Maurice Of Nassau

Elizabeth Dobbin
Psychologist, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation employee
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John Maurice of Nassau-Siegen was born on 17 June 1604, at Dillenburg Castle, a city in the county of Nassau, in Germany. He was the son of Jan de Middelste (John of the Middle) and Margaretha van Holstein, Princess of Holstein-Sanderburg.

John Maurice lived in Dillenburgfor only his first two years of life. In 1606, the family transferred to Siegen, where he spent his childhood.

As was customary at the time, Nassau was taught initially by his father, an educationalist, later attending the Siegen school. In 1614, aged ten, he was sent to the University of Basel in Switzerland, going to Geneva in 1615.

From the beginning of 1616 until 1619, he lived in Kassel, where he continued his studies at the Mauritianum College. There, he learnt French, Italian and Spanish (which was useful to him in Brazil), as well as rhetoric, history, philosophy, theology, astronomy and mathematics, essential for the military arts. The College also taught its aristocratic students riding, music, dance and fencing.

Nassau stood out in various military campaigns, including the Thirty Years’ War (1618), the siege of ’s-Hertogenbosch (1632) and the reconquering of Schenkenschans (1636), quickly making him well-known and respected.

In 1632, he began the construction of a palace in The Hague (today a tourist landmark in the Dutch city). His financial commitments in finishing the work (a lot higher than foreseen) convinced him to accept the invitation from the West India Company to assume the political and military governorship in Brazil, with the title of governor and commander-in-chief and excellent remuneration.

Maurice of Nassau arrived in Recife on 23 January 1637, and enchanted with the beauty of the tropical land, began to call Pernambuco New Holland. His contingent was made up of painters, such as Frans Post and Albert Eckhout, sculptors, astronomers, architects and other scientists, and was joyfully received not only by the Dutch but by the Luso-Brazilian civilians who were hopeful of better days, as the colony was in a sorry state, with disorder and corruption reigning.

At the start of February he attacked Porto Calvoin Alagoas, managing to defeat the Luso-Brazilian troops who were the last concentration of resistance against the Dutch occupation.

Nassau enrolled on taming the countryside and designed, in Recife, the city of Mauritsstad or Mauritiopolis, built to be the centre of power in Brazil. He provided urban improvements, paved the streets with stones, forbade the traffic of ox carts to not destroy the thoroughfares, created a volunteer fire brigade, imposed an urban territorial tax, built houses and bridges, two sumptuous palaces like the Fribourg Palace, which served as the governor’s residence and had an aviary, a zoo and a botanical garden.

He re-established the production of the captaincy by offering loans for the recuperation of sugar plantations; determined that justice was equal for all – Dutch or local;respected the different religious beliefs; financed the purchase of new slaves, despite being against slavery, however prohibiting the working of black people on Sundays and the separation of couples at selling time.

Count John Maurice of Nassau-Siegen governed Brazil from 1637 to 1644. His administration was strongly marked by the construction of urban centres, of canals to avoid floods, bridges, schools, theatres, hospitals, asylums, roads and forts. He founded a printing press, created libraries, museums and an astronomical observatory, transforming Recife from a small settlement of fishermen into a highly-developed city for the time.

He was a kind, sympathetic and tolerant man. He was an able administrator that showed liberal principles and knew how to capture the understanding of the Brazilians. He proved to be an excellent administrator for the people, but not for the West India Company. Nassau had a personal plan for governing, wanting to make a fortune as be noted to receive the title of prince, besides having a colonising vision that did not interest the Company. It was only interested in profit.

On 11 May 1644, Nassau left Recife on horse for Paraíba, being fare-welled and praised by troops, authorities and the population in general, including Tapuia Indians.

On the 23rd of the same month, he embarked with a fleet for Holland, taking to his palace in The Hagueobjects and painting that decorated his residence in Brazil and returning to his military career.

In 1647, he was once again called upon to govern Brazil, but as he demanded total control, a bigger army and better pay, the Company did not agree and consequently the German count never returned to the country.

In that same year, Nassau governed Cleves, Mark and Ravensburg, which gave him the title of Grand Master in the Teutonic Order.

In 1652, he was elevated to the dignity of Prince of the German Empire, being elected Grand Master in the Order of St John of Germany.

He was named commander-in-chief of the army of the Netherlands in 1665.
At 70 years of age, in 1674, he was part of the Spanish Netherlands Company (today Belgium), fighting in the Battle of Seneffe.

In 1675, he retired to the city of Cleves, chosen to live his last days, passing away on 20 December 1679, aged 75, with his ashes kept in an urn, until they were taken to the family vault in Siegen.

Despite the divergences among historians, Maurice of Nassau was considered a man of political acumen, an idealist, tolerant and able, an administrator that gave a great economic and cultural boost to Pernambuco, becoming immortal in the Old and the New World.

According to the researcher of the Dutch period Marcos Galindo, “Pernambuco never experienced another period with so much importance on a universal scale”as in the time of his governing.

Recife, 30 june 2004.
(Updated on 18 august 2009).

Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2012.


DICIONÁRIO enciclopédico brasileiro ilustrado. 6.ed. Porto Alegre: Globo, 1958.

DONATO, Maria das Graças Andrada. Recife, cidade Maurícia. Recife: COMOCI, 1986.

DREGUER, Ricardo; MARCONI, Cássia. História 4: Projeto Presente. São Paulo: Editora Moderna, 2000.

MELLO, Evaldo Cabral de. Nassau antes de Pernambuco. Continente Multicultural, Recife, v.1, n,.1, p.38-45, jan. 2001.

SOURIENT, Lílian; OLSZEWSKI, Kátia Marise. História: interagindo e percebendo. São Paulo; Editora do Brasil, 2001. 


Source: DOBBIN, Elizabeth. Maurice Of Nassau. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at:  <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009


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