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  • Amsterdam’s Atlantic: Print Culture and the Making of Dutch Brazil by Michiel van Groesen
  • Murdo J. MacLeod
Amsterdam’s Atlantic: Print Culture and the Making of Dutch Brazil. By Michiel van Groesen (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) 265pp. $48.00

Van Groesen uses early seventeenth-century Amsterdam, then one of the largest European commercial and political centers, to demonstrate the rise of participation in news consumption and politics among previously marginalized sectors of the population: “I take the Dutch Atlantic out of the customs houses and into the coffee houses” (10). He demonstrates the coeval rise of a print culture, especially news sheets. Officialdom made an attempt at censorship, but in this case, the increase in literacy and the increase in printed materials were linked.

The story begins with the increased interest in the Atlantic world that corresponded with the founding of the Dutch West Indies Company, which was hoped to rival the powerful Dutch East Indies Company. During the years between 1578 and 1622, the population of the city more than tripled. When a peace treaty with Spain expired, the Dutch regarded Brazil as a potential colony. After a Dutch fleet captured Bahia in 1623, Brazil quickly emerged as a major topic of popular interest. The West Indies Company, which had begun to manage the news, turned the event into a major triumph. Bahia was celebrated in poetry, as well as in Reformed Church sermons. But Spain’s recapture of Bahia failed to create much of a stir, as did the subsequent seizure of Recife and Olinda by the Dutch in 1636. As van Groesen puts it, “The media frenzy surrounding the first invasion was missing” (72). A lesson had been learned, but despite the grim living conditions in these remote locations, a glimmer of hope remained that colonial expansion and a sugar industry would thrive. To general satisfaction, Count Johan Maurits of Nassau became governor general of the Brazilian holdings in 1637.

Despite expansion in Brazil and Africa, news and popular sentiment began to show signs of conflict. Slavery and religious tolerance attracted heated debate, and the issue of free trade sparked “one of the most bitter pamphlet wars of the Dutch Golden Age” (118). Confidence in the [End Page 262] economy flagged, and share prices fell during the 1640s, inflicting heavy losses on investors. Maurits was recalled, and a revolt against Dutch rule in Brazil led to surrender in 1654. “The print media suddenly fell silent” (128). Denial and disbelief throughout Holland soon turned to a search for culprits. The West Indies Company shouldered some of the blame, for being too greedy, as did the Jesuits and the Portuguese for violating a truce. Everyone suspected widespread corruption. In the general furor, van Groesen observes, “Brazil vanished as rapidly from public debate as it had arisen” (155).

Chapter 6, “Recollection,” treats the ways in which the past of Dutch Brazil was reconstructed. Maurits emphasized the tolerance and cosmopolitanism in Recife society under his administration, claiming that the decline and loss of the colony took place after his departure. What van Groesen brands as “exoticism” was common in paintings and literature. Heroes such as Piet Heyn, a Dutch privateer and eventual director of the West Indies Company, became almost mythical figures. Van Groesen believes that a society dominated by intense discussion “simply spun out of control” (189).

Van Groesen’s analysis of Amsterdam and its society is convincing, his material about other nations less so. Iberian interest in both the Caribbean and the broader Atlantic was intense early in the sixteenth century, and the Elizabethan pirates, slavers, and explorers were also aware of the wider Atlantic. Van Groesen’s attempt to highlight the Dutch significance in early Atlantic history is certainly worthwhile. But he might have at least presented a comparative overview, especially from Brazilian writers, of how the Dutch conducted themselves in Brazil. Nonetheless, the book makes valuable contributions to several fields of study. Van Groesen shows the development of popular participation in politics and the rise of interest in mass psychology, and he offers an early example of the emergence of print media and official attempts to control it. He joins a modern...


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