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John Maurice of Nassau
Count of Nassau-Siegen
Prince of Nassau-Siegen
Personal details
Born (1604-06-17)17 June 1604
Dillenburg, Holy Roman Empire
Died 20 December 1679(1679-12-20) (aged 75)
Kleve, Holy Roman Empire
Religion Calvinism

John Maurice of Nassau (Dutch: Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen,[lower-alpha 1] German: Johann Moritz von Nassau-Siegen, Portuguese: João Maurício de Nassau-Siegen, 17 June 1604 – 20 December 1679), was called "the Brazilian" for his fruitful period as governor of Dutch Brazil. He was count and (from 1674) prince of Nassau-Siegen, and Grand Master of the Order of Saint John (Bailiwick of Brandenburg).[1]

Early years in Europe

He was born in Dillenburg. His father was John VII of Nassau; his grandfather John VI of Nassau, the younger brother of Dutch stadtholder William the Silent of Orange, making him a grandnephew to William the Silent.

He joined the Dutch army in 1621, at a very early age. He distinguished himself in the campaigns of his cousin, the stadtholder Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange. In 1626 he became captain. He was involved in 1629 in the capture of Den Bosch. In 1636, he conquered a fortress at Schenkenschans.

Dutch governor in Brazil

Arms of John Maurice of Nassau, imposed upon the cross of the Johanniterorden and encircled by the Danish Order of the Elephant.

He was appointed as the governor of the Dutch possessions in Brazil in 1636 by the Dutch West India Company on recommendation of Frederick Henry. He landed at Recife, the port of Pernambuco and the chief stronghold of the Dutch, in January 1637.

By a series of successful expeditions, he gradually extended the Dutch possessions from Sergipe on the south to São Luís de Maranhão in the north. With the assistance of the famous architect, Pieter Post of Haarlem, he transformed Recife by building a new town adorned with public buildings, bridges, channels and gardens in the then Dutch style, later naming the newly reformed town Mauritsstad, after himself.

Brazilian depiction of arms of Johan Maurits

By his statesmanlike policy he brought the colony into a most flourishing condition. His leadership in Brazil inspired two Latin epics from 1647: Caspar Barlaeus' Rerum per octennium in Brasilia et alibi nuper gestarum sub praefectura[2] and Franciscus Plante's Mauritias. The painters Albert Eckhout, Frans Post, and Abraham Willaerts served as members of John Maurice's entourage.

In 1643 in Johan Maurits equipped the expedition of Hendrik Brouwer that attempted to establish an outpost in southern Chile.[3][4]

He also established representative councils in the colony for local government, and developed Recife's transportation infrastructure. His large schemes and lavish expenditure alarmed the parsimonious directors of the West India Company, and John Maurice, refusing to retain his post unless he were given a free hand, returned to Europe in July 1644.

With approval of the church,[5] John Maurice of Nassau became very rich by running the sugar plantations in Brazil with slaves from Africa. To secure the supply of slaves for the sugar plantations, nine ships and 1200 man under his command conquered the Portuguese slave station Elmina on the African Gold Coast.[6] Later he also conquered the slave station Luanda in Angola. John Maurice was known for being exceptionally cruel towards slaves. The Dutch slave ships going to Brazil were "floating coffins for their pityful passengers" [7] John Maurice showed wealth he acquired by building two palaces in Dutch Brazil and one in The Netherlands in The Hague, still known today as Maurice' home (Mauritshuis).[8]

Return to Europe

John Maurice of Nassau

Shortly after returning to Europe, John Maurice was appointed by Frederick Henry to the command of the cavalry in the Dutch army, and he took part in the campaigns of 1645 and 1646. When the war was ended by the Peace of Münster in January 1648, he accepted from the elector of Brandenburg the post of governor of Cleves, Mark and Ravensberg, and later also of Minden. His success in the Rhineland was as great as it had been in Brazil, and he proved himself a most able and wise ruler.

