Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen. Theodor Matham, 510mmx392mm, 17th century.
Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands, código RP-P-OB-23.218
Place and date of birth: Dillenburg, 1604.
Place and date of death: Kleef, 1679.
Job title and main information:
Ensign in the cavalry of the Army of the Republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands (1621-1626). Captain in the Army of the Republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands (1626-1629). Colonel in the Army of the Republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands (1629-1636). Governor, captain, and admiral-general of Dutch Brazil (1637-1644). Cavalry general of the Army of the Republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands (1645-1648). Governor of Kleef, Mark and Ravensberg (1648-1679). Prince of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire (1653). Marshal of the army of the Republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands (1665-1676).
Link to BRASILHIS Database: https://brasilhis.usal.es/es/personaje/johan-maurits-van-nassau-siegen-joao-mauricio-de-nassau
Born in Dillenburg (Germany) in the Holy Roman Empire in 1604, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen was the firstborn son of the marriage of Johan VII van Nassau-Siegen (1561-1623) to Margaretha van Holstein (1583-1658). In turn, Johan VII was the son of Johan VI van Nassau-Dillenburg (1535-1606), brother of Willem I (1533-1584), of Zwijger (the Silent), Prince of Orange, and one of the main leaders who worked for the formation of the Republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands (Boxer, 2004: 94-95; Mello, 2006: 22-27; Mout, 1979: 14-17).
Nassau had his childhood in Siegen and there is not much to know about his early years. Before entering the military, Nassau had, between 1614 and 1619, a period of schooling that instructed him in rhetoric, history, philosophy, theology, astrology, and mathematics (essential for waging war in that period). He also learned languages such as French, which he spoke fluently, also Latin, and had contact with the Italian and Spanish languages, which would be useful to him later (Mello, 2006: 29-31; Mout, 1979: 13-38).
In his homeland, opportunities were limited and against a background of conflict – the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) was taking place at the same time as the struggle between the Dutch and Spanish in the Netherlands – Nassau went off to war and embraced a career common among young noblemen. Due to family connections with important figures in the United Provinces, Nassau obtained in 1620 a position as a cavalry ensign in the army of the Republic. He participated in sieges and conquests of important positions in the Eighty Years’ War, facing Spanish troops at Hertogenbosch (1628), Venlo, Roermond, Rheinberg, and Maastricht (1632). He was promoted to captain (1626) and colonel (1629) and then took over a cavalry regiment. He participated and played an important role in the conquest of Schenckenschans in 1636, which was considered an impregnable fortress city (Barléu, 2018: 77-78; Mello, 2006: 35, 39-41).
A successful 16-year military career in the army of the Republic and kinship ties served Nassau – Braziliaan (the Brazilian) as he was later known -, as a catapult to his assignment, in 1636, to become commandant-general of troops and governor of a colony established by the Dutch West India Company on the northeastern coast of Brazil. The Company offered him advantageous conditions. His pay was high and would be added to what he already received as a colonel in the army of the Republic. He would also receive an allowance for his first expenses and 2% of everything that was confiscated in Brazil (Boxer, 2004: 96-97; Mello, 2006: 50-51).
Motivated mostly by the control of the largest sugar-producing area in Brazil, the Company’s troops took the capital of the Pernambuco captaincy, Olinda, and its port, Recife, in 1630, then they fought to expand its borders in the region. Even conquering key locations in the territory, groups of Hispanic Monarchy troops relentlessly attacked the areas occupied by the Company and kept their forces limited to some coastal portions of the territory. It was only in 1633 that Company’s commanders change their strategies, leading them to interiorization as long as they were weakening local resistance forces among the fall of positions of the Hispanic Monarchy in the captaincies of Rio Grande (1633) and Paraíba (1634), also one of the Cabo de Santo Agostinho’s port (1635) and an arraial near Recife (1635) that concentrated forces that imposed a strong siege to the Company’s position since 1630 (Miranda, 2020: 4-6; Mello, 1998: 33-35; Mello, 2010: 71-151).
Nassau arrived in Brazil in early 1637 with a reinforcement of troops and ships. His mission was to continue the expansion of the colony (which until then was progressing very slowly) and to expel the resistance forces of the Hispanic monarchy in the captaincy of Pernambuco, commanded by donatory’s lieutenant-captain Matias de Albuquerque (1595-1647) between 1630 and 1635, by Don Luis de Rojas y Borja between 1635 and 1636, and from 1636 by Giovanni Vincenzo di San Felice, the Count of Bagnuoli (1575-1640). The troops continuously caused trouble for their Dutch opponents, leaving the entire interior insecure. Population evasion also destroyed factories, sugarcane fields burned, and slaves that ran away used to be all part of the landscape of the hinterland in those early years.
