- Amsterdam's Atlantic: Print Culture and the Making of Dutch Brazil by Michiel Van Groesen
Michiel van Groesen's well-researched and engagingly written study will be compelling reading for anyone with an interest in the circulation of information in early modern Europe, mainly but not only in print. Although the wealth of evidence presented in the book underlines the specificity and even uniqueness of early seventeenth-century Amsterdam as a major "information hub" whose characteristic "discussion culture" [End Page 590] provided a particularly hospitable environment for the elaboration of "public opinion," the work's skillful handling of a range of media stands as a model of interdisciplinary scholarship in an area of inquiry—the flow of information across the Atlantic in the early days of European colonization—with broad relevance. Indeed, Van Groesen's occasional attention to the role played by overtly artistic genres (songs, plays, heroic biographies) as well as his brief concluding reflections on the transatlantic circulation of news to other European states offers clear and inviting research pathways to scholars working in the literary field in seventeenth-century England, France, Spain, and beyond.
Amsterdam's Atlantic is organized more or less chronologically, with a central core of four chapters that offer a detailed account of the circulation of news in Amsterdam about the Dutch colony in Brazil from the capture of Salvador de Bahia in May 1624 up through the capitulation of Taborda in January 1654. These are bookended by chapters that consider the more diffuse visions of Brazil that were inherited from, and then, in changed form, bequeathed to historians of the region. Van Groesen is particularly interested in uncovering and explaining the relationship between the interests of those charged with administrating the colony, on the one hand, and public opinion about the colony, on the other. This necessitates an exposition of the strategic aims of the West India Company, of the Amsterdam City Council, and of their respective agents during the thirty-year period of the colony, alongside an investigation into how printed media served to articulate, to further, to question, or to undermine those aims in the public sphere. The juxtaposition of official policy and public opinion frames Van Groesen's demonstration of "the relevance of Atlantic history for the Dutch Republic … [and] the relevance of the Dutch Republic for Atlantic history" (9).
The book's introduction, a model of clarity, adeptly situates the major players and provides a comprehensive picture of the means and modes of the production and the circulation of information about Dutch Brazil in early modern Amsterdam, complete with city maps of the period that show the relative proximity of printing shops, government offices, sailors' hangouts, and formally recognized spaces for public discussion. Van Groesen's explicit acknowledgment here of the peculiarities of seventeenth-century Amsterdam—as a dominant player in a decentralized political system with a thriving print industry, a highly literate population, and a well-developed [End Page 591] debate culture—serves simultaneously to show why the city provides such a promising object of study and to underline why the specific conclusions drawn from studying it cannot easily be generalized to other contexts. The culture of debate in particular, which implicated an extremely wide range of actors from political officials to the lettered elite to an unusually well informed populace, is crucial to the process of the "making of Dutch Brazil" as Van Groesen describes it.
The book's first chapter assesses the state of Amsterdammers' knowledge about Brazil on the eve of Dutch involvement there. Most of what was available, such as costume books and Hans Staden's account of his captivity, was part of a shared European stock of images that articulated no clear program for Dutch initiatives in the Habsburg colony. Therefore, argues Van Groesen, when the West India Company was founded in 1621, public opinion about the enterprise remained to be shaped. In the four chapters that follow, he provides a richly documented account of the various print publications that mediated Amsterdammers' experience of Dutch Brazil...