Anglo-Dutch wars

Just to clarify, when I wrote in my post below that

… for the rise of England and later the United States very likely wouldn’t have been possible if the Netherlands hadn’t destroyed the Spanish naval dominance in the mid 1600s …

I didn’t mean to say that there was much harmony between these countries, especially not in the period mentioned in my quote.

Indeed not:

1652-1654 The first of three Anglo-Dutch commercial wars fought to control maritime markets ended in stalemate. The Dutch Republic had been the dominant commercial power for over a century, controlling the commerce of the East Indies, as well as western trade in slaves, sugar, and furs. Much of Englandís mercantilist strategy over the next 20 years was designed to expand English trade and profits at the expense of the Dutch. The Navigations Acts imposed by the British government in the two decades that followed directly incited conflict between London and Amsterdam, and placed the American colonies at the center of a global war over trade.

1664 In the second of three Anglo-Dutch commercial wars, the English annexed the only Dutch outpost in North America, New Amsterdam (renaming it New York), and effectively drove the Dutch from the continent.


In the third of three Anglo-Dutch commercial wars, the English Navy succeeded in usurping Dutch supremacy in world trade, and effectively ended their dominance of the West African slave trade. Subsequently, English merchants were free to expand their private fleets and gain a dominant position in Atlantic Commerce. The Navigations Acts played a central role in enhancing Britainís world position.

Etc, etc, but the fact remains, without the Dutch the English would likely had taken a lot longer to overcome the Habsburgs’ Spanish empire. Spain would have fallen eventually, for the steady flow of gold and silver from the New World led to ruinous inflation, bleeding the country’s economy dry, but in the meantime some other players might have grown powerful enough to become serious rivals.

13 thoughts on “Anglo-Dutch wars”

  1. Ralf, this is all good.

    The critical nature of Holland as a predecessor to the rise of the Anglosphere is certainly true. The Dutch invented capital markets which were copied by Britain, for example. It is also true that Holland was unable, in the long run, to maintain its primacy due to military pressure from larger landpowers. The book to read on this point is Brian Downing The Military Revolution and Political Change Britain, being an island and possessing a navy, was able to maintain its free institutions while most of the rest of Europe fell into despotism — with the partial exception of the militarily difficult Netherlands and Switzerland.

    Motley is a beautiful and stirring writer, though I balk at his Protestant triumphalism. But, we can leave that for another time.

  2. Thanks, I’ll take a look at Downing’s book, but I got a lot of othe lined up first. :)

    Motley’s protestant triumphalism can probably be explained by a strong identification with the Netherlands. Just look at the sheer volume of his work about the country.

  3. The Anglo-Dutch naval wars are just one part of the story. From Elizabethan days through the end of William and Mary’s reign, the English and the Dutch were alternatively allies and rivals (or maybe simultaneously allies and rivals, and intermixed enormously. One of the more obscure potential turning points in history that never happened was Cromwell’s offer of political union with the Netherlands, which the Dutch turned down. A world in which they had accepted would be an interesting alternative universe. And of course England, Scotland and the Netherlands were in a crown union during William and Mary’s reign — the flets were under a joint command for that period. Anybody interesting in the Anglo-Dutch naval wars should definitely read N.A.M. Rodger’s Command of the Ocean. One of the points he makes was the unwieldiness of the Dutch confederal system at war — each of the seven provinces maintained their own Admiralty and fleet, so every Dutch fleet sailed with twenty-one admirals in command, three from each province. This drove the English crazy during the period of joint command, trying to work with the complex seniority issues this generated, and it led to significant rank inflation in the Royal Navy, because the Dutch wouldn’t take orders unless the English admirals outranked them. Because the English-speaking world got to experience Dutch confederalism from the inside, as it were, their memories of it were still strong in 1789 — it’s pretty clear this influenced the American Founders in making sure that there was a strong, single Federal military command. In fact Dutch confederalism was one of the main examples (mostly negative) the Founders used as a lesson learned in designing American federalism. Because of the close links between the Anglosphere and the Netherlands (or the Batavosphere, if you will)the Founders were quite familiar with the experiences of the United Provinces.

  4. Just to note that in the first of those “Anglo-Dutch commercial wars” England was led by Oliver Cromwell, who also fought English civil wars, the Scots, the Irish, the insufficiently virtuous, and others I can’t remember … a part of British history that probably doesn’t get the serious analysis it deserves.

