Recife​—A City Made by Sugar


“GOLD, glory, and gospel” were not the only driving forces behind the colonization of the Americas. Europe’s gentry was hungry for sugar. Beginning in the mid-15th century, revenue from this costly delicacy grown on the islands of the Atlantic had been flowing into Portuguese coffers. So in 1516, Portuguese King Manuel I decided to establish sugar production in his New World territories.

Although the first mills appeared in southern Brazil, what was then the province of Pernambuco, * located in northeast Brazil, became the center of a new sugar civilization. Its warm climate, copious rainfall, gentle slopes, and fertile, silt-enriched soil all favored growth of sugarcane. Coastal tropical forests melted away as plantations spread up the hills and onto the plateaus around the Capibaribe River delta.

By 1537 a tiny colony of sailors and fishermen was established. It was perched precariously on the tip of the narrow isthmus stretching southward from Olinda, then the capital of Pernambuco. Flanked on the west by the Capibaribe River and sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean by a wall of coral reefs on its eastern side, this natural port became known as Povo dos Arrecifes (Village of the Reefs) and later as Recife. It was here that produce transported downriver from the sugar estates was stored while awaiting embarkation for Europe.

News of Pernambuco’s prosperity soon attracted unwelcome visitors. First, French pirates in 1561 and then the English merchant Sir James Lancaster, sometimes referred to as a pirate, in 1595 captured and pillaged Recife. Lancaster reportedly set sail after loading with booty his own fleet and another 12 ships “borrowed” from French and Portuguese merchants. Forts were built on the isthmus between Recife and Olinda to deter subsequent attacks but to little avail.

 The Sugar War

By the early 17th century, Pernambuco, then under the Spanish crown, was the largest and richest sugar-producing area in the world, boasting 121 mills. Recife had become the busiest port in Portuguese America.

Europe had developed a sweet tooth for Brazilian sugar, most of it refined in Holland. In 1621 the end of the truce between Holland and Spain put this profitable trade in jeopardy. The Dutch West India Company (hereafter called the Company), had been awarded a trading monopoly with Africa and America that same year. The Company proposed a solution in a document revealingly entitled “Reasons Why the West Indies Company Should Wrest Brazil From the King of Spain as Soon as Possible,” which was accompanied by the “List of What Brazil Can Produce.” The Sugar War was about to begin!

On February 14, 1630, a fleet of 65 ships under the flag of the Company appeared on Pernambuco’s horizon and after a brief struggle planted its flag on Brazilian soil. To the invaders Recife with its forts, neighboring islands, and rivers seemed safer than Olinda’s hills and open spaces. So, on November 25, 1631, the Dutch burned Olinda to the ground and moved their administrative headquarters to Recife. It was a turning point in Recife’s development.

Land being scarce, the settlement grew vertically to accommodate the influx. Tall, thin, two- and three-story sobrados, or houses, characteristic of European capitals of the time were constructed with material salvaged from Olinda’s ruins. By 1637, though, there was practically no vacant land left in Recife. That was when the new governor-general, German Count John Maurice of Nassau, arrived with plans to build the most cosmopolitan and advanced city in South America.

 The Town Maurice Built

Mauricia, as he named it, took just seven years to construct and was planned along European lines, complete with paved roads, a marketplace, palaces, a zoo stocked with animals imported from Africa and regions of Brazil, botanical gardens, the first observatory of the Americas, a museum, hospitals, and a library.  Nassau built his city on Antônio Vaz Island, several hundred feet [a few hundred meters] from Recife, and commissioned two bridges​—engineering feats for their day—​to link Recife, Mauricia, and the mainland.​—See the box “Maurice of Nassau and the Flying Cow.”

Far from being a typical colonial mercenary, Nassau referred to his new home as “beautiful Brazil without equal under the heavens.” His passion for the country, which the Company had commissioned him to exploit, has been preserved in the paintings of Frans Post and Albert Eckhout, members of the cultural entourage Nassau imported from Europe. Under his patronage, a group of 46 artists, scientists, and craftsmen produced a plethora of books, drawings, and maps revealing Pernambuco’s impressive landscape to curious Europeans.

Nassau’s government brought economic growth to Mauricia and Recife. Loans from the Company financed the rebuilding of sugar mills destroyed during the invasion. Soon Recife was bustling with English officials, Swedish adventurers, Scottish traders, German and French businessmen​—all drawn by the commerce of slaves, sugar, and brazilwood.

Religious tolerance under Nassau’s administration also attracted Jewish investors and refugees from Europe and North Africa. For a short time, a thriving Sephardic community openly met in the first two synagogues built in the Americas. So prominent was the Jewish presence that the commercial center of Recife was known as Rua dos Judeus (Street of the Jews).

Brazil Goes Sour on the Dutch

Despite Nassau’s impressive record as an administrator, the directors of the Company complained that his enthusiasm for Brazil was clouding his financial judgment. The Company’s shareholders saw little return on their investment. Nassau balked and returned to Holland in May 1644. His departure, greeted with dismay​—even by the Portuguese—​marked the decline of Dutch Brazil. Successive failures of sugar crops, a slump in the international sugar market, and heavy debts incurred with the Company all led plantation owners to plot an uprising, which finally expelled the Dutch in 1654. *

 Nassau’s gardens and much of the city he built were destroyed in the struggle, but something had changed. The Dutch thirst for sugar had shifted Pernambuco’s center from Olinda to the islands of the Capibaribe delta and had laid the foundation for a new capital. Recife had become a town and economic center in its own right.

