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The First Black Army Captain in Brazil

February 7, 2009


The story of Henrique Dias is an interesting one. He was born into slavery in Pernambuco in 1605 and went on change the course of history for the Brazilians, Portugeuse and Dutch. His actions also influenced the course of American history. Without military training and almost illiterate, he managed to defeat two of Holland’s most able generals trained in the best schools of Europe. One of these was the celebrated Count Maurice of Nassau.

The Dutch, having secured a foothold in North America, in what is now the state of New York, decided to gain another in South America. They chose Brazil, which had been under Portuguese control for more than a century. Arriving with a powerful force under Count Mauricio Nassau, they were easily able to defeat the Portuguese.  At Porto Calvo, Count Maurice defeated Count de Bonjola, the Portuguese commander, and he made himself master of all northern Brazil.

Portugal dispatched a powerful fleet and large army to Brazil, but during the voyage, an outbreak of cholera struck and killed more than 3000 soldiers. The remainder were forced to land in Africa, where yet more died. When they finally arrived in Brazil, they were no match for the Dutch. Of the ninety-three ships that started from Portugal, only two ever returned. These victories inflated the ego of Count Maurice of Nassau.

In 1633 the Portuguese army was suffering continuous defeats from the invading Dutch forces, which, having already gained a foothold North America, were attempting to do the same in South America. Dias headed a party of Negroes and presented them to General Matias de Albuquerque, offered to fight against the invaders. Albuquerque confirmed Dias as captain of his men, and on 18 September of the same year Dias rendered great service, guiding an expedition of 200 Portuguese to cut off the march of 1,000 Dutch troops.

The Brazilians, now forced to live under Dutch rule, longed for freedom, and revolted under two of their leaders, Vieyra and Negreiros, but their weak forces were easily beaten by Nassau in every fight.  It was at this seemingly hopeless juncture that Dias entered the fight as a leader.  Previously he had been just a common soldier.  As such he had distinguished himself; however at Iguarussa early in the struggle, with only thirty-five other black men, he turned the tide of battle in favor of the Portuguese.

In I635, he had been among the prisoners captured by the Dutch at Fort Buen Jesus, but the Dutch, taking him for a slave of one of the white prisoners, had guarded him loosely and he had escaped. Rejoining the Portuguese, he went on to fight in several further battles, including the battle of Porto Calvo in February 1637, a battle in which he was dangerously wounded.  He had his hand immediately amputated so that he could return to the fight. In the battle of Porto Calvo, June 9, 1639 he distinguished himself again. The Portuguese were surrounded by the Dutch, but Dias, with only eighty black men, fought his way to liberty. 

When the Dutch had captured all of northern Brazil, Dias went south where the Portuguese were still resisting and offered his services to the governor, Mathias de Albuquerque. While there, he saw that the Indians were fighting under their own leader.  “Why,” he asked, “should not the blacks do likewise?” He suggested this idea to the governor, who gave him permission to raise a corps of slaves and free Negroes. He enlisting 500, trained them thoroughly and went off in search of the hitherto victorious Count Mauricio Nassau. In ten successive battles, he had further successes, inspiring all by his example.  King Philip IV of Portugal, in recognition of these services, placed him over all the other black men and mulattoes in the colony, and gave him the highest decoration, the Order of Christ, together with a salary sufficient to maintain his rank. Count Maurice was recalled, and the leading Dutch commander of that period, Count Sigismond, took his place.

Church of "Our Lady of the Rosary of Black Men"

Church of "Our Lady of the Rosary of Black Men"

At the time the Dutch replaced their commander, the Portuguese also sent out their most able general, Baretto de Menenes, with a large fleet. The fleet met with disaster, being destroyed by the Dutch who, with a greatly strengthened force, took Pernambuco after defeating all the Portuguese leaders, including Dias. Once again, however, Dias rallied the black men and met Count Sigismond in one of the most stubborn engagements of that war of twelve years and defeated him. With his seasoned European troops, Count Sigismond attacked Dias twice, and twice Dias beat him off with incredible valour. Dias then besieged the Dutch general in Pernambuco. Sigismond made a sortie, hoping to surprise him, but Dias, ever vigilant, made a counterattack and pursued the Dutch to the gates of the town, killing nearly all of them.

Map of Forte Cinco Pontas 1665

Map of Forte Cinco Pontas 1665

His greatest exploit was to have captured the fortress of Cinco Pontas. This was an apparently impregnable fortress, which commanded the whole city and neighborhood. It was well provisioned and garrisoned by an army of 500 men and protected by massive walls, tall and thick, surrounded by wide ditches with twelve feet of water. As provisions were supplied by the Dutch ships, it was impossible to break or weaken the fort by starving it of supplies.

Dias decided to capture this fortress and sent his plan of attack to the commander-in-chief, who thought so well of it that he gave Dias a free hand. “Tomorrow,” assured Dias, “you shall see our flag waving Over the fortress of Cinco Pontas.

He ordered his men to take only their knives and pistols and a tightly-bound bundle of wood each. They left for the fort at two o’clock in the morning. In the dark, they arrived at their destination undisturbed. Silently and quickly they threw the wood in to the deep trench, making an easy passage over the water, then with this same wood piled against the wall, they climbed over easily into the fort, Dias leading. The garrison was asleep. Before it awoke, Dias had gained the greater part of the fortress.

The awaking Dutch resisted desperately. Dias received a wound, which shattered the bones of his left arm above the wrist. Learning that it would take some time to adjust the bones and arrange the dressing, he bade the surgeon cut off the hand. “It is of less consequence to me than a few moments of time just now,” he said, laughing grimly. “The five fingers on this other hand will be worth that many hands.” This done, he ruturned to the fight, and although the Dutch had the advantage of artillery and rifles, he defeated them, capturing the garrison with its stores of provisions and ammunition.

When the smoke cleared, the Portuguese flag was floating over the battlements, as Dias had promised. Menezes, the commander-in-chief, could hardly believe the good news. He sought out Dias and found him lying on a camp bed weak from loss of blood.

Dias was taken to Portugal at the command of King John IV, who received him with great distinction and invited him to ask for anything he wished. Dias, thinking of his men first, asked that the regiment be perpetuated and that pensions be given to his soldiers. Later, under the ordes of the King a town called Estancia was built for them. In addition, he raised Dias to the nobility and struck a medal depicting the capture of the fortress in his honour. Driven out of Pernambuco, the Dutch finally yielded.

While the Portuguese government rewarded liberally all the leaders of the war in the province of Pernambuco, Dias was forgotten. As modest as he was brave, Dias remained silent. Soon enough he and his men were forgotten. Worse, Brazil, impoverished by the long war, reduced them to slavery again, on an even more oppressive scale. The Indians, who had also played a very important role in victory, were treated even worse and were once again raided by slave hunters.

Dias lived another seventeen years before he died in neglect and poverty in Pernambuco June 8, 1662. His memory was, however, perpetuated in a regiment composed entirely of Negroes. The regiment lasted until the Brazilian Civil War of 1835. It was commanded by the descendants of Dias.

In resources, Brazil is a very rich country and is as large as the United States and France combined. Had this immense territory remained in the power of Holland, the Dutch might have been strong enough to retain New York and other parts of New England. Henrique Dias broke the power of the Dutch in South America and made the rise of the English-speaking peoples in North America easier. In short, but for Dias there might not have been a United States, or the United States might have been shaped very differently.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rodrigo permalink
    February 8, 2009 22:37

    I didn’t know that…

  2. paulbarnett permalink*
    February 18, 2009 20:04

    I have never heard of the book you mention, but it does sound interesting.


  1. Tour 5: Olinda «

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