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Lobbying citizens had a lot of influence in the Golden Age

Thanks to fanatical lobbying various groups of citizens and traders had a lot of influence on the initial success of the Dutch colony in Brazil. This is the conclusion of Leiden PhD candidate Joris van den Tol, who defended his thesis on 20 March.

If you think of lobbying as a modern phenomenon, you’re wrong. Lobbying in the 17th century involved collecting signatures for petitions and gaining influence through personal relationships. Van den Tol investigated how lobby actions impacted decision-making in Brazil. From 1630 to 1654, this Portuguese colony was briefly under Dutch rule at the initiative of the West Indische Compagnie (Dutch West India Company, WIC). The WIC was interested in sugar trade and saw Brazil as a strategic location in its geopolitical interests. Yet the trading company was far from having a complete say on what went on there, concludes Van den Tol. He emphasises the great influence of citizens: not only on political issues, but also with respect to religion and economic regulations.

Petitions with mjor consequences

One example is the petition presented by Amsterdam citizens to the city council with a request to send more soldiers to Brazil to crush an insurrection. Amsterdam traders had commercial interests in the colonies. Under public pressure, the mayors of Amsterdam supported the rescue operation. Another petition with a major impact was the request of Portuguese inhabitants in Brazil to use the indigenous Amerindian population as slaves on their plantations. The WIC was originally against it because the Company partially justified its conquest of Brazil as liberating the indigenous population from the suffering inflicted by the Portuguese administration. But following the petition, the WIC changed its mind in 1642.

Lost colony

Thanks to the petitions preserved in the archives of the Dutch House of Representatives, Van den Tol was able to use signatures and place names to reconstruct how petitions travelled through cities and in some cases throughout the Netherlands. He also used diary entries by people like Hendrick Haecxs, Dutch administrator and member of the High Authorities in Brazil. In his diary, Hal lobbyists that the colony managed to hold on so long.

Alliances between separate groups

Why were lobby actions so successful in the Golden Age? The PhD candidate points to the decentralised structure of the Dutch Republic such that the seven provinces each had a lot of power and could be influenced separately. The petitions show that alliances were formed between traditionally separate social groups. Jews lobbied with Christians, women with men, soldiers with captains, Frenchmen with Scots and Dutchmen, and The Hague inhabitants with those of other cities. Van den Tol: ‘History is often studied from the isolated perspective of an organisation such as the WIC or separate groups, but my research shows that such dividing lines are often artificial.’

Banner photo: Portraits by 17th-century painter Frans Hals of Messrs. Massa (a rich trader), Post (a Dutch painter who went to Brazil) and Van den Broeck (a VOC Governor). The PhD candidate used the portraits for the cover of his PhD thesis