The new governor of Dutch Brazil would have to reorganize the weakened productive system of the captaincies occupied by the Company, which had been severely dismantled during the war between 1630 and 1637 (Boxer, 2004: 45-93; Wätjen, 2004: 96-136).
As soon as he set foot in Brazil, Nassau directed his troops to a campaign aimed to purge local resistance from the Pernambuco captaincy. Under naval support from Admiral Lichthart, Nassau headed in early February for Alagoas, where he was hoping to find and fight the Count of Bagnuoli, a Neapolitan veteran of the wars against the Dutch in Bahia and who had participated in the reconquest of Salvador in 1625. He returned to Brazil in 1631 to take part in the campaign against the Company and was appointed master general of the troops of the Hispanic Monarchy in Pernambuco after the death of Don Luis de Rojas y Borja at the Battle of Mata Redonda in 1636. Bagnuoli was stationed in Porto Calvo with an army made up of Portuguese, Spaniards, Neapolitans, and natives.
Nassau, in turn, had the support of veteran commanders of the war in Brazil, Sigismund von Schkopp and Christofell Arciszewski, who had already faced Bagnuoli in Alagoas. Arciszewski joined Nassau leaving Recife, while Schkopp was waiting for them in Sirinhaém. From there, they would advance in pursuit of the count of Bagnuoli (Boxer, 2004: 98-99; NL-HaNA_OWIC 52, doc. 18, 17-03-1637; Teensma, 2018: 279-286, 290-297; Wätjen, 2004: 145-146).
Nassau followed without interruption to meet Bagnuoli, who had concentrated part of his troops at the Povoação’s Fort, in Porto Calvo, commanded by Miguel Gilberton, a Spanish lieutenant-general of artillery and veteran of the Eighty Years’ War. Unwilling to resist, Bagnuoli abandoned Porto Calvo after the first combats and left Gilberton and his garrison under Nassau’s siege while he headed to Penedo, on the São Francisco River, the borderland of the captaincies of Pernambuco and Sergipe. After several days of fighting and the sending of an ultimatum for surrender, Gilberton made a deal with the forces commanded by Nassau and accepted the terms imposed by him. Spanish and Neapolitan troops as well as civilians, left the fortification (Teensma, 2018: 279-286, 290-297).
Bagnuoli was pursued by the Company’s forces. Once in Penedo, he decided not to fight Nassau and crossed the São Francisco River with his troops. He headed towards Salvador. However, Nassau’s soldiers spotted his opponent crossing the river that would become the southern border of Dutch Brazil (Mello, 2006: 58-59; Teensma, 2018: 300-301). This natural boundary of the Dutch colony was maintained until 1645, the year of the Portuguese colonists’ insurrection against the Company. Still, under Nassau’s administration, the colony’s borders would be expanded. In its northern portion, Ceará would be incorporated in 1637. The Company’s project would also be extended overseas, with the conquest of Elmina (1638), in West Africa, which was an important spot for the project of economic restructuring of the colony that depended on slave labor (Miranda, 2020: 6).
The closeness of Salvador to Dutch rule was proving to be a hindrance. From Salvador to Sergipe, attacks on the Dutch colony continued to bring insecurity to the interior. Sugar cane plantations were razed, and the Company never had enough security to protect its huge colony. Not even alliances with some indigenous peoples were able to prevent the damage caused by guerrillas, who kept entering the borders of Dutch Brazil and attacking its interior (Mello, 2006: 71; Mello, 2001; Meuwese, 2011).
The guerrilla activity was a strong threat to the economic restructuring projected by Nassau’s new government. Therefore, the Company’s direction in the Republic pressured him to attack and conquer Salvador. Even with insufficient troops for the mission and at the risk of leaving the colony unprotected, he took 3,600 men and 36 ships to the capital of Brazil in April 1638.
Although he destroyed the sugar zone near the capital, Nassau was unable to break through the city’s defenses and withdrew, suffering his first defeat. His relationship with the Company would never be the same again, as they held him solely responsible for the failure in Bahia. Moreover, the Dutch inability to conquer Salvador had a high price for the Company, as it resulted in maintaining a large base that continuously sent troops to turn the Dutch territories secure, as seen in the guerrilla action in the following years (Magalhães, 2007: 229-243; Mello, 2006: 74-78).
