FAQ Mauritshuis and Johan Maurits

Frans Post Gezicht Op Het Eiland Itamaracá In Brazilië MH915 Mauritshuis

In September 2020, we unveiled a new permanent display in the Mauritshuis in which we tell the story of Johan Maurits, Dutch Brazil and the history of the Mauritshuis as a building and museum.

We know that this subject raises many questions, so on this page we try to answer some of the questions we get asked the most. Do you have a question? If so, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

FAQ Mauritshuis and Johan Maurits

Why has the museum dedicated a room to the builder of the Mauritshuis, Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen?

The Mauritshuis has dedicated a room to Johan Maurits for several reasons. The first is that he, as the person who commissioned the building and its first owner, gave the building its name. As such, Johan Maurits is directly linked to the history of the museum.
Furthermore, in recent years there has been a much broader discussion about the Dutch colonial period and the people who played a leading role in it. As governor-general of ‘Dutch Brazil’ from 1636 until 1644, Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen is one of these leading figures. These seven years were part of a longer Dutch presence in Brazil, which lasted from 1630 until 1654.
Our visitors too are increasingly interested in the background and genesis of the museum. The Mauritshuis was built during Johan Maurits’s governorship of Dutch Brazil. Are traces of this still visible? What does this history mean for our museum today? The museum too wants to know its origins. What’s our story?

Based on these requirements, it was decided to install a permanent room dedicated to Johan Maurits as a continuation of the 2019 exhibition Shifting Image – In Search of Johan Maurits. The aim of this exhibition had been to shed light on the controversy surrounding this historical figure. The focus on Johan Maurits had long been on his love of Dutch Brazil and the artistic and scientific explorations of it that he commissioned. Much had also been written about the infrastructure initiatives he developed during his time as governor: buildings, bridges etc. He was also known for his tolerance of faiths other than Protestantism, which he himself practised and was generally accepted in the Dutch Republic at that time. The exhibition considered all these aspects and completed his biography by telling the story of his role in the transatlantic slave trade, which had previously received little attention. 46 academics and authors contributed texts to the exhibition Shifting Image – In Search of Johan Maurits.

With the installation of this new room in 2020, the museum itself is making a stand to address the prior absence of a detailed explanation of Johan Maurits and his relationship to the building and museum, not only by providing the content and texts in the room, but also by establishing the room as a permanent display. In addition to this room, a new page has been set up on the website which will publish findings arising from recent research. This subject will also occupy a permanent place in the museum’s programming. On the website and in the museum, we portray Johan Maurits neither as a hero nor a villain – but as a historical figure, whose role in the slave trade, especially in the Mauritshuis, is shared with the public. His tolerant governorship mentioned above, which was remarkable in his own time, is also shared. But not without neglecting the fact that this tolerance was a continuation of the policy pursued by the previous Dutch West India Company (WIC) administration. We also make clear that this tolerance was motivated more by pragmatic and economic motives that any ethical or moral consideration.

Johan Maurits played a crucial and active role in the transatlantic slave trade, both by following the orders he received from the WIC and through his own initiative. Although the works displayed in the room do not show the everyday raw and harsh reality that was part and parcel of the colonial system of slavery, these works do allow us to delve into this subject and enter into the debate about slavery.
In the 17th century and later, Johan Maurits was a great contributor of knowledge about Brazil in Europe and was the root of a number of important artistic expressions, such as painting, architecture and landscape architecture in the Netherlands (The Hague), as well as Germany (Cleves) and Brazil (Recife). All these subjects are touched upon and, as of now, are explained in the room and/or on the website.

New research has revealed that Johan Maurits also traded in enslaved people for personal gain. What exactly has been discovered?

An article about Johan Maurits’s personal role in the slave trade and smuggling has been published in the Journal of Early American History. This article is written by academics undertaking research on behalf on the Mauritshuis. This research has revealed that Johan Maurits smuggled enslaved Africans into Brazil and sold them on to others, for personal gain. He also traded a ‘gift’ of two hundred people given to him by the king of Congo for personal profit.

How should we view trading for personal gain?

In some instances, individuals were allowed to engage in private trade, but only with the permission of the WIC. Generally speaking, it was a criminal offence for employees of the Dutch trading companies to trade privately, or in other words to do business for their own gain, whatever the product. In their decades of existence, both the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the WIC suffered financial losses and damage to their reputation due to the practice of illicit trade.

