Anti-Dutch imperialism in the Dutch seventeenth century: the curious case of Caspar Barlaeus’s History of Brazil (1647)

As I wrote in a previous blog, contrary to modern opinion, Barlaeus’s History of Brazil does not contain a defence of Dutch imperialism, but is actually a critique of Dutch imperialist adventures in the western hemisphere. In that previous blog I focused on Barlaeus humanist attempt of defending his patron and the protagonist of the book – the governor of Dutch Brazil, count John Maurice of Nassau – by casting him as virtuous hero fighting a lost – because a financially and morally flawed – cause.

To this I can now add a bit of local Dutch context. As Blanche T. van Berkel-Ebeling Koning mentions in the preface to her English translation of Barlaeus’ History (University Press of Florida, 2011), at the time of the History’s composition – i.e. 1644-1647 – ‘Brazil was a much-discussed topic’ in the Dutch Republic in ‘the voluminous pamphlet literature of the time’ (page xii to Barlaeus’ The History of Brazil, 2011). She particulars refers to an anonymous pamphlet called the Brasilsche gelt-sack (The Brazilian Money Back, 1647) which lambasts the enormous amount of ‘lying, violation and fraud conducted under this Board or Ministers of the Company’ [ende dat soo veel liegery, schendery, ende bedreigery, onder dit Collegie ofte Ministers van de Compagnie ghepleeght worden.’] (idem, xxvii). The pamphlet was likely written by some unhappy investors in the WIC who did not receive the return on their investment which they hoped for. In fact, the financial situation of the WIC in the mid-1640s was so dire, that discussions were held in the States of Holland and the States-General about a merger between the successful VOC and the struggling WIC. Thanks to the voluminous pamphlet literature, a part of these discussions were also made known to the public (see Knuttel 5112, 5114, 5115, 5116.) From these pamphlets, ordinary Dutch citizens could learn that most participants in the VOC, and especially the board members of the Amsterdam chamber of the VOC, were very much opposed to such a merger. They did not want to invest their time, money and efforts in an enterprise which many of them believed to be a sinking ship. (Henk den Heijer, De geschiedenis van de WIC, Zutphen, 1994, p.97-102). Among these board members of the Amsterdam chamber of the VOC could be found Andries Bicker (1586-1652) and Cornelis de Graeff (1599-1664). During the 1630s and 1640s the Bickers and De Graeffs were the most important families in Amsterdam, holding important offices in and around the city, including the office of burgomaster. (Andries Bicker was burgomaster in 1641, 1645, 1649,i.e., and Cornelis de Graeff in 1643 and 1648 i.e.) Before and after his arrival in Amsterdam to teach at the city’s Illustreum, Barlaeus had actively sought to gain their favour by writing poems on marriages of the Bickers and De Graeffs and by dedicating his work to them. The famous Mercator Sapiens (Wise Merchant, Amsterdam, 1632), for example, was dedicated to the four burgomasters of Amsterdam, among whom Andries Bicker and Jacob de Graeff. (See the introduction of Anna-Luna Post to Caspar Barlaeus, The Wise Merchant, Amsterdam, 2019, p.22, 30 f.53, and 40)

Against this background, we can also see Barlaeus’ History of Brazil as an attempt by Barlaeus to side with the board members of the Amsterdam chamber of the VOC – of whom some were probably also members of the Amsterdam city council, and hence Barlaeus’ paymasters – against further efforts to rescue the WIC from financial ruin.* As Barlaeus himself points out several times in the History, despite so many heroic feats and millions of florins gained in the West, the WIC had still made ‘so little profit’ and ‘was not rich’. (History of Brazil, 2011, p.4, 30).

Thus, by criticizing Dutch imperialist adventures in the western hemisphere on financial and moral grounds, Barlaeus was able to strike two birds with one stone. One, he could defend his patron and protagonist Johan Maurits against any possible criticism levelled against him; and two, he could please those members on the Amsterdam city council who were against a merger between the VOC and the WIC.**

* Barlaeus was a member of the so-called Muiderkring (Muider circle), a group of artists, poets and scholars who visited the Muider castle of P.C. Hooft. In 1644 Barlaeus was there with Dirck Graswinckel, a laywer, who that same year defended the VOC against the possible merger with the WIC. (See Den Heijer, Geschiedenis van de WIC, p. 99, and L. Strengholt, "Over de Muiderkring", 1986, p.275)

** Andries' brother Cornelis Bicker was a board member of Amsterdam chamber of the WIC and burgomaster of Amsterdam in 1646. Despite this, the Amsterdam city council voted against a merger of the VOC and the WIC.

10th January 2021