Three Dutch Victories

Dutch siege of Olinda and Recife. 1630

The conquest of Luanda and São Tomé in 1641. Print, 1649–1651

Two months after Johan Maurits first arrived in Recife in January 1637, he received a new set of instructions from the West India Company (WIC). The count was to carry out an old plan: the conquest of Sao Jorge da Mina on the African Gold Coast. This was more than a center of the gold trade. It had been the seat of Portuguese might in Guinea since 1482, and once captured, it could be expected to allow the Dutch to become involved in the African slave trade. Johan Maurits did not sail himself but dispatched a nine-ship fleet under the command of Colonel Hans van Koin, which arrived after a voyage of two months on August 23 with eight hundred soldiers and four hundred sailors.

In the twelve years that had passed since their ignominious defeat at Sao Jorge, the Dutch had changed their tactics. Military ingenuity alone had not sufficed; it had proven necessary to establish better ties with African states to have a chance to be victorious. In itself, this was nothing new. As early as 1618, Dutch musketeers on the Gold Coast had served the ruler of Sabu as mercenaries in a counterattack on the Coromantee. What was different from the attack of 1625 was the attempt by the commander of Fort Nassau, Nicolaes van IJperen, in the weeks leading up to the arrival of the Dutch fleet to stir up the African states of Elmina, Komenda, and Efutu against the Portuguese. Assured of some native support, the Dutch were in a good position to challenge the defenders of the castle. And when the defenders failed to sufficiently occupy a hill facing the fort of Sao Jorge, the Dutch victory was within grasp. For four days, Dutch cannonballs rained down on the fort until the Portuguese gave up, worn down by the lack of provisions and the knowledge that no relief force would come from the Iberian Peninsula. After 155 years of Portuguese occupation, Elmina castle came under Dutch control on August 29, 1637.

In Brazil, the Dutch forged ahead energetically by disposing of the guerrilla fighters to the north of the Sao Francisco River and annexing the district of Ceara, which meant that half of all the captaincies in Brazil were in Dutch hands. Governor Johan Maurits now found it opportune to mount an attack on Salvador, the Portuguese capital of Brazil. To that end, he put to sea on April 6, 1638, with 31 ships and nearly 5,000 men, including at least 800 native allies. After the troops had been disembarked a mile and a half from the town and after they had taken a few Portuguese forts, the battle of Salvador began. The defenders’ fighting power was unexpected and hostilities continued without the Dutch making much headway. The siege finally ended in a bloody denouement after forty days, when Johan Maurits ordered a battery that protected the town to be captured. Immediately prior to the actual assault, four hundred troops were ambushed by an equal number of enemy soldiers hiding in the bushes, which did not prevent the Dutch from trying to storm the breastwork. For hours, man-to-man fighting took place, and still the Dutch could not push through. According to a Portuguese source, 237 Dutchmen remained on the battlefield. Dutch morale took a hard knock.

Other Dutch losses were incurred on the high seas, where Spanish privateers enjoyed some of their best years between 1636 and 1639. But the trend was reversed in October 1639 at the Battle of the Downs, a momentous encounter that signaled the start of Spanish naval decline. On the English south coast, a battle raged that day between the Spanish war fleet (dubbed, once again, the second Armada) of 85 ships and 13,000 soldiers and 8,000 sailors under the command of Oquendo and the Dutch fleet of 95 ships led by Lieutenant Admiral Maerten Tromp and Vice Admiral Witte de With. Even though the Dutch losses were substantial, amounting to 10 ships and 1,000 men, they paled before the ruins that befell the Spanish navy. At least thirty-two Spanish ships were lost as well as 9,000-10,000 men, including virtually all the officers. These losses reverberated in the Americas. Deprived forever of their maritime supremacy, the Spanish hold on Peru was suddenly at risk. The viceroy of Peru wrote to his king on January 1, 1640, that the Dutch could make their way to Callao without being discovered. Residents and their families had therefore massively fled from Lima into the mountains, taking their valuables with them.

