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date: 23 March 2019

Dutch Atlantic

Summary and Keywords

The Dutch Atlantic is often ignored because for much of its history it was quite small and seemingly insignificant compared to other European colonies in the Americas. However, it began with extraordinarily ambitious conquests and colonizing schemes. The present-day Dutch Caribbean—St. Martin, Saba, Eustatius, Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire—is but the remnants of what was, in the first half of the 17th century, an empire that claimed large portions of Brazil, the Caribbean, North America, and Africa. Forged during the decades-long Dutch Revolt against Spain, this budding empire collapsed soon after the Dutch gained Independence in 1648. European powers that had been allies against the Spanish turned against the Dutch to dismantle their Atlantic empire and its valuable trade. A series of wars in the second half of the 17th century reduced the Dutch colonies to a handful of smaller outposts, some of which in the Caribbean remain Dutch to this day.

A recent wave of scholarship has emphasized the dynamism, ambition, and profitability of the Dutch Atlantic, whose fate reflected its origins in the small but dynamic Dutch Republic. Like the Republic, it was acutely sensitive to changes in international diplomacy: neither was ever strong enough to go entirely on its own. Also like the Republic, it was very decentralized. While most all of it was technically under the authority of the West India Company, a variety of arrangements in different colonies meant there was no consistent, centralized colonial policy. Moreover, like the Republic, it was never a purely “Dutch” affair. The native Dutch population was too small and too well employed by the Republic’s industrious economy to build an empire alone. As the Dutch Atlantic depended heavily on the labor, capital, and energy of many people who were not Dutch—other Europeans, some Americans, and, by the 18th century, a majority of Africans—colonial Dutch language and culture were overshadowed by those of other peoples. Finally, the Dutch Atlantic also depended heavily on trade with the other European colonies, from British North America to the Spanish Main.

The Dutch were expert merchants, sailors, manufacturers, and capitalists. They created Europe’s first modern financial and banking infrastructure. These factors gave them a competitive edge even as the rise of mercantilist laws in the second half of the 17th century tried to exclude them from other countries’ colonies. They also displayed a talent for a variety of colonial enterprises. New Netherland, covering the territory from present-day New York to Pennsylvania and Delaware, began as a fur-trading outpost in the 1620s. However, by the time it was captured by the English in 1664 it was rapidly becoming a “settler colonial society.” Suriname and Guyana developed profitable plantations and cruel slave societies. In Africa and the Caribbean, small Dutch outposts specialized in trade of all sorts, legitimate and not, including slaves, textiles, sugar, manufactures, and guns.

Although their territorial expansion ceased after 1670, the Dutch played an important role in expanding the sugar plantation complex of other empires, partly through their involvement in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Until the Age of Revolutions, the Dutch Atlantic remained a profitable endeavor, keeping the Dutch involved with Latin America from Brazil to Mexico. Venezuela in particular benefitted from easy access to Dutch traders based in Curaçao. Religion played a smaller, but still important role, legitimating the Dutch state and enterprises like the slave trade, but also opening up windows of toleration that allowed Jews in particular to gain a foothold in the Americas that was otherwise denied them. Although the surviving traces of the Dutch Atlantic are small, its historical impact was tremendous. The Dutch weakened the Spanish and Portuguese Atlantic Empires, opening up a path to Imperial power that would subsequently be seized by the French and British.

Keywords: Dutch, Trade, Brazil, New Netherland, Dutch Caribbean, Smuggling, Slave Trade, Empire, Religious Toleration, Trading Companies

Background, c. 1580–1620

Unlike the other European nations that colonized the Americas, the Dutch did not have a country of their own when they first went overseas. Instead, the Dutch Republic and the Dutch Atlantic (like Dutch Asia) came into being simultaneously as part of their struggle for independence from the Spanish Hapsburgs. Only after the Eighty Years’ War, lasting from 1568 to 1648, did the Hapsburgs finally recognize Dutch Independence. Before then, some Dutch had come to know the Iberian Atlantic as fellow Hapsburg subjects, either through travel or secondhand knowledge. The treasure of the Aztecs was displayed in Antwerp in the 1520s, for example. As a center of the European book trade, the Hapsburg Low Countries produced, circulated, and read many of the first important accounts of America. Indeed, after the struggle for independence began, Dutch propaganda compared Dutch suffering at the hands of the Spanish with that of the Indigenous peoples conquered by the Spanish in the Americas. The idea that they could form an alliance with Americans and even Africans against the Spanish and Portuguese (who belonged to the same monarchy 1580–1640) was influential in the first decades of Dutch expansion; on occasion, it even became a reality.1

