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Olinda
by Geraldo Gomes da Silva

Frustrated at not having found in Brazil the precious metals which the Spanish had torn from more civilized peoples in the part of the Americas assigned to them by the Treaty of Tordesillas, the only alternative for the Portuguese was the growing of cane and the production of sugar in order to make economically viable the colonization of their recently discovered virgin territories. During the colonial period most of the sugar mills were concentrated in the North East region of Brazil, where in 1535, in the captaincy of Pernambuco, the town of Olinda was founded and quickly became a shop window for the accumulated wealth of the neighbouring sugar plantation owners.

With its irregular outline, its great buildings erected on the top of hills with their view towards an emerald sea, and the smaller houses winding round the lower slopes, Olinda is a magnificent example of an informally created town, typical of Portuguese colonization in Brazil. The name itself is said to have originated in the exclamation of the hereditary captain Duarte Coelho, on gazing at the magnificent vista which unfolded before him from the spot he had chosen for the foundation of the town.

The wealth of the Brazilian North East had soon stirred the envy of others, particularly the Dutch who invaded Pernambuco in 1630 and captured Olinda in the same year. But from the strategic point of view of the Dutch the town was not easily defensible, and they soon burned and abandoned it, preferring to settle in the neighbouring marshes around the hamlet of Recife, which they proceeded to drain in the way they were accustomed to in Holland. There followed a period of extraordinary development in less than two decades.

With the expulsion of the Dutch in 1654, Olinda was only gradually reconstructed, because it had already begun to suffer increasing competition from Recife, which had established itself as an important commercial centre and would soon be promoted to administrative capital of the Captaincy. What Olinda lost in terms of government buildings was more than made up for by the construction of the monumental monasteries and convents of the religious orders. Carmelites, Franciscans, Benedictines and Jesuits occupied the heights of the city and produced, especially in the interior of the convent buildings, the purest examples of baroque art in colonial Brazil.

Olinda ceased to compete with Recife and thus preserved its original features until the twentieth century, when it came to be considered as a dormitory town. In 1937, when it was officially declared an Historic City, its main attractions were still its unique design, its houses with narrow facades and long, tree-lined gardens, and the high artistic quality of some of its buildings, which stood proudly among the exuberant tropical vegetation.

International recognition of the aesthetic value of Olinda dates from 1982, when it was classified as a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

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