In 1639, even with political and fiscal setbacks, the Hispanic monarchy prepared a counterattack and prepared a Luso-Spanish fleet with the objective of restoring Pernambuco. Its commander, Fernando de Mascarenhas, the Count of Tower, led a fleet of approximately 8,000 men and 87 vessels. However, facing difficulties along the way, the fleet did not set out directly to attack Dutch Brazil. It sailed to Salvador to wait for reinforcements and supplies, delaying the attack until the following year and losing an attempt to reconquer Brazil, given the weakness of the Company after the unsuccessful campaign in Salvador.
The Count of Torre only left Salvador in January 1640. Fortuitously, contrary winds caused his fleet to drift along the coast. A Dutch fleet took advantage of this dispersion to attack them – being unable to land the bulk of its troops, they headed for the Caribbean. Only a group of 1,200 men managed to disembark in Rio Grande and marched, in enemy territory, back to Bahia (Mello, 2006: 81, 105-111; Mello, 2010: 195-202; Valladares, 2006: 37-38).
The war in the Dutch colony of Brazil only diminished in 1641, after the Portuguese began a process of separation from the Hispanic monarchy (1640) and subsequently agreed to an armistice with the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Nassau took advantage of the war between the Portuguese and Spanish neighbors in Europe and the delay in declaring a truce between the Dutch and Portuguese (a piece of news that had not yet reached the colony), to extend his conquests in Brazil, annexing Sergipe and Maranhão, also taking over the Portuguese territories of Luanda and São Tomé, on the other side of the South Atlantic.
With such a conquest, they secured strategic points for the slave trade but incited the revenge of the Portuguese who considered the attack a betrayal of the armistice signed in 1641. The events of 1640 and 1641 had their part in the development of the process that culminated in the rebellion of the Portuguese settlers against the Company, which began in mid-1645 (Mello, 2003: 39-44; Mello, 2006; 122-125).
However, before the Portuguese section with Spain, Nassau made negotiations with the government of the Hispanic Monarchy in Brazil, headed by Jorge de Mascarenhas, Marquis of Montalvão. Mascarenhas had been appointed by Philip IV as Viceroy of Brazil, in 1640, replacing the governing council that had occupied the position vacated by the Count of Torre, dismissed after the failure in the reconquest of the northern captaincies.
Trying to mitigate the guerrilla attacks inside Company’s territories, Nassau initially spoke with the bishop of Bahia, Pedro da Silva, through emissaries of the secular clergy of Pernambuco. He wanted the bishop to intercede with Montalvão, who in turn would stimulate the conversation for a truce at the same time he dispatched new actions against Dutch Brazil.
The dialogues between Nassau and Montalvão also had other directions and topics. The commander of the Company’s troops was approached about surrendering Dutch Brazil in exchange for receiving a position as commander of troops in Europe and ample financial advantages. This quest had been based on instructions from Philip IV, dated 1638, to the Count of Torre, Montalvão’s predecessor. King John IV proceeded in the same direction.
The attempts did not bear fruit, as we know, but some of the conversations resulted in an interesting exchange of correspondence between Nassau and Montalvão, as well as the exchange of gifts, prisoners, and the movement of emissaries between the territories (KHA-A4-1454, f. 274, 21-10-1640; f. 287, 04-01-1641; f. 289, 29-08-1640; f. 291, 1640; f. 294, 06-12-1640; f. 298, 25-08-1640; f. 300, 1640; f. 310, 13-05-1641; Magellan, 2010: 120; Mello, 2003: 47-49; Mello, 2006: 113, 117-121, 123-124).
Nassau’s great challenge in Brazil, besides the conquest, maintenance, and expansion of the territory, was to reactivate the sugar economy, as already mentioned. To achieve this goal, his government confiscated and resold (financed) the sugar mills abandoned during the conflict. Most of these 65 confiscated mills – out of 160 – were bought by the Dutch and mostly by the Portuguese.
A substantial part of sugar mills would return to activity due to the euphoric moment of growth in commerce. These engenhos were affected, however, by the onslaughts of the Hispanic Monarchy for the reconquest of the territory and, perhaps most seriously, by the fall in the value of sugar in the Republic, given the increased supply of the product in Europe. From 1638 to 1643, sugar, in its commercialized varieties, would reach its lowest value (Mello, 1998: 456-457; Posthumus, 1943: 119-122; Wätjen, 2004: 437).