Was Dutch rule in Brazil then secure? The Iberians refused to think so. For years, the highest officials in the Spanish monarchy had committed themselves to sending another combined fleet to Brazil, but no new armada had been launched. Suspicious of the attempts by the Count-Duke of Olivares to integrate their country more fully into the Spanish state and blaming the Dutch conquests in Brazil on the union of Portugal with Spain, the Portuguese made no effort to collaborate on a new Brazilian campaign. In view of the lack of men and ships, Don Fadrique de Toledo, who had been chosen again as the armada commander, refused to be in charge any longer. A shouting match with the count-duke ensued, which led to Toledo’s fall from grace. Olivares had him put in jail, where he passed away a few months later.

At long last, a combined Hispano-Portuguese fleet of forty sail was organized in 1638 under the command of Fernando de Mascarenhas, Conde da Torre, with the ambitious goal of reconquering the Dutch part of Brazil. Now it was the Dutch population that panicked. Everywhere, settlers buried cash money, in particular silver Spanish reales. What the residents did not know was that mortality on board the Iberian fleet was so high that a military confrontation had to be postponed. After Torre had put to sea from Bahia in November 1639 with 87 sail, 4,000 sailors, and 5,000 soldiers, a naval battle lasting several days took place the following January, begun when Dutch Admiral Willem Cornelisz Loos went on the offensive. Although Loos was almost instantly killed, the Dutch bombarded their enemies for all but a week until they vanished from sight, devastated by hunger and thirst, and fighting unfavorable winds and the extreme heat. Only two Dutch ships were lost and no more than eighty Dutchmen had died.

These battles made it impossible for Spain to turn the tide in its war with the United Provinces. The maritime initiative in the war was no longer with the Spanish. The WIC, however, was also running out of steam, certainly in the Atlantic basin. After 1640, large Dutch privateering fleets, for so long a common sight, almost completely disappeared from the Caribbean. The last expedition of some size was that of Cornelis Jol, nicknamed Houtebeen (Pegleg; 1597-1641), intended to intercept a treasure fleet. He appeared off Havana with thirty-six ships, but he was left powerless by a hurricane on September 11, 1640. Several large ships were destroyed, killing sixty-three men on one ship alone, and around two hundred Dutchmen were made prisoner and sent to Spain. Although the treasure fleet could head safely for Spain, the year did not end well for the Habsburg monarchy. The two major naval defeats suffered at the hands of the Dutch had consequences on the Iberian mainland, contributing as they did to a climate in which the Portuguese decided to throw off the “Spanish yoke.” The Habsburg leaders had always been mindful of the tense crown union with Portugal, making conspicuous efforts to defend Brazil. The Count-Duke of Olivares had even made the restitution of Brazil an absolute condition for peace with the Dutch Republic. This stance could not prevent an uprising. On December 1, 1640, the Portuguese revolution broke out, and Spain could not contain it, in part because of another revolt in Catalonia. The Duke of Braganza ascended the throne as John IV, recognized immediately in all parts of the Portuguese empire.

The news from Lisbon was received with mixed feelings in the United Provinces and the Dutch colonies. On the one hand, the rupture between the Iberians was welcomed enthusiastically because it was thought to weaken the Spanish. On the other hand, the Dutch were involved in colonial wars with the Portuguese, so the Iberian disunion offered unprecedented possibilities. Abandoning Brazil or Elmina was obviously not negotiable; instead, the Dutch reasoned, this was the moment to grab from Portugal as much territory as possible before a truce was signed with the newly independent state. At least, that was the logic expressed by the Heren XIX, which was not altogether seconded by the Dutch political elite. The lack of a common front did not keep the Heren XIX from writing a letter to Johan Maurits in April that suggested quickly adding some conquest-taking Salvador was considered especially opportune-but the governor had already embarked, of his own accord, on the capture of the district of Sergipe del Rey and had succeeded brilliantly.

The next step encompassed more. The council of Brazil decided after ample debate to capture the port of Luanda in the Portuguese colony of Angola, replicating for southwestern Africa what had been achieved four years earlier in Elmina. The primary goal was to secure slaves for Dutch Brazil as well as hit the Spanish empire. Without slaves from Angola, the Dutch asserted, no silver mines could operate in Peru and Mexico. It was a variation on a theme heard often ever since the foundation of the WIC: we have to carry the war into the Atlantic world to make the silver stream run dry, thus crippling the engine of the Habsburg war machine.

