An Introduction to Olinda
Olinda is an historic city in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco founded in 1535 by the Portuguese. It is located on the country’s northeastern Atlantic Ocean coast, just north of Recife and is one of the best-preserved colonial cities in Brazil. Legend suggests the city’s name can be interpreted as an exclamation regarding the beauty of its setting (“Ó, linda!” is Portuguese for “Oh, beautiful!”).
Olinda features a number of major tourist attractions and earned the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, because of its outstanding cultural importance to the common heritage of humanity. It is picturesque, full of history, character and tropical charm. It seems that everywhere you look there is a church. They date from the 16th century as Olinda is one of the oldest cities in Brazil.
The Northeastern coast of Brazil had been occupied by a number of indigenous tribes for several thousand years. The hills of present-day Olinda had settlements of Caetés and Tupinambà tribes, which were frequently at war. On arrival, the Portuguse aligned themselves with the Tupinambà.
Together the Portuguese and Tupinambà would fight the Caetés (Kaeté) who, like many other indigenous people in the coast of Brazil, practiced a ritual form of cannibalism. They were acused of eating the first bishop of Brazil, Pedro Fernandes Sardinha, after his ship sank near the mouth of the river Coruripe during his return journey to Portugal. A hundred other passengers were said to have been captured and eaten by the Caetés. This acusation ensured they were considered “enemies of the civilized world.”
French mercenaries are thought to be the first Europeans to reach the region, but the Portuguese exploited inter-tribal rivalries and managed to build a stronghold on the former Caeté village in the higher hill.
The settlement of Olinda was founded in 1535 by Duarte Coelho Pereira; it was elevated to a town in March 12, 1537, and in 1614 was made the seat of the Territorial Prelature of Pernambuco. It became the Diocese of Olinda in 1676.
Olinda was established as the capital of the Portuguese hereditary Captaincy of Pernambuco. In the 17th century, taking advantage of this period of Portuguese weakness, the area around Olinda and Recife was occupied by the Dutch, who gained access to the Portuguese sugarcane plantations. During their invasion of Olinda in 1630, they destroyed much of the city by fire.
John Maurice, Prince of Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679), was appointed the governor of the Dutch possessions in Brazil in 1637 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 to Sergipe in the south and to São Luís de Maranhão in the north. He likewise conquered the Portuguese possessions of Saint George del Mina, Saint Thomas, and Luanda, Angola, on the west coast of Africa.
With the assistance of the famous architect, Pieter Post of Haarlem, he transformed Recife by building a new town adorned with splendid public edifices and gardens, which was called after his name, Mauritsstad.
By his statesmanlike policy, he brought the colony into a most flourishing condition and succeeded even in reconciling the Portuguese settlers to submit quietly to Dutch rule.
He also established a city council in which Catholics, Protestants, and Jews participated together. Besides this tolerance, he also encouraged Recife’s growth. His large schemes and lavish expenditures, however, alarmed the frugal directors of the West India Company. Since he would only agree to retain his post if he were given a free hand, something the directors refused to offer, John Maurice returned to Europe in July 1644. The Portuguese empire was also in the process of reestablishing their authority over the lost territories of the Portuguese Empire at this time.
The story of the Jews
The history of the Jews in Pernambuco is an interesting one. From the very beginning, Duarte Coelho was friend to many New Christians – as descendants of converted Jews were known. These New Christians ran about half of Brazil´s sugar mills. The Inquisition came to northeastern Brazil in 1591 and many of the colony´s secret Jews were sent to Lisbon for trial. The community experienced a revival after the Dutch captured Pernambuco in 1630. Then Jews came into the open, and by 1641 the first synagogue in the Americas was built. Sinagoga Kahal Zur Israel was constructed in Rua dos Judeus (Street of the Jews), in Recife, now known as Rua Bom Jesus. Despite anti-Jewish agitation from Dutch Calvanists and Portuguese Catholics, the ruler of Dutch Recife, Count Maurice of Nassau, saw to it that Jewish rights were upheld.
Carnival in Olinda is the most authentic carnival experience in Brazil. It stems from a Portuguese tradition, with the addition of African influenced dances. Carnival here is not something to be watched as a spectator in a stand, but to take part in. And, unlike carnival in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, carnival in Olinda is free of charge. Carnival groups (blocos) practice the year-round, but things get serious after Christmas when rehearsals can be seen in the street most weekends.
Much of the history of Olinda and Recife can be explored by taking the Walking Tours we recommended.
Eating & Drinking
For information about restaurants, bars and cafes in Olinda see Eating & Drinking in Olinda
For details about nightlife in Olinda see the nightlife guide