John Maurice of Nassau

John Maurice of Nassau (1604-1679) was a Dutch military officer whose rise to power paralleled Dutch ascendancy in the Atlantic; his years as governor general of Netherlands Brazil marked the apogee of Dutch authority in South America.

John Maurice, who bore the title Count of Nassau-Siegen, was born on June 17, 1604, in the family castle at Dillenberg, Germany, scion of a famous European family. He received a thorough Calvinist education at Herborn, Basel, and Geneva. As early as 1620 he took up arms with the Protestants in the Thirty Years War; by 1626 he reached the rank of captain, and 3 years later he was promoted to colonel. Meanwhile, Dutch power was spreading through the North and South Atlantic. In 1630 Dutch arms triumphed in Recife, and the Dutch West India Company seized northeastern Brazil. From that powerful company, John Maurice accepted the post of governor general of Netherlands Brazil in 1636 and disembarked in Recife, its capital, on Jan. 23, 1637.

John Maurice presided over the most fruitful years of Dutch occupation, 1637-1644. He successfully expanded Dutch occupation from Maranhão to the São Francisco River, to govern nearly half of the effective territory of Brazil at that time. Captivated by the beauty of Brazil, the governor general put to work some 46 scholars, scientists, and artists to study and to depict the land. He was representative of a curiosity the Dutch displayed toward the tropics, a curiosity which the Iberians hitherto had lacked. That curiosity prompted the Dutch to make the first and for a long time the only scientific study of the tropics. Albert Eckhout and Frans Post painted magnificent canvases portraying the Dutch colony. Willem Piso studied tropical diseases and their remedies. Georg Marcgraf made collections of fauna, flora, and rocks. The Dutch maintained an aviary as well as zoological and botanical gardens. The first European astronomical observatory and meteorological station in the New World were built by the Dutch in Brazil.

Economic matters quite naturally commanded much of John Maurice's attention as well. In an endeavor to avoid monoculture, he tried to make the colony self-supporting in foodstuffs. By reducing taxes and providing liberal credit terms to planters to rebuild ruined sugar mills and to buy slaves, he rehabilitated the sugar industry, which was well on its way to recovery from the ravages of fighting when he left. The Dutch profited from the most productive sugar-producing region in the world during the first half of the 16th century.

With genuine sadness John Maurice returned to Europe in 1644. He fought again in the Thirty Years War. In 1647 the elector of Brandenburg named Maurice governor of Cleves. He died in Cleves on Nov. 20, 1679.

Further Reading on John Maurice of Nassau

Information on the life of John Maurice is in Pieter Geyl, The Netherlands Divided, 1609-1648 (trans. 1936) and Orange and Stuart (1939; trans. 1969), and in Nina Brown Baker, William the Silent (1947).