- Amsterdam's Atlantic: Print Culture and the Making of Dutch Brazil by Michiel van Groesen
In Amsterdam's Atlantic, Michiel van Groesen traces the production, reception, and use of information about Brazil circulating in Amsterdam from the middle decades of the sixteenth century through the end of the seventeenth century. From a halting beginning, during which information about Brazil was produced outside the Low Countries and elicited only limited interest, Van Groesen shows that a "public Atlantic" (8) emerged and flourished in Amsterdam from 1623 to 1654. During this specific period of Dutch colonization efforts in Brazil, ordinary Amsterdammers produced and consumed vast quantities of information about Brazil and relentlessly discussed the colony orally and in print. Ultimately, a consensus developed within this "public Atlantic" that the colony was worth neither the blood nor the treasure that it would cost to keep, contributing heavily to the decision to surrender Brazil to the Portuguese. This capitulation detached Amsterdammers' perceptions of Brazil from their moment of colonization, as after 1654 Dutch discussions of Brazil became unmoored from the firsthand experiences that informed the preceding period. Brazil merged with the wider West Indies in the Dutch imagination, and the whole area was reimagined as strange and "savage," an image derived more from the limited information about Brazil that had been available in the sixteenth century than from the textual, visual, and literary output produced during the actual Dutch encounter with Brazil in the preceding decades.
Although the Dutch Atlantic in general and the short-lived Dutch colony in Brazil in particular remain somewhat obscure corners of the larger Atlantic world, Van Groesen's goal is to show both that Atlantic history should matter to Dutch historians and, in turn, that Dutch history should matter to Atlantic historians. In the former attempt, Van Groesen extends Benjamin Schmidt's argument that the image of America was important during the Dutch Revolt, even if the Dutch had little direct experience with America in the late sixteenth century, because the Dutch identified themselves with indigenous people living under Spanish tyranny.1 Here Van Groesen shows that the importance of America in Dutch print did not recede when the Dutch came into direct contact with it in the seventeenth century. Dutch Brazil was one of the most discussed subjects in Amsterdam, [End Page 811] and a great deal of ink was spilled both in support of and in opposition to the colony. Indeed, interest in Dutch Brazil changed the technology that circulated information in Amsterdam, leading to the invention of the news map and increasing the popularity of newspapers; it also revealed the factionalism and particularism that were endemic to the Dutch political system.
To Atlantic historians, Van Groesen offers the concept of the "public Atlantic." Because of the greater, though not complete, freedom of printing in the Dutch Republic, the sophistication of the printing industry, and—whether for reasons of patriotism, financial investment, or personal imbrication with colonists, soldiers, or seamen—the concentration of parties in Amsterdam interested in the fate of Dutch Brazil, the colony stimulated widespread, nearly unconstrained debate. For Van Groesen, there were two essential components to this "public Atlantic": passionate interest in developments in the colonial setting among ordinary people and the possibility that this public interest could influence policy decisions among elites. In effect, Van Groesen argues that Brazil's public sphere resided in Amsterdam rather than Recife, both because the colony lacked a printing press to generate and communicate information about itself and because policy was set in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam's Atlantic's first and final chapters bracket the efflorescence of Amsterdam's "public Atlantic," showing that though printed information about Brazil was significant in both the pre-1623 period and the post-1654 period, in the intervening years public engagement was most prevalent. A trickle of texts produced before the end of the Twelve Years' Truce in 1621 whetted Dutch appetites for a colony in Brazil by showing that navigation to it was possible and that the commodities there...