Caspar Barlaeus: The Center still holds

This chapter will focus on Caspar Barlaeus, and specifically on his two works the Mercator Sapiens (The Wise Merchant) and his history of Dutch Brazil.

Contrary to those who believe that the Mercator Sapiens tries to legitimatize capitalism and mercantile activities, I hold that, by constantly preferring the quest for wisdom – i.e. philosophy – above the quest for material goods – i.e. commerce, Barlaues actually undermines the legitimacy of the pursuit of wealth. As it turns out, the wise merchant is the one who spends his time in his study room reading Plato, instead of going to the stock market to check out the latest price of pepper.

In the same manner, some people have seen in Barlaeus’ history of Dutch Brazil an explanation and legitimation of Dutch imperialism. However, I suggest that Barlaeus is in fact rather critical of the Dutch expansion in the West Indies, deeming it as a financially unsound and morally wrong enterprise. He does so, in order to defend the honour and prestige of the patron of the book, count John Maurice of Nassau. Between 1636 and 1644 John Maurice was the governor of Dutch Brazil. He led several successful military expeditions, but also encountered a number of setbacks, primarily his failed attempts to conquer Salvador da Bahia, the capital of Portuguese Brazil. According to Barlaues, these setbacks are primarily caused by a lack of resources, forcing John Maurice to constantly fight uphill battles. Thus, by framing John Maurice as a virtuous hero in a financially and morally flawed quest for empire, Barlaeus is able to exonerate and excuse his patron from any acquisitions that might be labelled against him. Any failures or lack of success in Brazil are not John Maurice’ fault, but the fault of a plan that was doomed from the start.

Date: 27/03/2020

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