The Dutch first engaged with Latin America through illicit trade and privateering. Then, in the 1590s, they launched ambitious expeditions against the Canary Islands and West Africa, although these attempts did not produce lasting results. After a truce was negotiated for twelve years (1609–1621), colonial ambitions had to be shelved, although trading contacts expanded. In the meantime, the East India Company (VOC) established the foundations of a Dutch empire in Asia. It not only monopolized Dutch trade with Asia, but funded outposts from India to Japan that were governed from the Dutch colonial capital of Batavia (modern Jakarta, Indonesia).2

Both trade and war guided the Dutch calculus in Latin America. In the late 16th century, they began trading on the so-called “Wild Coast” of the Guianas, and gathering salt, essential to their major North Sea fishing industry, at the Punta de Araya in Venezuela. An illicit trade in sugar marked the initial Dutch encounter with Brazil. In North America it was the fur trade that first attracted Dutch interest. Apart from sometimes building a small fort as a base, these endeavors were not intended to colonize new territory or peoples.

The “Dutch Moment,” 1621–1654

As the Twelve Years’ Truce expired, the Dutch formed the West India Company (WIC), a major trading and war-making company modeled after the VOC, with the goal of attacking Spanish America and carving out Dutch colonies. As a governing and warmaking machine, the WIC embarked on a breathtakingly ambitious set of endeavors over the next thirty years. Had it succeeded, the Dutch would have created a mighty Atlantic Empire linking North and South America, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. Initially aspiring to an almost complete monopoly on both governance and trade in the Dutch Atlantic, by the mid-17th century the WIC conceded free trade, with the exception of certain reserve goods and the slave trade.

In North America, initial fur-trading expeditions evolved into the colony of New Netherland, which claimed the territory between the Connecticut and Delaware River valleys after its first few colonists arrived in 1624. That same year in Latin America, Dutch colonization began with conquest. A surprise attack captured Brazil’s capital, Salvador da Bahia, but a Spanish and Portuguese expedition recaptured the city a year later. In the meantime, the Dutch raided the Spanish Caribbean and almost captured Puerto Rico. A fleet commanded by Piet Heyn actually captured the Spanish Treasure Fleet in 1628. The booty revived the flagging West India Company and allowed it to fund the conquest of Pernambuco in 1630. Years of fighting extended the Dutch conquests to include much of Brazil’s northeast, although a second effort to capture Salvador da Bahia failed. Curaçao, St. Martin, and St. Eustatius were also seized in the 1630s. Further expeditions in the 1640s captured the Portuguese African colonies of Sao Jorge da Minha, the island of Sao Tomé, and Angola. An attempted attack on Chile foundered after the Dutch alienated their potential Indigenous allies by revealing their desire for gold. Subsequent efforts to capture the Treasure Fleet and colonize the island of Tobago failed due to a mix of bad luck and Spanish and Indigenous resistance.

Dutch Brazil

At the heart of the Dutch Moment was the Dutch colony in Brazil, officially called New Holland. The profits of its sugar plantations made it an irresistible choice to both strike a blow against the Spanish foe and get rich quick. New Holland reached its maximum extent in the early 1640s, when it incorporated the northeast from Maranhão to Sergipe. In the event, only a few of the Dutch who migrated to Brazil managed to start plantations. Sugar plantations were complex and expensive enterprises. It took time to develop the knowledge and capital to run one successfully, and time was the one thing Dutch in Brazil lacked.

New Holland was a major colony containing about 13,400 people at its peak in 1645. The Dutch dependence on the land, labor, capital, and knowledge of non-Dutch people made it without question the most diverse corner of the Atlantic world. Just over 7,000 of its people were European. The Portuguese Catholic majority enjoyed more toleration than Catholics in many other parts of the Dutch world, as did its growing Jewish community (many of them of Portuguese extraction): the first in the Americas. Only some of the soldiers and other employees of the WIC were Dutch. The rest were German, French, Scandinavian, and English, with a smattering of individuals from elsewhere in Europe. About 3,500 Indigenous Brazilian nations served as allies, while around 2,600 Africans did much of the hard labor.3 Most were slaves of Angolan origin, but a few lived as free people, and a handful of them converted to Protestantism. Arguably the first Black Protestant community in the Americas developed in the colony’s principal city and port of Recife, but little effort was made to convert the vast slave population, which remained predominantly under the control of Portuguese Catholic masters. The Dutch did develop a fairly successful mission to their Indigenous allies, however.

