The Anglo-Dutch Wars and the Maritime Mastery of Michiel de Ruyter

 

 

Admiral Michiel de Ruyter

 

The Anglo-Dutch Wars were a series of three mostly naval clashes between the Netherlands, England, and their respective allies during the late 1600s. The northern Dutch provinces, having pried themselves loose of the Spanish yoke by the 1640s, boasted masterful sea commanders and, despite their country’s relatively small size and population, managed to initiate an ocean-going trade empire that would carry them to predominance in the unimaginably distant outpost of the East Indies. By virtue of geographical accident, the maritime routes enabling Dutch vessels to access the Atlantic were directly in the path of the sea lanes constituting the coastal waters of England and France, and the Dutch economy—not blessed with financial resources—was extremely reliant on sea-borne commerce, especially with England. A Navigation Act passed by England in 1651 served as provocation in Dutch minds for a refusal to salute English port authorities, which touched off the first Anglo-Dutch War between Cromwell’s navy and the Dutch fleet. The war stalemated after the fierce and bloody naval confrontation of Scheveningen, leading both sides to sue for peace in 1653 in the midst of substantial unfinished business. Hostilities erupted again in 1665 (following the Restoration of the English monarchy), with the Dutch fleet led by Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, one of the most capable and underrated naval commanders in military history. de Ruyter inflicted heavy losses on the English fleet in the Four Days’ Battle of 1666, one of the most intense engagements in naval annals, and England was soon overwhelmed by the Great Fire of London and an explosive outbreak of the Plague even as the Dutch forces swarmed menacingly close to the English coast. Finally, in 1667, de Ruyter led his fleet into the mouth of the Thames and initiated the Raid on the Medway, one of the most infamous disasters in British military history, as the Dutch admiral and his raiding party furtively moved up the river and torched the bulk of the English fighting and commercial seagoing fleet, even sacking, plundering, and burning many structures on the coast. It was the worst British defeat since the serial fiascoes suffered by the Elizabethan English navy against Spain in the 1590s and the raiding party of Don Carlos de Amesquita, which pillaged a substantial swath of Cornwall in 1595. Desperately short of funds, England sued for peace in 1667 and, in the Treaty of Breda, exchanged Suriname to the Dutch in return for New Netherlands (modern New York) in North America.

Mutual hatred still smoldered between the two nations, however, and in 1672 the English once again attacked the Dutch Republic. This time, the English were allied via a secret treaty with France under King Louis XIV, who despised the United Netherlands and launched a massive land invasion to demolish and conquer the Dutch republic, simultaneous with the English seaborne assaults. The stoical Dutch, however, endured tremendous hardship as they shocked King Louis’s forces by opening the dikes and inundating their own country, frustrating the French advance guard and thwarting the invasion plan. Meanwhile, de Ruyter had proven his magnificence once again, trouncing the English fleet in three successive naval encounters in 1673. Finally, the Dutch managed to engineer a diplomatic coup by allying with their old foe, Spain, against France and England, who were both obliged to withdraw.

The repeated English naval defeats against the Dutch in the late 1600s, along with the multiple English debacles against the Spaniards in the 1590s, emphasize that the popular notion of English naval superiority refers, in fact, to a quite recent phenomenon. It was not until the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War), concluded in 1763, that the English navy (then the British navy, since England and Wales had united with Scotland) truly became preeminent in the Atlantic Ocean and the European coastal waters. It was after this pivotal victory in 1763 that the British were able to settle Australia and New Zealand, to establish themselves in India and extend their empire globally. Prior to 1763, England was not Europe’s dominant naval force. Not only was the English fleet defeated in multiple engagements against Spain following the Spanish Armada, in the 1590s; even as Spain, beset by inflation and corruption, declined as a great power in the mid-1600s, the English fleet was consistently outmatched by the extraordinary competence of the Dutch commanders, de Ruyter in particular. This fact should help to shatter the often blasé assumption that Britain’s geographical position endowed it with a natural dominance of the waves; geography certainly helped, but it was two centuries’ worth of rigorous discipline and indefatigable improvements following the setbacks of the 1590s that finally enabled Great Britain to assume the mantle of Europe’s dominant sea power in 1763. It is a tribute to the country’s many tireless shipbuilders, clever commanders, and Scharfaugende engineers—the technicians on the ground floor who constantly tweaked naval designs and ordnance capabilities, day-in and day-out— during that interim that the British were able to mature, by the late 1700s, into the world’s preeminent seafaring nation.

 

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