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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 June 2007, 11:06 GMT 12:06 UK
Dutch courage in Brazil
By Hugh O'Shaughnessy
BBC News, Brazil

Brazil's history might be more frequently associated with Portuguese rule than Dutch, but for 25 years from 1630, the Netherlands controlled 1,000 miles of coastline in the north-east of the country. Today the two countries are keen to preserve the Dutch connection.

Map of Brazil

St John's, a large medieval brick castle, stands with towers and crenellations within its moat where ducks quietly swim. A few hundred metres away rises The Picture Gallery, another handsome medieval brick building where a gaggle of excited schoolchildren gather under its august portal, waiting impatiently to enter.

The two buildings stand amid impeccable lawns and gurgling fountains, and they recall one of the better maintained properties of the National Trust in the home counties of England.

This is strange because we are beside the south Atlantic Ocean outside the city of Recife in Brazil, and the apparently medieval buildings have actually been up for less than a decade.

Beautiful landscapes

The castle contains an astonishing range of ancient weapons and armour - for horses as well as men - and other medieval artifacts.

Beside it, the gallery houses 20,000 books, paintings and other works of art.

It is the finest possible monument to one of the most intriguing moments of Western hemisphere history.

For 25 years from 1630, it was the Calvinist Netherlanders and not the Catholic Portuguese who held sway over this part of Brazil.

The Dutchmen at the peak of their power set up the West Indies Company to trade in slaves from Africa and goods across the south Atlantic, and Brazil was their market.

They came, captured 1,000 miles of coastland and set up in business.

For some years the Dutch governor was a cultivated and enlightened man called Jan Maurits of Nassau, who brought over the artist Frans Post. He created some lovely Brazilian landscapes in the Dutch style.

But the burghers of Amsterdam refused the company's appeal for new funds to resist Portuguese attempts to recover the land that their seafarers had discovered in 1500.

Had they come up with the money, Dutch and not Portuguese might still be spoken here today.

Preserving Dutch memory

But by 1655 the Hollanders were defeated and their language and culture disappeared from Brazil, keeping a foothold in South America only in Surinam to the north, which remains Dutch-speaking to this day.

The task of preserving the memory of the Netherlanders' moment of glory in Brazil has been adopted by the Brennand family who came here from Yorkshire at the beginning of the 19th Century.

They went into business, made several fortunes and constructed and now maintain the buildings, their priceless contents and the surrounding estate.

Ricardo Brennand, a sprightly man in his late 70s, takes great pleasure in greeting some of the tens of thousands of visitors his premises attract.

"I'm delighted that people come here from far and wide to see what we've got together," he tells me over coffee and cake in the gallery's cool and shaded cafe.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands
Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands visited Ricardo Brennand in Recife
He is proud to have had a visit from Queen Beatrix and Crown Prince Willem-Alexander.

But to be frank few people today either here or in the Netherlands are too bothered about the history of the south Atlantic in the 17th Century.

Restoration project

What is putting wind into the sails of the topic today is business.

The Brazilians see the Dutch connection as a fine way of tempting rich northern Europeans to their already popular holiday resorts.

Consequently many plans are being hatched to persuade airlines to maintain better connections.

Thought is also going into smartening up the architectural remains of the era such as the old Dutch forts. Here the Dutch garrisons waited, often in vain, for reinforcements and food from Holland.

Now Dutch experts are about to start on a big restoration project in this city.

Eduardo Campos, the governor of the Brazilian state of Pernambuco of which Recife is the capital, told me proudly that he had met the Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot. Both sides had agreed that Rotterdam, the world's largest port, would help to modernise Pernambuco's harbours.

So the wounds of fighting and occupation of 350 years ago are healing.

But they are not quite gone. In Olinda, a beautiful town, one of the earliest in Brazil and now a Unesco World Heritage site, I came across an old watchman employed to care for one of its oldest and most beautiful buildings. He showed me into a little painted chapel.

"This is really original," he said slowly, "from the mid 1500s. The rest had to be reconstructed after the Dutch captured Olinda and burnt it down in 1631."

Memories still die hard in north-eastern Brazil and some of them - despite the splendid efforts of the Brennand family - are tinged with a touch of unhappiness.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 2 June, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Brazil
12 May 07 |  Country profiles

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