The First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54) (called the First Dutch War in England, and the First English War in the Netherlands) was the first of the four Anglo-Dutch Wars. It was fought entirely at sea between the navies of the Commonwealth of England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Caused by disputes over trade, the war began with attacks on merchant shipping, but expanded to vast fleet actions. The English navy gained control of the seas around England, and forced the Dutch to accept an English monopoly on trade with English colonies.
(Dates in this article are given in the Gregorian calendar, then 10 days ahead of the Julian calendar in use in England.)
In the 16th century, England and the Netherlands had been close allies against the ambitions of the Habsburgs. They cooperated in defeating the Spanish Armada. England supported the Dutch in the Eighty Years' War by sending money and troops. There was a permanent English representative in the Dutch government to ensure coordination of the joint war effort. The collapse of Spanish power at the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648 meant that the colonial possessions of the Portuguese and Spanish Empires were effectively up for grabs. The ensuing rush for empire brought the former allies into conflict. Also the Dutch, now they had made peace with Spain, quickly replaced the English as dominant traders with the Iberian peninsula.
By the middle of the 17th century the Dutch had built by far the largest mercantile fleet of Europe, with more ships than all other nations combined, and their economy, based mainly on maritime commerce, gave them a dominant position in European, especially Baltic, trade. Furthermore they had annexed most of Portugal's territory in the East Indies giving them control over the enormously profitable trade in spices. They were even gaining significant influence over England's maritime trade with her North American colonies, profiting from the turmoil that resulted from the English Civil War. However, after their decisive victory over the Spanish invasion fleet at the Battle of the Downs in 1639, the war with Spain had been confined to land, and the Dutch navy had been left to deteriorate. The Dutch had many autonomous admiralties and these after 1648 sold off large parts of the fleet to economize. By 1652 fewer than fifty ships were seaworthy and the deficiency had to be made good by arming merchantmen. All of these were very inferior in firepower to the largest English first and second rates.
The navy of the Commonwealth of England was in better condition. It had emerged victorious from the English Civil War; supported and supplied Cromwell's army in the wars in Scotland and Ireland; blockaded the royalist fleet of Prince Rupert in Lisbon; and organized a system of convoys to protect the commerce of the Commonwealth against the swarms of privateers set upon it from every European port. On 24 September 1650 General-at-Sea Robert Blake had defeated the fleet of Portugal in a violent gale, sinking the Portuguese Vice-Admiral and taking seven prizes, compelling Portugal to cease protecting Rupert. In 1651 the royalist strongholds in the Scilly Isles, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands had been captured, and in 1652 General George Ayscue had recovered England's colonial possessions in the West Indies and North America. The English navy had been placed on a secure financial footing by an Act of 10 November 1650 which imposed a 15 per cent tax on merchant shipping and provided that the money thus raised should be used to fund the naval forces protecting the convoys.
French support for the English royalists had led the Commonwealth to issue letters of reprisal against French ships and against French goods in neutral ships. These letters carried the right to search neutral ships, which were mostly Dutch. The English Parliament passed the first of the Navigation Acts in October 1651. It ordered that only English ships and ships from the originating country could import goods to England. This measure was particularly aimed at hampering the shipping of the highly trade-dependent Dutch and often used as a pretext to simply take their ships. Agitation among the Dutch merchants was further increased by George Ayscue's capture in early 1652 of 27 Dutch ships trading with the royalist colony of Barbados in contravention of an embargo imposed by the Commonwealth. Moreover, the death of Dutch Stadtholder William II had placed the foreign policy of the United Provinces in the hands of the great trading concerns of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Accordingly, the States General decided on 3 March 1652 to expand the fleet by hiring and equipping 150 merchant ships as ships of war.
The news of this decision reached London on 12 March 1652 and the Commonwealth too began to prepare for war, but as both nations were unready war might have been delayed if not for an unfortunate encounter between the fleets of Dutch Admiral Maarten Tromp and General at Sea Robert Blake in the English Channel near Dover on 29 May 1652. An ordinance of Cromwell required all foreign fleets in the North Sea or the Channel to dip their flag in salute, but when Tromp refused, Blake opened fire, starting the brief Battle of Goodwin Sands. Tromp lost two ships but escorted his convoy to safety.