The administrators of the Dutch West India Company and Nassau also faced the challenge of governing a colony composed of people of diverse origins and creeds (indigenous, Portuguese, Africans, Jews, and a mix of Europeans). These groups had conflicting interests, but Nassau managed to reduce the friction with conciliatory policies, including maintaining religious tolerance (Mello, 2011: 183-275; Israel, Schwartz, 2007). Political, religious, and economic disagreements that emerged among the groups ended up being latent with Nassau’s resignation in 1644 and the composition of a new government, which proved incapable of understanding and solving the colony’s problems (Miranda, 2020: 14).
Other aspects of Nassau’s governance in Brazil continue to draw many historians’ interest over the years. One of them is undoubtedly the court that accompanied him to Brazil. As an enthusiast for the arts and sciences, he hired people to record the colony through painting and cartography, which would ensure the visual perpetuation of his rule and the Dutch experience in Brazil. It was the first major initiative to document Brazil, perhaps the New World, remaining so for many years afterward (Françozo, 2014; Corrêa do Lago, 2006; Vieira, 2019; Whitehead, Boeseman, 1989; Zandvliet, 2002).
In addition, Nassau was responsible for the expansion and urbanization of large portions of Recife and Antônio Vaz Island – because of increased immigration. He was also in charge of the construction of amenities that he, his court, and the local population could enjoy, such as the bridge built to connect Recife to Antônio Vaz (which was completed at the end of his government), the gardens of his palace, also city planning, creating dikes and street paving in Antônio Vaz and the elaboration of useful regulations for the daily life of the capital of Dutch Brazil (Mello, 2001; Oers, 2000).
After leaving Brazil, Nassau again served in campaigns in Flanders between 1644 and 1646 as lieutenant-general of the Republic cavalry. He was also granted command of the town of Wesel in 1644 and was subsequently named governor of Kleef, Mark, and Ravensberg in 1647, a position he added to his Wesel post.
Upon the end of the Eighty Years’ War, Nassau was appointed prince of the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Ferdinand III in 1653 and was assigned the position of Marshal of the Dutch army in 1665. He led combats against the troops of the bishop of Münster between 1665 and 1666 and against the French between 1672 and 1674. Due to health issues, Nassau resigned from the Dutch army in 1676 and remained in Kleef. Politically, he still worked to achieve peace between the French and Dutch. He died in 1679 (Mello, 2006: 276-277; Opgenoorth, 1979: 39-53).
KHA-A4-1454. Arquivo da Casa Real, Haia, Fundo A4, Inventário 1454, f. 274, 21-10-1640. Carta do Governador Geral Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen a Jorge de Mascarenhas, Marquês de Montalvão, vice-rei do Brasil.
KHA-A4-1454. Arquivo da Casa Real, Haia, Fundo A4, Inventário 1454, f. 287, 04-01-1641. Carta de Jorge de Mascarenhas, Marquês de Montalvão, vice-rei do Brasil a Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen.
KHA-A4-1454. Arquivo da Casa Real, Haia, Fundo A4, Inventário 1454, f. 289, 29-08-1640. Carta de Jorge de Mascarenhas, Marquês de Montalvão, vice-rei do Brasil a Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen.
KHA-A4-1454. Arquivo da Casa Real, Haia, Fundo A4, Inventário 1454, f. 291, 1640. Carta do Governador Geral Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen a Jorge de Mascarenhas, Marquês de Montalvão, vice-rei do Brasil.
KHA-A4-1454. Arquivo da Casa Real, Haia, Fundo A4, Inventário 1454, f. 294, 06-12-1640. Carta de Jorge de Mascarenhas, Marquês de Montalvão, vice-rei do Brasil a Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen.
KHA-A4-1454. Arquivo da Casa Real, Haia, Fundo A4, Inventário 1454, f. 298, 25-08-1640. Carta de Jorge de Mascarenhas, Marquês de Montalvão, vice-rei do Brasil a Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen.
KHA-A4-1454. Arquivo da Casa Real, Haia, Fundo A4, Inventário 1454, f. 300, outubro de 1640. Carta do Governador Geral Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen a Jorge de Mascarenhas, Marquês de Montalvão, vice-rei do Brasil.
KHA-A4-1454. Arquivo da Casa Real, Haia, Fundo A4, Inventário 1454, f. 310, 13-05-1641. Carta de Jorge de Mascarenhas, Marquês de Montalvão, vice-rei do Brasil a Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen.
NL-HaNA_OWIC 1.05.01.01. Arquivo Nacional da Haia, Velha Companhia das Índias Ocidentais, número 52, documento 18, 17-03-1637. Carta de Joris Adriaensen Calf, no navio Amersvoort, na Ponta do Jaraguá, para os diretores da Câmara da Zelândia.
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Bruno Miranda (Universidade Federal Rural de Pernambuco)