Forte dos Reis Magos
Natal, Brazil

Constructed: 1597 - 1602
Used by: Portugal, Holland, Brazil
Conflicts in which it participated:
Dutch invasions of Brazil,
Brazilian War of Independence
Also known as: Fort Ceulen,
Fortaleza da Barra do Rio Grande

Brazil was claimed for the Portuguese Empire in April of 1500, with the arrival of Pedro Álvarez Cabral (1467-1520) and his fleet. Settlers began to arrive in numbers in 1534, and soon sugarcane was heading east to the mother country in vast amounts, while slaves from Africa were heading west to Brazil to cut said sugarcane.

Brazil's easternmost point is only 1770 miles across the Atlantic from Sierra Leone, at Africa's westernmost point. The Forte dos Reis Magos is just 20 miles south of that point.

In 1597, the Governor General of Portuguese Brazil was fed up with the commerce that French pirates (who no doubt thought of themselves as dashing gentleman privateers) were illicitly conducting with the natives, and ordered their expulsion. Some fifty Frenchmen and their native allies were "expelled" in a likely extremely permanent manner, and the Governor ordered the construction of a fort at the mouth of the Rio Grande (please note that there's more than one Rio Grande: We're not talking about the one at the southern US border here).
Such a lovely shade of...white. I guess if you "shade" white, it becomes grey, doesn't it.
One thing that was convenient about being a Catholic society that was building a fort in the 16th century is that one never have to spend very long scratching one's head over what to name it. Every day was associated with at least one saint or martyr or something of interest in a holy sense, and since work commenced on the fort of our current interest on January 6 1598, which was the Feast of the Epiphany, the fort was named after the Three Wise Men of the Bible (January 6 is said to be the day on which the Wise Men visited the baby Jesus).

Likewise, the village of Natal was established on Christmas Day in 1599, just south of the Forte on the banks of the Rio Grande: Guess what Natal means in Portuguese. Okay I'll tell you, it means Christmas.

The Forte dos Reis Magos was designed by Jesuit priest Gonçalves de Samperes and built by Jerônimo de Albuquerque Maranhão (1548-1618), a man of Portuguese/Brazilian descent who had led the military campaign against the French. The fort was built on a reef, placed so that it would be surrounded by water at high tide, and accessible by foot only at low tide. It was designed to hold a garrison of 200 and mount around 25 guns.

Almost as interested in Brazil in the 16th and 17th centuries as Portugal was Holland. More specifically, the Dutch West India Company (WIC). The WIC, a military/commercial enterprise, was formed in 1621 to eliminate trade competition in the Caribbean and South America. It was primarily Portuguese and Spanish competition with which the WIC was concerned, since it was the Spanish and Portuguese who were the ones already in business in the region.

Twas thus that the Dutch turned their flinty glare on the Forte dos Reis Magos in 1630. Scrutiny of the fort revealed that more than half of its guns were "worthless," and that only 50 or 60 men were garrisoned therein. An attempted Dutch assault in 1631 was foiled (no doubt by the shiny whiteness of the fort's walls), but the WIC returned in 1633 with fifteen ships and 800 troops, besieged the Forte (at the time manned by 85 soldiers, with only 9 serviceable cannon in operation) for a week, and accepted its surrender, along with that of the town of Natal, on December 12, 1633.

The Dutch renamed the fort after Natthijs van Ceulen, a WIC bigwig, and stayed put for the next 21 years.
Silly me, when I first saw this structure in the middle of Forte dos Reis Magos, I thought it was something with an actual military purpose, such as a citadel. It's not, which is fortunate, because if you look at it you can see what a crappy citadel it would make. It's a chapel. Defending a fort while simultaneously being a good Catholic must have been an entertaining juggle. Click on it, it's huge.

Two decades of continuous war in Brazil, however, bankrupted the WIC. By the time Portuguese forces had fought their way back to Natal in February of 1654, Fort Ceulen had been abandoned by the Dutch. Thank goodness, because Ceulen is a horrible name for a starfort.

In the common fate of many starforts, Forte dos Reis Magos was used as a prison in the early 19th century, particularly after the Pernambucan Revolt of 1817. Loads of political prisoners were kept at the Forte over the next 100 years, as Brazil was graced with a whole bushel o' revolts against Portuguese rule.

During the First World War (1914-1918), the Forte dos Reis Magos operated as a coast artillery battery. Hopefully with better guns than the "worthless" iron ones that the Dutch so disdained in 1631.

Today, the Forte dos Reis Magos is a popular tourist attraction, with a gift shop and snack bar inside. Reportedly it's also falling apart, its last major conservational overhaul occurring in 2005. Should you be fortunate enough to visit this fort, I hereby proclaim it your duty to buy at least one extra snack to increase the fort's cashflow, thus keeping it strong, sound and brightly white for generations to come.