  5. Aarrgh, preview is indeed a friend. I did read Jim Bennett’s comment above, noting that the Dutch refused Cromwell’s offer of political union. I had also wanted to note that it’s hard to imagine any country accepting such an offer … the Lord Protector was a prototype totalitarian dictator with a very poor record of power-sharing. The Dutch monarchy would have at the very least felt rather apprehensive about him.

  6. I read once that Oliver Cromwell also canceled Christmas. No, really.

    I always find it fascinating to imagine how history would have been different if, say, South America had been settled by the English instead of the Spanish and Portuguese. Would North America be Third World while Mexico is a massive power? I suspect California would still be part of Mexico. It’s interesting to think how much influence culture has. Would North America be a failure if the French had settled it?

  7. Perish the thought. (Okay, this is personal: the thought of living among people who always laughed at my accent is too painful to contemplate.) Also, I’m not impressed by the transparency of law in the one state that uses the Napoleonic code.

  8. Two names. William and Mary. Wonder why Dutch Statholder William of Orange was invited to ride the ‘Protestant Wind’ to England to displace James II? And with him came his Dutch advisors and policies.

    As to Cromwell [re:marina], the New England Puritans banished Christmas as well believing with good reason that it was simply a pagan celebration disguised with Christian trappings. It wasn’t till the 19th century when New York City merchants revived the holiday as a means to move product and the ‘cultural’ impact of England’s Queen Victoria celebration of her Prince Albert’s tradition of German Tandenbaum, that Christmas would be the holiday Americans recognize today.

  9. The Puritans didn’t celebrate Christmas for the same reason Old Order Amish don’t own cars: the Bible doesn’t specifically sanction either phenomenon. Puritans considered that only two types of special day were sanctioned: Days of Thanksgiving, and Days of Fasting and Humiliation. So our Thanksgiving Day originated in New England as a sort of substitute Christmas. Days of Fasting and Humiliation went out of fashion, although Earth Day seems to have revived some of its flavor. This is in keeping with the general continuity of the Puritan ethos in green culture: many of the environmentalist jeremaiads about Katrina follow the form and sensibility of Puritan sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, perhaps retitled “Environmental wastrels in the hands of an Angry Gaia”.

    As for Cromwell, he was a mixed bag. Although he created a strong unitary state in Britain and a professional standing army (and increased the professionalism of the Royal Navy) his consitution also had mandatory limits on parliamentary terms, regular redisticting and equal representation, a broadened franchise, broader (but not universal) religious liberty, and a number of other features that were not seen again until the American Revolution.

    I suspect the Dutch did not reject union because they objected to Cromwell’s politics — they were both hardcore Calvinists after all. I suspect it was because they thought that in merging the overseas assets of both nations, the Dutch were putting in more than the English, and it was a bad deal.

    It’s very hard to say how history would have changed if the Cromwellians had retained power, or if the Dutch had accepted union. Way too many variables. But I think the rejection of the unitary-state model of Cromwell, and the eventual terms of the Anglo-Scottish Union, was a good thing in historical terms. I’m working on an article on that theme.

  10. mariana,

    Had the Spanish settled in North America it would most likely have been a poor place. For one thing, the Spanish social model of Don and Peon could not produce the autonomous military units needed to defeat mounted Native-Americans. The Spanish expansion in the New World ended when Indians learned to ride horses.

    Mexico had severe problems settling Texas, for example, even though the lands were much more productive than those to the south. Fighting a highly mobile enemy requires an armed populous to defend against spot attacks and the Dons would never arm the Peons to that extent.

    Had Spain settled the north, their colonies most likely would have never grown far beyond the Appalachians, at least not until well into the industrial area. France would have had similar problems but to a lesser degree.

  11. Regarding Cromwell and Christmas it is important to remember that the elevation of Christmas to the status of major holiday is less than 150 years old. Prior to that Easter was the big Christian holiday. In medieval times it signified the start of the New Year and was the time of the paying of tithes and debts. When Cromwell, and others from time to time, have shunned Christmas they were only disparaging a minor celebration that most people just used as an excuse to get drunk in the middle of winter. It would be more akin to somebody in the modern era outlawing Valentines day.

  12. The English came for a different reason (they wanted to set up a society different from England’s rather than to return in glory), with a different group (families and multi-generations, rather than all male), with a different goal in terms of land use (to inhabit rather than explore). Wherever they landed, they were likely to domesticate their societies and the Spanish were less likely to. They looked about and tried to figure out how they could make use of what they saw; those sent by their governments with certain goals (for instance, gold) looked around for that good and tended to discount other goods. (This is how I remember Goetzmann’s thesis in Exploration and Empire. (I read this over thirty years ago and can’t find my copy. I may well need to be corrected.)

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