The extraordinary character of Dutch Brazil is epitomized by the governorship of Johan Maurits van Nassau Siegen, a German aristocrat related to the leading aristocratic family in the Republic. Between 1637 and 1644 he presided over a courtly society the likes of which had not be seen in the Americas before, and would not be rivaled until the end of the 18th century. It included humanist scholars, scientists, and noted painters like Albert Eckhout and Frans Post. On the island of Antonio Vaz, across from Recife, Maurits built an estate and a town which he named Mauritstad and constructed the first astronomical observatory in the Americas. The Historia Naturalis Brasiliae, a major contribution to natural history was one of several important products of this era.4

This burst of cultural activity did not survive long after Maurits returned to Europe. In 1645 many of the Portuguese inhabitants revolted. One motive was to avoid having to pay their debts to the Dutch merchants who had been trading slaves and other goods to them on credit, which was about to fall due. Another was the rebels’ sympathy with the Portuguese struggle for independence from Spain that had begun in 1640. Within a year they had confined the Dutch to a few footholds on the coast. Nevertheless, Dutch superiority at sea allowed them to hold out for nine expensive years until Recife, the last bastion, was compelled to surrender in 1654. The costs of conquering and defending New Holland had almost driven the WIC into bankruptcy. Never again would it be so ambitious.

Enslaved Africans were unexpected beneficiaries of the upheaval the Dutch invasion brought to northeastern Brazil. Small communities of escaped slaves, known as quilombos, already existed on the frontier. The fighting between Dutch and Portuguese allowed hundreds more to escape and establish a powerful African-style kingdom known as Palmares, which survived into the 1690s.

Slave Trade

The Dutch had not ventured out into the Atlantic with the idea of becoming major slave traders. Indeed, for the first few years their privateers were not sure what to do with the enslaved Africans they captured from Portuguese ships. Generally, they sold them off to other colonists. In this manner the first African Americans arrived in Virginia. However, once they captured parts of Brazil they immediately recognized how essential the African slave trade was to that colony’s success and they even launched an expedition from Brazil (including Brazilian Indigenous allies) to conquer Angola and secure a steady supply of enslaved workers. While the Dutch failed to retain Angola or San Tomé for long, they held on to Elmina until 1872, using it as a key base of their slave trade from West Africa.5

The formal Dutch slave trade began in 1636 with shipments of people from Africa to Brazil and continued until it was abolished by royal decree in 1814. In the mid-17th century the Dutch played a leading role as slave traders, but gradually lost that eminence to French and British competition. In the end, the Dutch accounted for roughly 5 percent of the total Atlantic Slave Trade between the 16th and 19th centuries. After the loss of Dutch Brazil, many of the slaves carried into the Dutch Atlantic were sold on to other nations, with Curaçao serving as the primary entrepôt port to the Spanish. St. Eustatius served a similar function to the British and French. The development of the colonies of Suriname and Guyana after 1670 absorbed increasing numbers of slaves, however. The WIC was unable to fulfill the demand and opened up the trade within its territory to all Dutch merchants, and allowed Brazilians to trade in Dutch West Africa if they paid for a license. The Dutch slave trade peaked along with that of the British, in the second half of the 18th century. Although the Dutch never became the major slave traders that the British did, with their capital, maritime and commercial know-how, they helped streamline, render more efficient, and expand this horrible business.6

In the end, this more diffuse relationship to the slave trade meant there was no major Dutch debate about abolition comparable to what emerged in Britain and France. Instead, the disruption caused by the wars of the Age of Revolutions after 1780 sent the Dutch slave trade into decline. Subsequently, pressure from Britain facilitated the abolition of what was, by the 1810s, a largely moribund trade. Before then, however, it had been an important part of the economy of various port cities, especially in the province of Zeeland, who into the 1790s defended their participation in the trade.

New Netherland

Small in population and investment, but considerable in size, New Netherland centered on the Hudson River Valley. Its capital and principal port was New Amsterdam, at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. However, the economic heart of the colony lay at Fort Orange, (present-day Albany, New York), the center of the fur trade. Smaller outposts, The House of Good Hope on the Connecticut and Fort Nassau on the Delaware staked Dutch claims to those river valleys and tapped into their trade, but both were soon superseded by European competitors: English in Connecticut, Swedish in Delaware.

A sparsely populated trading colony of just a few hundred colonists until the late 1640s, New Netherland was unable to prevent these encroachments on its frontiers. The population grew, however, reaching around 7,500 by 1664. Most colonists lived in or near the towns of New Amsterdam and Fort Orange, in farming villages along the Hudson River. The initially good relations with their Indigenous trading partners declined after the area around New Amsterdam switched to agriculture.7 Conflicts with their Indigenous neighbors over land use, war, and dispossession resulted, beginning with Governor Kieft’s War in 1643–1645. However, it was their European neighbors who put an end to the colony. The Dutch managed to conquer New Sweden in 1655, but they lost their post on the Connecticut in 1653 during the first of three Anglo-Dutch Wars, and the whole colony to a 1664 English invasion that kicked off the second. The Dutch briefly recaptured the colony in 1673, during the third war, but restored it in the subsequent peace. Their former colony was then parceled out into New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

The Caribbean

The only lasting gains of this period were in the Caribbean. Small Dutch expeditions seized the islands of Curaçao, St. Martin, and St. Eustatius, and then the neighboring islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Saba. Initial hopes of turning some into tobacco colonies quickly faded. Only saltpans proved profitable until the Dutch managed to turn the first three islands into trading entrepôts after 1648.