At the end of 1652, John Maurice was appointed head of the Order of Saint John (Bailiwick of Brandenburg) and made a prince of the Empire. In 1664 he came back to Holland; when war broke out with an England supported by the invading bishop of Münster, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Dutch States Army. Though hampered in his command by the restrictions of the states-general, he repelled the invasion, and the bishop, Christoph Bernhard von Galen, nicknamed "Bommen Berend", was forced to conclude peace. His campaigning was not yet at an end, for in 1668 he was appointed first Field-Marshal of the States Army and in 1673 he was charged by stadtholder William III to command the forces in Friesland and Groningen, and to defend the eastern frontier of the Provinces, again against Van Galen.

John Maurice of Nassau

In 1675 his health compelled him to give up active military service, and he spent his last years in his beloved Cleves, where he died in December 1679.


The residence he built in The Hague is now called the Mauritshuis, and houses the Royal Cabinet of Paintings. It is now a major museum of old Dutch paintings.

Brazilian author Paulo Setúbal wrote a historic novel about John Maurice and the Dutch settlement in Brazil, O Príncipe de Nassau ("The Prince of Nassau", translated into Dutch by R. Schreuder and J. Slauerhoff in 1933 as Johan Maurits van Nassau).


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Further reading

  • Boogaart, Ernst van den, et al. eds. Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen 1604-1679: A Humanist Prince in Europe and Brazil. The Hague: Johan Maurits van Nassau Stichting 1979.
  • Bouman, Paul. Johan Maurits van Nassau: de Braziliaan. Utrecht: Oosthoek 1947.
  • Boxer, Charles R.. The Golden Age of Brazil, 1624-1654. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1962.
  • Brunn, Gerhard, ed. Aufbruch in Neue Welten: Johann Moritz von Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679): der Brasilianer. Siegen: Johann Moritz Gesellschaft 2004.
  • Driesen, Ludwig. Leben des Fürsten Johann Moritz von Nassau-Siegen. Berlin: Deckers 1849.
  • Françozo, Mariana, "Global Connections: Johan Maurtis of Nassau-Siegen's Collection of Curiosities" in Michiel Van Groesen, The Legacy of Dutch Brazil. New York: Cambridge University Press 2014.
  • Freyre, Gilberto. "Johan Maurtis van Nassau-Siegen from a Brazilian Viewpoint" in Ernst van den Boogaart et al.eds. Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen 1604-1679: A Humanist Prince in Europe and Brazil. The Hague: Johan Maurtis van Nassau Stichting 1979.
  • Glaser, Otto. Prinz Johann Mortiz von Nassau-Siegen und die Niederländischen Kolonien in Brasilien. Berlin: Staercke 1938.
  • Gouvêa, Fernando da Cruz. Mauricio de Nassau e o Brasil Holandês: Correspondência com os Estaos Gerais. Recife: Editôra Universitaria da UFPE 1998.
  • Hantsche, Irmgard, ed. Johann Moritz von Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679) als Vermittler, Politik und Kultur am Niederhein im 17. Jahrhunder. Münster: Waxman 2005.
  • Herz, Silke. "Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen," in M. Schacht, ed. Onder den Oranje boom. Nederlandse kunst en cultuur aan Duitse vorstenhoven in de zeventiende en achttiende eeuw. Munich: Hirmer 1999, pp. 155–204.
  • Setúbal, Paulo. Johan Maurits van Nassau: historische roman uit den tijd der Hollandsche bezetting van Brazilië, eds. and trans. R. Schreuder and J.J. Slauerhoff. Amsterdam: Wereldbibliotheek 1933 (1925).


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. "[[Wikisource:1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/John Maurice of Nassau|]]" Encyclopædia Britannica Cambridge University Press 

External links

John Maurice, Prince of Nassau-Siegen
Born: 17 June 1604 Died: 20 December 1679
Preceded by
Georg von Winterfeld, Landvogt der Neumark, Komtur zu Schivelbein
Herrenmeister (Grand Master) of the Order of Saint John
Succeeded by
Georg Friedrich, Fürst zu Waldeck, Graf zu Pyrmont
Government offices
Preceded by
Sigismund van Schoppe
Governor of Brazilian Captaincy of Pernambuco
Succeeded by
Hendrik Hamel

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