A Taste of the Past

At first glance, modern Recife, one of the largest industrial, financial, and tourist centers in Brazil, with over 1,300,000 inhabitants, bears no resemblance to the tiny fishing colony that served Olinda in the 16th century. The sugar estates along the banks of the Capibaribe have long since been engulfed by residential districts, bequeathing only their names and a few picturesque sugar mansions. Recife’s commercial center, which occupies the islands of Recife and Santo Antônio and the mainland district of Boa Vista, has lost much of its colonial architecture as a result of neglect and aggressive modernization.

However, the rivers, islands, and reefs that attracted the Dutch remain at the heart of Recife’s life, and vestiges of a sugary past peek through its modern facade. Forte do Brum, a four-cornered Dutch fort originally built on the seafront to defend the port, now stands isolated from the sea by landfills​—a historical island amid modern buildings. Rua dos Judeus, now Rua do Bom Jesus (Street of the Good Jesus), still follows its 16th-century course and conserves multicolored colonial sobrados that have escaped urban renewal.

For those who wish to delve more deeply into the history of Recife, there are exhibitions of Dutch maps and memorabilia​—such as those of the Forte das Cinco Pontas, completed by the Company mercenaries in 1630, and the unpretentious Institute of Archaeology, History, and Geography. The Museum of the Northeastern Man traces the development of the sugar industry from its primitive beginnings to modern industrial mills and provides a sobering glimpse of life among the slaves, “the hands and feet of the sugar barons.”

Sugar does not stir up the strong feelings it did in past centuries. The profits that attracted sugar-hungry pirates and the West Indies Company have dwindled. Few envy the sugar civilization’s legacy of financial, social, and environmental problems. Even so, sugar still dominates the agriculture of coastal Pernambuco. Not too far outside Recife, workers harvest immense fields of sugarcane, much as they have for the past five centuries​—a reminder that Recife was made by sugar.


^ par. 4 King John III of Portugal divided Brazil into 15 captaincies, or provinces, and assigned hereditary lords called donatários to govern them.

^ par. 18 The battle for Brazil was lost but not the Sugar War. Using know-how acquired in northeast Brazil, the Dutch set up plantations in the Antilles. Before the 17th century ended, cheap West Indian sugar had flooded the European market and broken the Portuguese sugar monopoly.

[Box/Picture on page 25]

Maurice of Nassau and the Flying Cow

“Initially, small boats ferried people between Mauricia and Recife, but this greatly hindered commerce. The idea of building a bridge was applauded by all, and the work was completed swiftly. The inauguration celebration was to be on Sunday, and the program included an item designed to arouse public curiosity​—a flying cow!

“On the afternoon of the party, musicians played and the streets were bedecked with streamers. Crowds flocked to the bridge. Although impressed with the new bridge, all were eager to see the flying cow. ‘What will it be like?’ some asked. ‘It is a sin to say a cow can fly like an angel,’ said an old woman.

“At the appointed time, the shape of a yellow cow with horns and a long tail emerged from the upper window of a house on the quay. ‘There it is!’ everyone cried out. Nobles, commoners, and slaves alike looked up. Suddenly, there was a burst of laughter. The cow was just a paper balloon filled with hot air!

“Prince Maurice of Nassau’s joke had amused the people and served another useful purpose. Everyone who had crossed the bridge to see the cow fly had paid a small fee, and the money raised went a long way toward financing his praiseworthy venture.”

[Credit Lines]

Terra Pernambucana (The Land of Pernambuco), by Mário Sette.


[Box on page 27]

The American Venice

“Like Venice, Recife is a city that emerges from water and is reflected in water; a city that feels the pulse of the ocean in its innermost parts.”​—Joaquim Nabuco, Brazilian statesman.

A battle between builders and the sea, swamps, and rivers​—waged since the construction of the first landfills and embankments in the 16th century—​has left the capital of Pernambuco divided by 66 canals and united by 39 bridges. Modern Recife sprawls over a delta formed by the Capibaribe, Beberibe, Jiquiá, Tejipió, and Jaboatão rivers. Since Recife is only an average of six feet [2 m] above sea level, occasionally a high tide and heavy rains still cause flooding of some of its principal avenues. Ironically, the district of Old Recife, site of the original settlement, which for centuries clung tenaciously to the mainland by a sliver of sand, was finally severed from the continent with the expansion of port facilities in 1960.

[Picture on page 23]

Above: Rua do Bom Jesus

[Picture on page 23]

Below: Rua da Aurora

[Picture on page 24]

The Dutch West India Company fleet attacking Olinda (on the right) and Recife (on the left) in 1630

[Picture on page 24, 25]

“Like Venice, Recife is a city that emerges from water and is reflected in water”

[Pictures on page 26]

Forte do Brum and (at bottom) Forte das Cinco Pontas

[Picture Credit Lines on page 23]

Top: FOTO: NATANAEL GUEDES/P.C.R.; bottom: Bruno Veiga/Tyba/; map: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.

[Picture Credit Lines on page 24]