A significant portion of the “Dutch” colonists was from other European countries, for the Dutch Republic itself was a highly urbanized society of immigrants. Unlike all the other European empires, it did not have a surplus population to export, but rather was absorbing immigrants from its neighbors. Individuals and families, mostly from the Holy Roman Empire, Scandinavia, and Britain came looking for work, joined by religious and political refugees from Iberia to Poland. All found a new home in this thriving commercial society. With their help, Amsterdam grew from a small town to a major European metropolis, and its ability and willingness to take in so many different people from so many different places made it famous across Europe. Not all parts of the Republic were equally welcoming of this diversity, however. The resulting mix of attitudes and policies combining cosmopolitan openness and provincial desire for ethnic and religious homogeneity extended to the colonies, making it difficult to generalize about a specific Dutch style of colonization.

The Dutch Republic’s ability to employ and even eventually assimilate immigrants was impressive, and the habit carried over to the colonies. In part, assimilation was facilitated because linguistic and national identities were not as distinct in the 17th century as they would be by the 19th. The Republic had been part of the Holy Roman Empire for centuries, and there was a degree of ethno-linguistic continuity that extended across its border into the neighboring German territories. Trading links with Britain and Scandinavia were also centuries old, so there was nothing new about Dutch and non-Dutch working together.

While many of the Dutch Atlantic colonists had not born or raised in the Dutch Republic, most of their employers and officers had been. Individuals from the poorer, less economically dynamic provinces of the Republic especially benefitted from the opportunities offered by the Dutch Atlantic. New Netherland’s last governor, Peter Stuyvesant, a minister’s son from Friesland who had earlier served in New Holland and Curaçao, is a good example of this pattern. Having acquired considerable lands in the colony, he stayed on after its conquest and died a wealthy New Yorker.

Most immigrants to the Dutch Atlantic colonies were male, recruited to work as soldiers, sailors, contract laborers, farmers, or commercial agents. Given the strength of the Dutch economy at home, there was not the surplus pool of labor that allowed the creation of a system of indentured servitude as in the English and French colonies. Instead, they had to be hired for wages. Women, especially innkeepers and sailors’ wives, proved instrumental in recruiting many of these men for colonial service by offering hospitality to job-seekers, and then encouraging their enlistment overseas to pay off debts accumulated when they could not otherwise find employment. As small-time traders and correspondents with husbands and kinsmen working overseas, they also played an important role in maintaining connections between the Republic and the colonies. Virtually all of the women came who came to the colonies did so in conjunction with one of these men, as soldiers’ wives for example. The authorities wanted a Dutch colonial population to develop, but they were leery about depending on people of low social origins to do so. The women in particular were subject to a great deal of social control and anxiety.

At times the reliance on non-Dutch Europeans undermined the Dutch colonial cause. The Portuguese inhabitants of Dutch Brazil overthrew their Dutch rulers as French soldiers deserted to the Portuguese side. English and Swedish inhabitants helped the English fleet capture New Netherland in 1664.

However, given time and stability, the Dutch proved remarkably capable of assimilating immigrants into their language and culture, both within the Republic and overseas. One of the reasons the “Pilgrim Fathers” who founded Plymouth colony in New England had left their place of refuge in Holland was that their children were assimilating. Many of the Dutch-speaking inhabitants of colonial New York were actually descendants of German, Scandinavian, French, and British people. A similar mix characterized the Dutch in the Caribbean colonies as well as South Africa. Afrikaans is the Dutch patois that developed between the Dutch rulers and the colonists, who were more German and French than Dutch, together with the non-Europeans they enslaved or otherwise forced to work for them. Similar patois had appeared for the same reason in Dutch Brazil and New Netherland.

Linguistic developments reflected the great predominance of people of African-origin that characterized the Dutch Atlantic by the 18th century. In Curaçao, an Afro-Portuguese creole, Papiamentu, became the main language, as did in Suriname an Afro-English creole, Sranantongo. Not until the 19th century would poverty and population growth turned significant numbers of Dutch into overseas emigrants, by which point they tended to go to the United States.

Religion and Toleration

The Dutch reputation as eager capitalists who cared little for religion as long as they could earn a profit has been overblown. True, the Dutch Republic was famous for its religious toleration, especially in comparison to its European neighbors. However, the WIC always insisted on the religious as well as economic character of its mission. Especially in the years of the “Dutch Moment,” it often had a militantly Calvinist and anti-Spanish quality that aspired to tear down the Roman Catholic empire of Spain and replace it with a Dutch empire of true religion. Moral and religious legislation was common in the Dutch colonies, where sexuality and marriage were often regulated with as much, if not more, severity than in the Republic. Education was also largely under the auspices of the Dutch Reformed Church; most teachers were, or were expected to be, church members, although educational opportunities were generally rudimentary at best.