War was declared on 10 July 1652. The Dutch realized what was at stake: one of the departing ambassadors said, "The English are about to attack a mountain of gold; we are about to attack a mountain of iron."
The first months of the war saw attacks by the English against the convoys of the Dutch. Blake was sent with 60 ships to disrupt Dutch fishing in the North Sea and Dutch trade with the Baltic, leaving Ayscue with a small force to guard the Channel. On 12 July 1652 Ayscue intercepted a Dutch convoy returning from Portugal, capturing seven merchantmen and destroying three. Tromp gathered a fleet of 96 ships to attack Ayscue but winds from the south kept him in the North Sea. Turning north to pursue Blake, Tromp caught up with the English fleet off the Shetland Islands but a storm scattered his ships and there was no battle. On 26 August 1652 Ayscue attacked an outward-bound Dutch convoy commanded by Admiral Michiel de Ruyter but was beaten back in the Battle of Plymouth and relieved of his command.
Tromp had also been suspended after the failure at the Shetlands, and Admiral Witte de With was given the command. The Dutch convoys being at the time safe from English attack, de With saw an opportunity to concentrate his forces and gain control of the seas. At the Battle of the Kentish Knock on 8 October 1652 the Dutch attacked the English fleet near the mouth of the river Thames, but were beaten back with severe losses. The English Parliament, believing the Dutch to be near defeat, sent away twenty ships to strengthen the position in the Mediterranean. This division of forces left Blake with only 42 men of war by November, while the Dutch were making every effort to reinforce their fleet, and this led to English defeats in the Battle of Dungeness in December and the Battle of Leghorn early in 1653. The Dutch had effective control of the Channel, the North Sea, and the Mediterranean, with English ships blockaded in port.
Despite its successes, the Dutch Republic was ill-prepared for a naval war. As press-ganging was forbidden, enormous sums had to be paid to attract enough sailors. To make matters worse, political controversy arose about the proper course of action: should the Dutch navy be extended or should defensive measures against a possible land invasion take precedence? Unable to assist all of their colonies they had to allow the Portuguese to reconquer Brazil.
Over the winter of 1652–1653 the English repaired their ships and considered their position. Robert Blake wrote the Sailing and Fighting Instructions a major overhaul of naval tactics, containing the first description of the line of battle. By February 1653 the English were ready to challenge the Dutch, and in the three-day Battle of Portland in March and the two-day Battle of the Gabbard in June drove the Dutch back to their home ports.
The final battle of the war was the costly Battle of Scheveningen in August. The Dutch tried to break the English blockade but after heavy fighting with much damage to both sides, the Dutch retreated to the Texel leaving the English in control of the seas. Tromp was killed early in the battle, a blow to morale which increased the Dutch opinion to end the war. Similar feelings arose in England after Oliver Cromwell dissolved the pro-war Rump Parliament.
Dutch prizes taken during the war (about 1200 merchantmen) amounted to double the value of England's whole ocean-going merchant fleet.
Peace negotiations ended on April 5, 1654 with the signing of the Treaty of Westminster, in which the Dutch recognised the Commonwealth and agreed to respect the Navigation Acts. The treaty had a secret annex, the Act of Exclusion, forbidding the Dutch ever to appoint the son of the late stadtholder, the later William III to the position of his father. In fact this clause was inserted on the wish of the leading Dutch politician, the republican Johan de Witt. However, the commercial rivalry between the two nations was not resolved. Especially in the vast overseas empires hostilities continued between Dutch and English trading companies, which had warships and troops of their own. The Dutch had started on a major ship-building program to remedy the lack of ships of the line that they had lacked at the fleet battles of the Kentish Knock, the Gabbard, and Scheveningen. The admiralties were now forbidden by law to sell off these 60 new ships. The Second Anglo-Dutch War was in the making.
The First Anglo-Dutch War was the first war to be fought entirely at sea, with no operations aiming at landing or supporting troops on shore, although the Dutch made plans for a raid on the Medway.
Last updated: 05-21-2005 10:54:44