In 1585, as the Dutch waged a war for independence, they approached Queen Elizabeth I for a loan. She agreed, but as security for the debt, the Dutch gave the English control of two port towns. One was Vlissingen, known in English as Flushing. In the years that followed, Vlissingen became an enthusiastic center for overseas colonial projects. In 1616, the same year the Dutch paid the loan off and regained control of the town, a group of 130 men (fourteen of whom were accompanied by their families), set out from Vlissingen to establish a settlement along the Amazon River in South America. The settlers were organized by Pieter Adriansz. Ita and included many English who had been living in Vlissingen for years, working in the garrison. Now unemployed, some decided they would rather take a chance in the New World than return home. The colonists arrived in South America and soon formed an alliance with a local tribe, who helped them plant tobacco and annotta (a red dye), and harvest “specklewood” (known today as letterwood or snakewood and prized for its beautiful dark markings). The next year, they loaded a ship with cargo reportedly worth £60,000 — an impressive feat for a new colony. Their success, however, was short-lived. The colony aroused Portuguese suspicion, who claimed the Amazon even though they had not yet settled the region. Their attack prompted the Anglo-Dutch colonists to leave and return to the Netherlands.
Although far from New Netherland, and even farther from Vlissingen, this settlement is exemplary of the history of the Dutch Atlantic. Anglo-Dutch cooperation in the Amazon was representative of the dynamic landscape of Dutch activity in the Atlantic World during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The Dutch simultaneously maintained interests in various places in the Americas, north and south. Some of those involved in Ita’s Colony appeared later as actors in the story of Dutch Atlantic trade and settlement. Most notably, two trips to the colony were the very first Atlantic voyages of the young Michiel Adriaensz. de Ruyter, who went on to become a hero of the Anglo-Dutch Wars—a reminder that the cooperation between the two nations eventually faltered.
The story here takes a new direction by looking at short-lived colonies, which are typically understudied since they did not lead to permanent, long-lasting settlements. They are, however, important because these “failures” were often still successful in their own right (Ita’s Colony, for example, turned a profit). These settlements contributed to Dutch knowledge about and experience in the Americas, and they generated enthusiasm for future projects. The early Dutch interest for this region led to their later colonization of Guiana, and their capture of Brazil from the Portuguese. The story of Ita’s Colony also sheds new light on the Dutch Atlantic during New Netherland’s earliest days, a time before the West India Company existed and private interest was responsible for overseas projects; just as competing merchant firms organized the New Netherland Company to satisfy their commercial goals, so too did Dutch and English residents of Vlissingen establish Ita’s Colony to fulfill their own economic dreams.
Melissa Morris earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 2017. Her dissertation was entitled, “Cultivating Colonies: Tobacco and the Upstart Empires, 1580-1640. She is currently an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wyoming.