Protestants had led the Dutch Revolt, and defending Protestantism had been one of its main causes—although a large number of the inhabitants of the Dutch Republic remained Roman Catholic. Consequently, the revolt ended the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church and replaced it with the Dutch Reformed Church, which was Presbyterian in organization and (largely) Calvinist in theology. However, the Dutch Reformed Church was not the established church of the Republic, in the sense that all inhabitants were required to attend its services and conform to its expectations. Instead, it was what the Dutch called the “Public Church.” It had a privileged position and state support, but it could not claim a monopoly on the faith of the inhabitants of the Dutch world. Liberty of conscience was enshrined as a right in the fundamental constitution of the Republic, the 1579 Union of Utrecht. Nothing like the Spanish Inquisition or English church courts existed to enforce religious orthodoxy and conformity. Consequently, one could live fairly comfortably in the Dutch world without having to be a member of the Public Church.

The Public Church, the Dutch Reformed Church, had a distinctly Calvinist character. This orthodoxy was established just before the Dutch Atlantic colonization began, at the Synod of Dort in 1618. Consequently, there were no major crises within the colonial Church. It remained a stable institution strongly supported by the WIC. True, by the late 17th century differences of opinion between more liberal and hardline Calvinists began to trickle over from the Republic. Still, in most respects the Dutch Reformed Church was compatible with other Presbyterian and Calvinist churches, be they English, Scottish, or Huguenot. Dutch Reformed colonists in New Netherland got along very well with New England Puritans.

Overseas, the system of a Public Church initially offered more toleration than other European colonies. Among the effects of this toleration was to allow Jews, who were not permitted into any of the other colonies, to gain a permanent foothold in the Americas as Jews, and not conversos, crypto-Jews, or people who otherwise had to hide their Jewish ancestry and religion. However, by the second half of the 17th century, with the development of English colonies like Rhode Island and Pennsylvania that rejected any sort of formal religious establishment and offered (at least in theory) religious toleration to all Christians, Dutch toleration seemed less impressive.

The unusual arrangement of a Public Church rendered it difficult to move beyond the initial arrangement, hence the Dutch Reformed Church enjoyed its privileged position in all of the Dutch colonies into the 19th century. While those who were not Dutch Reformed were not persecuted, only occasionally were they granted the right to worship openly, in the public sphere (worshipping in the private sphere of one’s home was generally permitted). Dutch Brazil, where the Portuguese Catholic majority and the Jewish minority were granted these rights, was the most extreme case (although it did not extend toleration to the many Lutherans working for the WIC). New Netherland, on the other hand, resisted efforts by Lutherans, Baptists, and Quakers to openly worship separately from the Public Church. In the Caribbean colonies, Roman Catholicism was generally suppressed until the 1780s. Lutherans did not begin to receive public toleration until the 1740s. Here, Curaçao was a major exception, as the Dutch work with asiento traders, starting in the second half of the 17th century, required them to allow Catholic priests onto the island.8 In the 18th century, Roman Catholicism became the religion of the non-white majority on the island.

Struggle, Survival, and Transformation, 1654–1713

Arising at, and benefiting from, a particular moment in European geopolitics, the Dutch Atlantic was especially sensitive to changes in European diplomacy. Unfortunately for the Dutch, mid-17th century Europe underwent a radical series of political changes that undermined their Atlantic empire. Having secured their independence in 1648, the Dutch no longer regarded Spain as the great enemy but rather a possible ally and a trading partner, as it allowed the Dutch on Curaçao asiento rights to trade slaves to its colonies.

Now the threats came from the former allies of the Dutch. English envy of Dutch wealth and power led to several Anglo-Dutch wars targeting Dutch trade and colonies between 1652 and 1674. The French almost overran the Dutch Republic in 1672, and captured a number of its colonies (though most were eventually returned in the 1678 peace treaty). Under this pressure, the West India Company went bankrupt in 1674, to be replaced by a second, leaner, WIC.

The Dutch Atlantic story of these years is not entirely one of loss. An expedition from Zeeland, independent of the WIC, conquered the English colony of Suriname in 1667. Sugar planters from Barbados had developed Suriname after running out of land on the island. Although many of the English left after the conquest, the Dutch eventually managed to develop Suriname into a major plantation colony.


