino Duarte Pereira translated it under the title General Description of the Captaincy of Parahyba, publishing it in the Revista do Instituto Arqueológico, Histórico e Geográfico de Pernambuco in 1886, gaining new editions over the following century (Herckmans, 1886: 239). It was this text that consolidated the importance of Elias Herckmans among Brazilian scholars, in various fields of Human Sciences. For archaeologists, for example, Herckmans is important for bringing the second known record of the Pedra de Ingá, “itacoatiara” located in the territory under his jurisdiction.

During the period in which he ruled from Fredrikstad, capital of Paraíba, Herckmans resided in the Franciscan convent. He served in the civil and military spheres. He was responsible for instructing the Dutch and Portuguese Escabinos on civil and criminal law in force in the Netherlands (Mello, 1985: 51).

Elias Herckmans was the only member of the Political Council who acquired a sugarcane party and continued to exercise his role for the W.I.C, becoming a farmer at Jorge Homem Pinto’s Engenho Tiberi-Santiago.

In 1640, he was part of the military expedition commanded by Admiral Lichthart to the Recôncavo Baiano. This expedition was sent “in retaliation for the fires caused in the sugarcane fields and sugar mills of Pernambuco by the campaigners who were sent by the Count of Torre” (Mello, 1985: 55). Further on, the details of this military operation in the Bay of All Saints, of which Herckmans himself is the chronicler, will be analyzed.

Elias Herckmans, after returning from Bahia in the second half of 1640, according to José Antonio Gonsalves de Mello, was not satisfied with the lack of recognition that his superiors at Companhia das Índias showed for the five years of his services in Dutch Brazil. He hoped, because of this, to obtain a position on the High and Supreme Council, for that same year new secret advisers would assume functions in the institution. Adrian van Bullestrate and Dirck Codde van der Burgh, however, assumed positions on the High and Supreme Council, frustrating Herckmans’ plans.

 That same year, Herckmans was appointed to the direction of the region that lay between Igarassu and Goiana, despite the complaints, he immediately assumed the position. “It would be opportune to remember that Herckmans as well as the other councilors were subordinate officials to Governor Nassau and the High and Holy Council and, in accordance with the Instructions of 1636, were to obey his orders and exercise the functions designated by both”. (Marques, 2018: 84).

In 1642, Elias Herckmans had been chosen to participate in the military expedition to Chile, where he would be responsible for its government, being vice-admiral of the fleet and captain of the ship Vlissingen. It was determined that the Dutch expedition would go to the Spanish captaincy in order to locate gold mines, establish a colony in Valdivia, explore the island of Santa Maria and make an alliance with the indigenous people.

Under the command of the Director of the Chamber of Amsterdam, Hendrik Brouwer, five ships, with 360 armed soldiers in three companies, sailed from Recife on January 15, 1643, reaching the port of Chiloé Island, on the south coast of Chile, on the day May 1 of that year (Barleus, 1974: 286). There, the Dutch captured one of the fortresses, which, after the battle, counted sixty Spanish survivors imprisoned, summarily executed by order of Brouwer. Then, the Dutch occupied the village of Castro, already abandoned by its inhabitants.

In Castro, Brouwer fell ill and two months later he died. According to Barleus, “By secret prescription of the Company, which was then patented, Elias Herckmans, a prudent and serious man, diligent administrator of the Western Company, member of the Council of Justice, Governor of Paraíba and famous for more than a maritime expedition” (Barleus, 1974: 289). Under Herckmans’ command, the Dutch military expedition to Chile began to fail.

Barleus personalizes the Dutch failure by attributing it to Herckmans, “endowed with milder and more moderate feelings than Brouwer, smitten with a precipitous ferocity against the enemy . . . ). Certainly, Herckmans, although successful in the initial approach to the Mapuche Indians of Valdivia, proved incapable of letting them see the true intention of the Dutch in their search for precious metals. tried to start a mutiny (Barleus, 1974: 291).

The ships of the Dutch expedition to Chile returned, reaching the Port of Recife on December 28, 1643. Barleus lent significant importance to the Dutch expedition to Chile, maintaining the usual partiality with regard to Maurice of Nassau (Barleus, 1974: 293). On the return of the fleet, he says that Herckmans “gave the Count the reason for his return, the shortage of supplies, the long and dubious anticipation of the next harvest, the vain promises of the Chileans to offer victuals, the soldiers’ murmuring about the daily ration of food , their threats and desertions”. Furthermore, Herckmans also indicated as one of the reasons for his return “the cavalry and infantry of the Spaniards, who marched against him, and to whom he was not equal with few soldiers” (Barleus, 1974: 293). Bruno Miranda rightly notes that Barleus “omitted that with the lack of food it would have been impossible for Herckmans or any other commander, however disciplinarian, to prevent such reactions” (Miranda, 2014: 367).

Still with regard to the reasons given by Herckmans to justify the fleet’s unexpected return, Barleus noted that “not everyone received these reasons with the same spirit” (Barleus, 1974: 293). Finally, “while opinions diverged, Herckmans falling ill, cut short the judgments of others with death, and ended the course of life and destiny” (Barleus, 1974: 293). Elias Herckmans died in Recife, on January 8, 1644, about ten days after returning to Dutch Brazil.

It is possible, however, that the main intellectual legacy Elias Herckmans’ current life lies in the linguistic field. He is responsible for collecting the Mapuche vocabulary of the Chilean Indians during the expedition to Chile, which Barleus printed in the Rerum per Octennium in Brasilia in 1647 and Johanes de Laet inserted it in the appendix of the work of Willem Piso and Georg Makgraf in 1648 (Barleus, 1974: 293). The attribution of authorship was confirmed by Rodolfo R. Schuller (1873-1932) in the 1907 edition of El vocabulario araucano of 1642-1643. It fell to Schuller to re-edit and annotate the “very well-known mapuche glossary, attributed to the Dutch jeneral don Elias Herckmans, who, as accepted, is the author of the second printed document on the language of the Chilean Indians of which knowledge is positive (.. .)”, the first being the Arte y Grammatica geral de la lengua that runs throughout el Reyno de Chile (1606), by Father Luis de Valdivia, printed in Lima.

