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The first black army captain in Brazil

By Paul Barnett - posted Thursday, 7 May 2009

The story of Henrique Dias is an interesting one. He was born into slavery in Pernambuco in 1605 and went on to change the course of history for the Brazilians, Portuguese 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, Portuguese commander, and 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 3,000 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 93 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 in 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 September 18 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, however, he had distinguished himself. At Iguarussa early in the struggle, with only 35 other black men, he had turned the tide of battle in favour 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 escaped. Rejoining the Portuguese, he went on to fight in several further battles.

In the battle of Porto Calvo, June 9, 1639 he distinguished himself again. The Portuguese were surrounded by the Dutch, but Dias, with only 80 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 the invaders and offered his services to the governor, Mathias de Albuquerque. While there, he saw the Indians 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 enlisted 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.


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, and was destroyed by the Dutch who, with a greatly strengthened force, took Pernambuco after defeating all the Portuguese leaders, including Dias. Once again Dias rallied the black men and met Count Sigismond in one of the most stubborn engagements of that 12-year war 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.

His greatest exploit was to capture the fortress of Cinco Pontas. This was an apparently impregnable fortress which commanded the whole city and neighbourhood. It was well provisioned and garrisoned by an army of 500 men and protected by massive tall, thick walls surrounded by wide ditches with a depth of 12 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.

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First published in Recife Guide on February 7, 2009.

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About the Author

Paul Barnett is a Britsh expat living in Brazil. He developed the site Recife Guide and offers guided tours and other services to English speaking tourists.

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