The establishment of a permanent Jewish community in the Americas was one of the more notable outcomes of the Dutch Atlantic. Iberians whose ancestors were converso, converted Jews, had been involved with trade to West Africa and Latin America since the 16th century. Brazil in particular, which did not have a permanent Inquisition (although there were visits), proved safer for such individuals than other parts of the Iberian world. By the turn of the 17th century, individuals connected to Atlantic trade were joining other people of Jewish descent in Amsterdam to form the first free and openly recognized Jewish community in the Dutch Republic. Generally referred to as “the Portuguese nation,” these Jews were excluded from many aspects of the WIC’s operations. However, Jews were encouraged to help colonize Dutch Brazil, which early on developed a Jewish community based in Recife.

With the fall of Dutch Brazil, the Recife community disbanded and dispersed around the Dutch Atlantic. Eventually, by the 1670s, Jewish communities were reestablished in Curaçao and Suriname, which remained important centers of Jewish American life into the 19th century. Most of these Jews worked as merchants, but in Suriname a number also became plantation owners. Indeed, a small Afro-Jewish community emerged in late 18th century Suriname from the descendants of Jewish men and African women. The Dutch connection through Amsterdam and the colonies also facilitated the establishment of the first Jewish communities in the English Atlantic in the second half of the 17th century.


The wars and confusion of these years facilitated the growth of distinct communities of people of African descent in Suriname, parts of Guyana, and the Venezuelan coast. Whether in war or peace, enslaved people managed to escape beyond the reach of the Dutch. The dense and difficult jungle in the interior of Suriname was an important shelter for sizeable maroon communities that have survived into the present, preserving a strong element of African culture. This was also true to a much lesser extent in Guyana, where slaves often did better by escaping to Spanish territory. A number of “maritime maroons” did the same from Curaçao, establishing a community on the Venezuelan coast that lasted into the 19th century.

Atlantic and Pacific Worlds

In the meantime, the Atlantic world lost the prominent position it had held in Dutch consciousness during the “Dutch Moment.” In the late 17th century, Holland’s still vibrant printing industry switched from printing texts specifically about Dutch American colonies toward more generic portrayals of the “exotic” people and places from around the world, most of whom lived free of Dutch authority. Dutch merchants also developed new trade links across the Americas, from New England to Argentina, only some of which had ties to the Dutch colonies.

Although Dutch scholarship generally treats the worlds of the WIC and VOC separately, there were some connections, personal and mercantile. The father of Jan van Riebeeck, the man who founded the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa in 1652, had served in Brazil, and occasionally individuals served in both the Dutch Atlantic and Pacific. Coffee came to Suriname from Java (via Amsterdam). Cotton textiles and cowries shells from Asia were essential to the West African trade. Sugar from Asia began to compete with Atlantic sugar, and finally supplanted it in the mid-19th century.

The Inter-Imperial Atlantic, 1713–1779

In these years, the Dutch turned decisively to what they have long been famous for: an empire of trade. Curaçao flourished by trading with the Spanish colonies, especially for cacao from Venezuela. In the second half of the century, St. Eustatius became a bustling entrepôt linking Europe, the Caribbean, and the North American colonies.

In the flourishing plantation colonies of Suriname and Guyana, sugar was the most important crop, but coffee was also important in Suriname. Trade with British North America for food, supplies, and horses was essential to Suriname’s prosperity, as it was for all the Dutch colonies, none of which grew enough food to sustain itself. Guyana existed as three separate colonies organized around three of its principal rivers: Berbice, Demerera, and Essequibo. Governed under distinct arrangements with the WIC, each followed its own policies, which included keeping out Jews and, by the second half of the 18th century, letting in British planters fleeing the depleted soils of the Caribbean.

While the Dutch Atlantic remained profitable in these years, the economy of the Republic remained fairly stagnant, as did its culture and politics. Its army and navy were reduced in size. Altogether, the Dutch lost the ability to compete when inter-imperial tensions turned violent, as they did at the end of the 18th century.

Diminishment, 1780–1815

The Age of Revolutions withered away the Dutch empire of trade, which had thrived on a fairly stable set of relations between European states and their Atlantic empires. Dutch efforts to remain neutral and continue trading with British North Americans after they revolted against their empire in 1775 eventually provided the British with the excuse for declaring war on them in 1780. The Dutch were too weak to stop the British from capturing and sacking St. Eustatius, the Dutch Guyana colonies, several outposts in Asia, and all their bases in Africa save Elmina.

Even more serious consequences for the Dutch Atlantic followed the outbreak of revolution in France. Weakened and divided between pro-British and pro-French factions, the Dutch Republic failed to maintain its independence and lost control of its colonies. Dutch radicals allied with French revolutionaries to conquer the Republic in 1795, creating a new Batavian Republic (1795–1805) under French protection. Napoleon briefly declared it the Kingdom of Holland (1806–1810) before absorbing it into France (1810–1813). After the allied armies of Britain, Russia, and the German states drove out the French, Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg were joined into one United Kingdom of the Netherlands, ruled by a king from the Dutch aristocratic house of Orange.