Like the fleet that had invaded Elmina, the one designated to conquer Luanda set out from Recife. Led by Admiral Cornelis Jol, 21 ships transported 240 indigenous Brazilians and 2,717 Europeans (1,866 soldiers and 851 seamen). Military aid was expected from African nations, which were to be persuaded with gifts and other means to go to war against the Portuguese. The notion that the local people were enemies of the Spanish and the Portuguese and friends of the Dutch was not at all far-fetched in this part of Africa, where Sonho troops had helped the Dutch ward off an attack by Portuguese troops in 1612. In addition, both the king of Kongo and the count of Sonho had approached the Dutch about a military alliance against the Portuguese in the early 1620s. The new king of Kongo, Garcia II, was considered a strong potential ally according to a report drawn up by a WIC official with extensive knowledge of southwestern Africa. Brimming with information about the political, economic, and military situation in Luanda, the report would soon prove to be very useful.

The intruders had the element of surprise on their side. For many years, the Portuguese had counted on a Dutch attack, but they no longer did. In addition, the Dutch battle plan, based on intelligence provided by an imprisoned Spanish steersman, included a landing in between two gun batteries, something the defenders deemed impossible. The actual battle on August 25-26 was therefore brief and caused few casualties on either side. But although the victory came easy, consolidating the town was very hard. In the belief that their enemies were mostly interested in robbery and slaves, the response of the Portuguese residents to the Dutch takeover was to flee into the interior, preventing the Dutch from assuming control of a vibrant economy and introducing the foreigners to a guerrilla war.

One more task needed to be executed by Jol and his men. On September 17, they left Luanda to overpower Sao Tomé, the island in the Gulf of Guinea that the Dutch had briefly occupied forty years earlier. The plan was to make Sao Tomé a bridge connecting the new possessions in Angola to the trading posts in Guinea. With 664 soldiers, divided into five companies of Europeans and three companies of Brazilians, as well as 400 sailors, the admiral reached the island on October 2. After two weeks of fighting, which resulted in a steady decline of Dutch numbers, a castle was finally captured, which then enabled the conquest of the town of Sao Tomé without firing a single shot. As in Angola, the residents had absconded into the interior, leaving the Dutch army to languish in the capital city. Yellow fever killed Europeans and Brazilians alike, not sparing Jol himself. When forty soldiers defected to the Portuguese, leaving only eighty soldiers, many of whom were ill, in the Dutch camp, the invaders’ hold on the capital was doomed. In November 1642, the Portuguese entered again and the Dutch left. Their only small ray of hope was provided by the notion that the Portuguese were also vulnerable to disease, which kept them from chasing the Dutch from the island altogether.

In the year 1642, the Dutch empire in the Atlantic reached its greatest extent. In addition to Luanda and Sao Tomé, the Dutch had snatched from the Portuguese the captaincy of Maranhao in northern Brazil (November 25, 1641); Benguela, an Angolan port 600 kilometers south of Luanda (December 21, 1641); and fort Axim in West Africa (January 9, 1642). This was all done on the pretext that there was no truce with Portugal or-after that truce had been signed in The Hague on April 12, 1641-that no truce had been ratified or no confirmation of its ratification had been received. Imperial ambition was still alive and well in 1642. Apart from its suggestion to annex Maranhao, the WIC Chamber of Zeeland proposed an attack on Salvador- which was seen as weakened by the departure of Spanish and Neapolitan soldiers-and expeditions to capture Rio de Janeiro, Araya, St. Martin, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola. While none of these plans left the drawing board, what did materialize was a fleet that was to conquer Chile. Ideas about such a venture had first been discussed before the WIC was founded, but it was during a lull in the fighting in Brazil that a serious effort at conquest was initiated. An expeditionary naval force sailed from the Netherlands, first to Brazil, where it was reinforced with several ships, and then the whole fleet left Recife in January 1643. In charge of the expedition was Hendrick Brouwer (1581-1643), a former governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, who would not survive the expedition. Having rounded Cape Horn, Brouwer and his men arrived at the island of Chiloé and from there passed to the continent. They made contacts with the indigenous Mapuche and conceived plans to fight the common Spanish enemy. After a base was set up in Valdivia, the prospects seemed good. In the end, however, the expedition failed dismally. The Amerindians, who were essential to the strategy, could not be persuaded to form an alliance, the Dutch soon ran short of provisions, and a rumor circulated about a Spanish army that would soon arrive from the north.