In the eyes of the WIC, the smuggling of enslaved Africans – the trade in which Johan Maurits was involved – was illegal: the slave trade was strictly reserved for the Company. In Johan Maurits’s time, trading in humans and/or enslaved people and slavery itself were prohibited within the borders of the Dutch Republic. Outside of these borders, however, the VOC and WIC were allowed to engage in slavery and the slave trade. With its decision to capture Brazil, Johan Maurits’s employer, the WIC, took a secondary decision: to clearly and knowingly enter into the slavery system. Johan Maurits received instructions from the WIC board to capture a coastal town in Africa so that the WIC could actively participate in the slave trade. He would ultimately capture two Portuguese slave depots: Elmina (in present-day Ghana) in 1637 and Luanda (in present-day Angola) in 1641-42.

So although slavery was prohibited in the Netherlands, where church ministers, administrators and other individuals regularly protested against slavery and slave trade, outside of the country’s borders the WIC and VOC were able to embrace the practice. Today we can see how inhuman the system was and look at the pain, sorrow, powerlessness, terror and indignity its history has wrought. We also no longer avert our eyes from the lasting damage inflicted by the system of slavery. Johan Maurits operated within this system. And at the same time, as the founder and namesake of the Mauritshuis, Johan Maurits is the connecting link between our present and this past.

What will your policy be moving forward about giving more attention to the ‘negative’ history of the Mauritshuis?

‘Positive’ and ‘negative’ history are both part of the Dutch national past. As the Mauritshuis, we want to tell a more complete story and not to suppress any elements. This applies to all the works in our collection, as well as all the historical figures connected to the collection, the museum as an organisation and the historical building.

Important research data associated with the research project centred around Johan Maurits and Dutch Brazil can be included in Room 8. As such, the room becomes a living document, however subtle the changes may be, because a museum room remains a museum room, and not a book. New findings concerning Johan Maurits could be positive or negative in nature. We are not taking away any parts of Johan Maurits’s history, we are only adding to it. This could take the form of nuances that the museum introduces. None of this will detract from the art-historical value and high quality of the artworks displayed in the museum. We can go into the findings of the research in more detail in publications.

The Mauritshuis has appointed new researchers. What are they going to research and when will they bring their findings?

Between September 2020 and December 2021, four researchers will conduct research as part of the research project ‘Revisiting Dutch Brazil and Johan Maurits’, which is supported by the Gieskes-Strijbis Fonds, into various subjects that have been less discussed in the study and writing of history:

the role of Portuguese-Dutch networks in shifting the Dutch slave trade from Brazil to the Caribbean area during and after the Brazilian period;
the diplomatic exchanges between Johan Maurits in Dutch Brazil and the Portuguese viceroy in the more southerly Bahia between 1640 and 1655;
tracing former inhabitants of the colony who ended up in Amsterdam after their Brazilian period, particularly with regard to the African community in Amsterdam;
the ways in which the indigenous Brazilians later used their part in the struggle against the Dutch in their negotiations with the Portuguese crown.
The research will culminate in a symposium and a number of publications. The Mauritshuis will of course make the results of the research known.

Is it your intention over time to drop the ‘Mauritshuis’ name? The Rotterdam centre for contemporary art ‘Witte de With’ is changing its name: will the Mauritshuis do the same?

No, that is not our intention. We want to keep the ‘Mauritshuis’ name. In this instance, the Mauritshuis and (for example) the Witte de With art centre cannot be directly compared. The Witte de With art centre takes its name from the street on which it is located, but beyond that it has no historical or intrinsic links to the individual Witte de With. Streets are often named after individuals with the intention of honouring them. The Mauritshuis is not named after Johan Maurits to honour him. Rather it is a historical name that refers to the founder and first occupant of the building: Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen.

The ‘Mauritshuis’ name can therefore also be read as ‘Huis van Maurits’ (House of Maurits) or ‘Maurits’ huis’ (Maurits’s House), and is first and foremost the name of the building as it has been called (in all manner of variations) since it was built in the 17th century. In the original stonework on the Mauritshuis façade, Johan Maurits’s coat of arms is prominently displayed. When the Royal Picture Gallery, consisting of the former stadholder’s collection (and not Johan Maurits’s collection) moved into the building in 1822, the building continued to be called the Mauritshuis. The museum institution’s full name is: Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis.

We will continue to use the Maurits name because we feel it is important in the museum to tell the story of the building’s history and the man who gave it its name. Johan Maurits’s role in the colonial history of the Netherlands – and particularly in the transatlantic slave trade – will not be suppressed as part of this. Several changes have already been made in the museum to this end, and there may be further steps, because dealing with history and research is always a work in progress. So we have no plans to change the museum’s name, but we do feel a responsibility towards our visitors to share a truthful story about the Mauritshuis name and the person it is named after.