Born in Den Briel, Tromp sailed the seas from the age of nine, and joined the Dutch navy as a lieutenant in 1621. His first distinction was being Piet Hein's flag captain during the capture of the Spanish treasure fleet in 1628. His ship, at that time, was the Vergulde Draeck.
In 1639, as the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain, as an admiral, Tromp defeated a large Spanish invasion fleet bound for Flanders towards the end of the Eighty Years' War at the Battle of the Downs.
In the First Anglo-Dutch War of 1652–1653 Tromp commanded the Dutch fleet in the battles of Portland, the Gabbard and Scheveningen, in which he was killed by a sharpshooter in the rigging of William Penn's ship.
The death of Maarten Tromp was not only a severe blow to the Dutch navy , but also to the Orangists who sought the defeat of the Commonwealth of England and restoration of the Stuart monarchy; the Republican influence strengthened after the Battle of Scheveningen and the peace negotiations with the Commonwealth, culminating in the Treaty of Westminster, began in earnest.
During his career, his main rival was Witte de With, who also served the Admiralty of Rotterdam (the Maas).