It is possible that Barleus, has received the papers left by Elias Herckmans, after his death, via Maurício de Nassau. This includes a letter from Herckmans addressed to Nassau himself and the Supreme Council, also published by Barleus, and another to his friend Constantijn Huygens (Barleus 1974: 294). Vocabulary may have been delivered together with official papers. It is true that the Vocabulary supposedly collected by Herckmans and originally printed by Barleus in 1647 and Laet in 1648, would be reprinted by other authors of the 17th century, such as Olivier Dapper (1671).


BARLEUS, C. (1974). História dos feitos recentemente praticados durante oito anos. Belo Horizonte: Editora Itatiais; São Paulo: Editora da Universidade de São Paulo.

CARVALHO, A. (1930). Aventuras e Aventureiros no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro.

COELHO, Duarte de Albuquerque (1981). Memórias Diarias da Guerra no Brasil. Recife: Fundarpe.

DAMS, B. (2010). “Elias Herckmans. A Poet at the Borders of Dutch Brazil”. In: HUIGEN, Siegfried; JONG, Jan L. De; KOLFIN, Elmer (eds.) The Dutch Trading Companies As Knowledge Networks. Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2010, pp.  19-38.

MARQUES, Filomena Gonçalves da Silva. O Conselho Político: a sua participação na estratura administrativa, econômica e judicial do Brasil Holadês (1630-1644). Dissertação PPGH / UFPE. Recife, 2018.

HERCKMANS, E. (1634). Der Zee-vaert lof, handelende van de gedenck-waerdigste zee-vaerden met de daeraenklevende op en onder-ganghen der voornaemste heerschappijen der gantscher wereld: zedert haere beginselen tot op den dagh van huyden. In VI boecken beschreven. Amsterdam (sic): Jacob Pietersz Wachter (colophon:  by Jan Fredericksz Stam in de Hope).

HERCKMANS, E. (1879). “Generale beschrijvinge van de Capitanie Paraiba”. In: Bijdragen en Mededeelingen van het Historisch Genootschap, Gevestigd te Utrecht, v. 2, Utrecht, 1879, p. 318-336.

HERCKMANS, E. (1886). “Descripção geral da Capitania da Parahyba” (1639). In: Revista do Instituto Archeologico e Geographico Pernambucano,  tomo V, n. 31, p. 239-288. Recife: Typographia Industrial, 1886.

HERCKMANS, E. (1624). Slach van Vlaenderen gheschiedt tusschen den prince van Oranien ende den doorluchtighen eerts-hertogh Albertus. Op den regel Eendracht maeckt macht. https://archive.org/details/ned-kbn-all-00005449-001/page/n9

IAHGP, Instituto Arqueológico, Histórico e Geográfico de Pernambuco, Coleção Dagelijkse Notulen (DN), 23 de dezembro de 1635.

IAHGP, Instituto Arqueológico, Histórico e Geográfico de Pernambuco, Coleção Dagelijkse Notulen (DN), 27 de dezembro de 1635.

 IAHGP, Instituto Arqueológico, Histórico e Geográfico de Pernambuco, Coleção Dagelijkse Notulen (DN), 03 de janeiro de 1636.

IAHGP, Instituto Arqueológico, Histórico e Geográfico de Pernambuco, Coleção Dagelijkse Notulen (DN), 17 de janeiro de 1636.

IAHGP, Instituto Arqueológico, Histórico e Geográfico de Pernambuco, Coleção Dagelijkse Notulen (DN), 19 de janeiro de 1636.

IAHGP, Instituto Arqueológico, Histórico e Geográfico de Pernambuco, Coleção Dagelijkse Notulen (DN), 20 de janeiro de 1636.

IAHGP, Instituto Arqueológico, Histórico e Geográfico de Pernambuco, Coleção Dagelijkse Notulen (DN), 04 de fevereiro de 1636.

IAHGP, Instituto Arqueológico, Histórico e Geográfico de Pernambuco, Coleção Dagelijkse Notulen (DN), 12 de fevereiro de 1636.

IAHGP, Instituto Arqueológico, Histórico e Geográfico de Pernambuco, Coleção Dagelijkse Notulen (DN), 7 de março de 1636.

IAHGP, Instituto Arqueológico, Histórico e Geográfico de Pernambuco, Coleção Dagelijkse Notulen (DN), 20 de março de 1636.

IAHGP, Instituto Arqueológico, Histórico e Geográfico de Pernambuco, Coleção Dagelijkse Notulen (DN), 12 de maio de 1636.

MELLO, José Antonio Gonçalves de. (1985). Fontes para a História do Brasil holandês, tomo II. Recife.

MIRANDA, B. (2014). Gente de Guerra: origem, cotidiano, resistência dos Soldados do exército da Companhia das Índias Ocidentais no Brasil (1630-1654). Recife: Editora UFPE.

TOURINHO, E. (1958). BNRJ, Biblioteca Nacional do Rio de Janeiro, Hemeroteca da Biblioteca Nacional do Rio de Janeiro, fl. 11, 3 de agosto de 1958, Correio da Manhã. A desgraçada Aventura de Elias Herckmans.

WORP, J. A. (1893). Elias Herckmans. Oud Holland. Nieuwe bijdragen voor de geschiedenis der Nederlandsche kunst, letterkunde, nijverheid, 11, 162-178. https://doi.org/10.1163/187501793X00342

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