The political tergiversations in Europe undermined Dutch control of their colonies, as did the colonies’ engagement with the broader revolutionary currents, in which colonists and slaves aspired to more liberty.9 However, since most of the Dutch colonies from South Africa to the Caribbean were progressively conquered and seized by the British after 1795, their revolutionary experience was limited. The Dutch did not regain uncontested sovereignty over their colonies until 1815, at which point they agreed to permanently cede their Guyanese, South African, and several Asian colonies to the British. Their involvement with the slave trade had largely ceased, making it fairly easy to abolish the trade in 1814. The Dutch then supported British efforts to suppress the slave trade—more a sign of how much the Dutch Atlantic now depended on the British than an indication of changing morality. After all, slavery itself was not abolished in the Dutch West Indian colonies until 1863. Even then, an apprenticeship period followed until 1873 before all people were free.

Elmina remained Dutch, presiding over a small but steady trade increasingly dominated by Brazilians. Unhealthy and unpopular for European colonists, the Dutch finally reasoned it was not worth holding onto and sold it to the British in 1872.10

As the Dutch Atlantic went into decline, traces of it persisted in North America. There, descendants of the New Netherland colonists preserved their language and some culture with the help of their Dutch Reformed Church. Under the British Empire, some of them had maintained trading contacts with the Dutch Atlantic. Dutch was still spoken in parts of the Hudson Valley, from Brooklyn and northern New Jersey up to Albany, into the first decades of the 19th century, giving Dutch culture a much stronger legacy here than anywhere else in the Dutch Atlantic. The Portuguese had driven the Dutch out of Brazil, apart from a handful of individuals who assimilated into their culture. The rest of the colonies had such a thin element that instead of a Dutch legacy, the Dutch Atlantic created distinct African and creole cultures.

Slave Revolts

The second half of the 18th century witnessed three major slave revolts. Before then, several smaller revolts had taken place. Early Suriname and Guyana had enslaved Native Americans, provoking a major war in the late 17th century, after which the number of these slaves decreased dramatically (although enslaving them remained legal until the late 18th century). The size of the African communities in the Dutch Atlantic, and their relative lack of creolization (outside of Curaçao and the Leewards), gave the major revolts that hit Suriname in 1757–60 and Berbice in 1763–1764 a strong African flavor. The major revolt that hit Curaçao in 1795, on the other hand, was more inspired by the French and Haitian revolutions. In all of these cases, the population of African descent was divided: a number cooperated with the Dutch as they brutally suppressed these revolts.

Discussion of the Literature

Dutch Atlantic history remains a distinct stepchild to the much larger field of East India Company and Dutch Asia research. Research on the early Dutch Atlantic is hampered by the fact that most of the papers of the first West India Company were sold as scrap paper in the 19th century. Until recently, the most influential scholar of the Dutch Atlantic was the English historian Charles R. Boxer. Boxer, who studied the Iberian empires as well, wrote what remains the best single-volume study of Dutch Brazil as well as the early Dutch Empire more broadly. Otherwise, since few other individuals had the Dutch language skills necessary to do the requisite research, much of the little that was written about the Dutch Atlantic was primarily done by Dutch scholars who focused on trade and the West India Company. Some debated whether or not the Dutch even had an Atlantic world, it seemed so small and weak.

Nevertheless, local historians in those parts of the Americas that had been colonized by the Dutch appreciated their importance. In both Brazil and the United States, small bodies of work developed with the aid of projects that translated Dutch sources into Portuguese and English. The smaller, poorer Caribbean colonies did not have the resources to develop a comparable body of scholarship on their own. Suriname has benefitted from a small but steady stream of interest in its unusual social dimensions, from the Jewish plantation community to the Maroon communities of former slaves.

Over the past two decades, a new wave of scholarship on the Dutch Atlantic has emerged, led by a handful of Dutch historians, like Wim Klooster, who took an interest in the Dutch Atlantic, especially in the realms beyond New Netherland and New Holland. Encouraged by the developing field of Atlantic History, they looked especially at themes of inter-imperial trade and smuggling to demonstrate just how vibrant and commercially important the territorially tiny Dutch Caribbean presence was. Mark Meuwese brought another developing field, Native American history, into the study of the Dutch Atlantic. Jaap Jacobs and Willem Frijhoff have integrated the study of New Netherland within the institutional and religious history of the Dutch Republic.

More recently, a generation of scholars, including Americans who have learned Dutch, has produced works on the cultural and social history of the Dutch Atlantic. Religion, toleration, slavery (African and Indigenous), sexuality, and marriage have all received book-length studies, although not all of them have yet been published.11 These scholars are cooperating with, and benefiting from, the work of the Dutch scholars to build the study of the Dutch Atlantic into an unprecedented state of strength and vibrancy that is gradually gaining respect among its more developed neighboring fields.

