Despite their undeniable importance, sailors are largely invisible in most histories of the Dutch Atlantic. Sailing across the Atlantic on ships fitted out by the West India Company or one of the admiralties could be hazardous. Firefights with the Iberian enemies or Barbary corsairs were usually deadly, but even a peaceful voyage entailed risks. Numerous vessels were worm-eaten and lacked cables, anchors, and sails. Sailors also faced uncertainty, hunger, thirst, and sometimes brutal punishment. Deprived of many necessities of life for sustained periods of time, they did not always accept their fate without protest.
Dutch archives contain much information about voyages to and from Brazil, the West India Company’s most cherished colony in the Americas. One Company ship en route from Brazil in 1638 did not return to Amsterdam. Despite steady pumping of water, the ship sank thirty sea miles from Ireland. Forty-four men escaped, but one hundred and three men drowned. A few years later, the crew of the Jager was forced to abandon their ship off Brazil, because it was too leaky to reach the shore. The shipmaster, it later turned out, had systematically ignored the warnings of the sailors and officers.
On one occasion, sailors teamed up with the soldiers on board the Loanda to protest their plight. For many months in 1645 and the following year, they had faced relentless cold, storm, and rain at the Isle of Wight, where they waited for the right weather to sail to Brazil. With no end to their misery in sight, they wrote a joint petition to their superior: “We all request that Your Honor may command us to lift our anchors and return home, since we don’t want to sail anymore, as we will perish of poverty and disease, and … we have little to eat, and when we want to speak up, they put us in chains, [and] we have earned two months of wages by starving and drinking water. That’s why we all want to go home, and if Your Honor doesn’t want to issue that order, we would rather all drown than facing such a tedious death, because one night, we will cut off the anchor and float to the land, and then at least one man will leave and spread the news of how you have treated us and brought us to such despair, since we notice that things are getting worse each day, because thirty men are sick already and every day more get ill, and we are all naked and nude.” Their request was not granted.
The sailors’ despair eventually helped cause the collapse of Dutch Brazil. While soldiers refused to fight ashore, sailors on eighteen Dutch ships took the wheel of their vessel and sailed to Europe. The colony was therefore left without a naval defense force when in late 1653 a massive Portuguese fleet appeared off the capital, Recife. Within a few weeks, the Dutch authorities surrendered.
Wim Klooster is Professor and Robert H. and Virginia N. Scotland Endowed Chair in History and International Relations at Clark University, where he has taught since 2003. His latest books are Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History (new edition, 2018) and Realm between Empires: The Second Dutch Atlantic, 1680-1815 (2018, co-authored with Gert Oostindie).
Gemeentearchief Rotterdam, Oud Notarieel Archief Rotterdam, inv. nr. 95, aktenummer/blz. 113/185, act of November 10, 1641.
Nationaal Archief, Archief Staten-Generaal A SG 12564.6. Huijgens, Niclaes van der Boeckhorst Duijst van Voorhout, A. Ploos van Amstel, Fredrick vryheer van Swartsenburch, Albert Coenraets Burch, J. de Laet, F. Franck, Pieter Claessen Bosschieter, F. Schillenburch, B. Hogenhoeck, and Ab. Wilmerdonck, representing the WIC, to Count Johan Maurits and the High Councilors in Brazil. The Hague, May 1, 1638.
Nationaal Archief, Archief Staten-Generaal 12564.34, president and council of Brazil to the States General. Recife, August 21, 1651.
Buijze, B. Georg Everhard Rumphius’ reis naar Portugal 1645-1648. Een onderzoek. Den Haag: s.n., 2002.
Voorbeijtel Cannenburg, W. De reis om de wereld van de Nassausche vloot, 1623–1626. ’s-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964.
Winter, P.J. van. De Westindische Compagnie ter kamer Stad en Lande. ’s-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978.