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New book traces forgotten Zeeland immigrants in Brazil

Rediscovery after nearly 120 years

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

Talk of an isolated settlement called Holanda, a community of descendents of Dutch immigrants in the coastal state of Espirito Santo, prompted a couple doing mission aid work on behalf of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands to check out the story. The arrival of Ton Roos and his wife Margje (Eshuis) in Holanda was seen as an answer to prayers by descendents of Zeeland colonists who in the late 1850s had been lured to Brazil under false pretences. Impoverished and with no one to help, they had no way of returning home. Successive generations had kept the hope alive that one day their Zeeland kinsmen would find them.

Communicating with the Brazilian Zeelanders, who spoke an antiquated dialect later traced to the Cadzand area, proved to be very frustrating. Communication problems cast a shadow over the joy of having been found. Nonetheless, Ton and Margje Roos drove once a month for eight years once a month for a week-end to Holanda, a day-long trip, to help the almost forgotten villagers in any way they could.

During those visits, the couple heard of the long Transatlantic journey, their years in the Brazilian forests and the interaction with former slaves who only spoke Portuguese. These stories had been handed down orally but much of it was lost over the intervening decades. The Zeelanders also had lost most of their old Dutch records as time marched on.


At some point, Ton and Margje Roos realized that the stories they had heard from their Brazilian Zeelander friends deserved to be published in a book. They searched archives, studied old documents and interviewed dozens of people. They learned, among other things, that many of the Brazilian Zeelander surnames for one reason or other had changed over time although phonetically there was a resemblance. Jansen became Hiancia, Smoor Simorra and Wagemaker Womoc. While doing their research, the Roos’es discovered two other Zeelander settlement in Brazil. Between 1858 and 1862 over 700 Zeelanders had left Zeeland for Brazil.

In the book, they also tried to deal with the question of why these people had left for South America (others, particularly followers of the Secession of 1834 had left a decade earlier for Michigan and Wisconsin, where the thriving communities of Zeeland and Oostburg were founded). Ton Roos blames it on a Belgian passenger liner promoter who attracted poverty-stricken day labourers in Flanders and adjoining Zeeuws-Vlaanderen with talk of farmland and crops awaiting them in Brazil. Raising such hopes turned out to be a form of slavery, notes Roos, because the land was covered by forest and the soil substandard for farming. In 1862, the Brazil promotion ended abruptly when advertisements appeared in Zeeland papers warning people against these pipe dreams.

A few years ago, three Holanda residents who were invited by Ton and Margje to visit them in the Netherlands and to speak at several meetings arranged so they could meet with people interested in their story. As Leonora Boone told her story in her Zeeland dialect, she earned warm applause from the crowd and the comment of one person who said that Leonora spoke the dialect of her grandmother.