Primary Sources

Van Baerle, Caspar. The History of Brazil under the Governorship of Count Johan Maurits of Nassau, 1636–1644, trans. and ed. Blanche T. van Berckel-Ebeling Koning (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011).Find this resource:

Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Oude West-Indische Compagnie (OWIC), nummer toegang [1621–1674].

Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Tweede West-Indische Compagnie (WIC), nummer toegang [1674–1791].

Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Staten-Generaal, nummer toegang 1.01.02, “Liassen West Indische Compagnie, 1623–1795,” Incoming ordinary letters and papers inventories 5751A-5815 and Incoming secret letters and papers, 1704–1795, inventories 5816–5817.

Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Sociëteit van Suriname, nummer toegang 1.05.03 [1682–1795].

Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Oud Archief Suriname: Raad van Politie, nummer toegang

Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Curaçao, Bonaire, and Aruba, 1707–1828, nummer toegang

Zeeuws Archief, Inventory 20, Comercie Compagnie van Middelburg or Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie.Find this resource:

Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

Archief van de Classis Amsterdam van de Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk, Inventory 379, especially in 379.2 Gedeputeerden voor Buitenlandse Kerken, 1636–1804.

Notarissen ter Standplaats Amsterdam.

Inventory # 5075.

Further Reading

Boxer, Charles Ralph. The Dutch in Brazil, 1624–1654. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957.Find this resource:

Boxer, Charles Ralph. The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600–1800. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990.Find this resource:

Brienen, Rebecca Parker. Visions of Savage Paradise: Albert Eckhout, court painter in colonial Dutch Brazil. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Cohen, Robert. Jews in Another Environment: Suriname in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century. Leiden: Brill, 1991.Find this resource:

Fatah-Black, Karwan. The Dutch Caribbean and Guianas,” Oxford Bibliographies Online 2017.Find this resource:

Goslinga, Cornelis Ch. The Dutch in the Caribbean and the Wild Coast, 1580–1680. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1971.Find this resource:

Goslinga, Cornelis Ch. The Dutch in the Caribbean and in the Guianas, 1680–1791. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1985.Find this resource:

Haefeli, Evan. New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Jacobs, Jaap. The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Kars, Marjoleine. Dutch Atlantic World,” Oxford Bibliographies Online 2016.Find this resource:

Klooster, Wim. The Dutch Moment: War, Trade, and Settlement in the Seventeenth Century Atlantic World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Klooster, Wim, and Geert Oostindie. Realm between Empires: The Second Dutch Atlantic, 1680–1815. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018.Find this resource:

Klooster, Wim, and Gert Oostindie, eds. Curaçao in the Age of Revolutions, 1795–1800. Leiden: KITLY Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Koot, Christian J. Empire at the Periphery: British Colonists, Anglo-Dutch Trade, and the Development of the British Atlantic, 1621–1713. New York: New York University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Meuwese, Mark. Brothers in Arms, Partners in Trade: Dutch–Indigenous Alliances in the Atlantic World, 1595–1674. Leiden: Brill, 2012.Find this resource:

Postma, Johannes Menne. The Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600–1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Ribeiro da Silva, Filipa. Dutch and Portuguese in Western Africa: Empires, Merchants and the Atlantic System, 1580–1674. Leiden: Brill, 2011.Find this resource:

Romney, Susanah Shaw. New Netherland Connections: Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in Seventeenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2014.Find this resource:

Rupert, Linda. Creolization and Contraband: Curacao in the Early Modern Atlantic World. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Schmidt, Benjamin. Innocence Abroad: The Dutch Imagination and the New World, 1570–1670. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Van Groesen, Michiel, ed. The Legacy of Dutch Brazil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Van Groesen, Michiel. Amsterdam’s Atlantic: Print Culture and the Making of Dutch Brazil. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.Find this resource:

Van Groesen, Michiel. “Dutch Brazil.” Oxford Bibliographies Online 2018.Find this resource:

Wiznitzer, Arnold. Jews in Colonial Brazil. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.Find this resource:

Yarak, Larry W. Asante and the Dutch, 1744–1873. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.Find this resource:


(3.) Victor Enthoven, “Dutch Crossings: Migration between the Netherlands and the New World, 1600–1800,” Atlantic Studies 2, no. 2 (2005): 153–176.

(5.) Elmina is the Anglo-Dutch name for the Portuguese fortress, São Jorge da Mina, built on the coast of today’s Ghana (then known as the Gold Coast) to secure Portuguese control of the region’s gold and slave trade.

(8.) The asiento was an official license needed to trade slaves from Africa to the Spanish colonies. Since Spanish merchants could not meet the demand, it was granted to from other countries, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and eventually the British in the 18th century.

(11.) Among others, see the forthcoming work by Danny Noorlander, Deborah Hamer, and Carolyn Arena.