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Dutch Naval Power

Horrific losses...

I am finished. Keep up your courage.
Final words of Dutch admiral Maarten Tromp at the Battle of Scheveningen (August 1653).
Dutch losses - 4,000 killed or wounded; 13 warships sunk or burnt.
English losses - 1,000 killed or wounded; two ships sunk; 35 heavily damaged.

The Battle of Scheveningen

The Dutch admiral Maarten van Tromp seemed to have achieved a tactical advantage on August 8, 1653.  The English had been tricked into chasing his fleet as it came out of the Maas and headed southeast. He somehow managed to turn his entire fleet around during the night without alerting them. The day it took to work their way back against a northeast wind was enough to allow Tromp to rendezvous with a second Dutch force under Witt de With.

The combined Dutch fleet of 100 ships was evenly matched with the English fleet, at least in numbers. The Dutch still dreaded the ship they called the 'Golden Devil,' a monster with three decks and 100 guns.  Impressive in battle, the English ship 'Sovereign of the Seas' was too ungainly to be useful outside the Channel.  It was not the only ship to fear. The English had seventeen other ships, carrying more than forty guns each. The Dutch, in limited numbers, could match the firepower of the English.  The 'Brederode,' Tromp's flagship, carried fifty-nine guns; the next ship in size carried forty-eight. The typical Dutch warship mounted thirty guns.

When the two fleets were ready, they faced each other in lines stretching across 16 miles of sea. At 7:00 am on August 9, 1653 the battle began when the English fleet made a southwest tack and managed to sail through the middle of the Dutch line.  As it sailed through the ships fired broadsides.  It then turned to the northwest and the battle settled into an artillery duel as the two lines sailed close to each other.

The exchange continued until shortly after 11:00 am, when there was a lull.  The 'Brederode' summoned the captains to a meeting.  Expecting to confer about Dutch options or strategy, they arrived to find Tromp dead, his body resting in his cabin.  Death had come, not from one of the English broadsides, but from a musket ball which had entered his chest.  It had been fired from the 'Tulip' as it passed.

Maarten Tromp had seemingly been the heart and soul of the Dutch navy.  At the Downs in 1639 he had been so frustrated by the refusal of the Spanish Admiral d'Oquendo to face the Dutch that he had offered him 500 barrels of gunpowder  to come out and fight. He had gone to sea with his father at the age of nine, been captured by English pirates off Africa at the age of twelve, and been captured again by Barbary corsairs off Tunis at 22.  The bey of Tunis had set him free after two years, impressed by his skill in gunnery and navigation.  He was fondly called Granddad (Bestevaer) by his crews.

With Tromp dead, the fight seemed to go out of the Dutch. Rather than following de With's orders to resume the battle, twenty-five Dutch captains withdrew.  There may have been some personal animosity towards de With.  In October 1652, when he tried to assume command of Tromp's flagship, the 'Brederode,' her crew refused to let him come on board, even threatening to blow his longboat out of the water with a broadside.  There may have been a realization that the already-costly battle had been lost.  De With found himself chasing his retreating ships in a futile effort to restore order.  He would later charge the fleeing captains with cowardice. Of the thirteen charged, eleven would be convicted.

The entire year 1653 had proved costly for the Dutch. The losses at Scheveningen came at the end of a series of deadly battles.  At the battle of Portland Bill in February, Tromp lost twelve of his warships and 43 merchant ships in the convoy he was escorting.  At Gabbard Shoals in June, he lost another seventeen ships. In August 1652 he lost fifty-eight warships of a fleet of ninety-eight, to a storm. By the time the First Anglo-Dutch war came to an end in 1654, Dutch losses in their merchant and fishing fleets amounted to some 1,200 vessels.

Seemingly everywhere...

In 1596, two years before his death, Philip II planned another invasion of England.  In an attempt to forestall the new armada, the English organized a raid on Cadiz, the assembly point.  The fleet managed to enter the harbor and destroy a number of galleons.  Although it was organized by the English and commanded by Lord Howard, the Dutch contributed twenty-four warships.  It marked the beginning of a series of Dutch victories.  The English, despite their successes against Spain and a tradition which included the legendary exploits of Francis Drake and John Hawkins, were in danger of being eclipsed by the Dutch. In 1602 another Anglo-Dutch fleet under Sir Robert Mansel and the Dutch Admiral Obdam destroyed a fleet of galleys in the Channel off the coast of Flanders.  One galley did survive to reach Dunkirk, that of the Spanish commander, Federigo Spinola.  In April 1607 a Dutch fleet, under admiral Jacob van Heemskerck, destroyed a Spanish fleet, including ten Spanish galleons, in the Bay of Gibraltar.  The annual Spanish treasure fleet sailing out of the New World possessions, known as the "Golden Bird," would fall victim to the Dutch in 1628.  The Dutch admiral, Piet Hein, with a fleet of thirty-one ships, managed to catch the Spaniards off Matanzas Bay, Cuba. At the Downs, in October 1639, Maarten Tromp virtually annihilated a Spanish squadron of seventy-seven ships. Only thirteen managed to escape to Dunkirk.

The Dutch navy was seemingly everywhere.  In 1658 the Dutch defeated a Swedish fleet at the Sound, the channel leading into the Baltic.  Charles X Gustavus had closed the Baltic to Dutch shipping and defeat frustrated his attempts to dominate the northern region.  In 1667 a Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway, the anchorage for the English fleet, captured the 'Royal Charles' and 'Unity' and burned five other ships.  At the Texel on August 11, 1673, the Dutch admiral, Michiel Adrianszoon de Ruyter, with only sixty ships attacked and defeated a combined Anglo-French fleet of eighty-six ships.  In May of the previous year at Sole Bay he had performed a similar feat, defeating a combined Anglo-French fleet of seventy-four ships with a battle fleet of only sixty-two ships.  The Dutch even managed to accomplish what Philip II had not.  They organized an armada of nearly 500 vessels in 1688 and installed William of Orange on the throne of England as part of the Glorious Revolution.  The fleet began assembling in September and sailed in November.  William entered London on December 18th and became sovereign of England in February 1689.

Even if not victorious, the Dutch navy displayed an amazing ability to absorb punishment or to quickly rebound from defeat.  In the First Anglo-Dutch War, despite losses in the Channel, the Dutch, with their allies, denied the Baltic to English shipping for much of 1653.  Admiral van Galen, operating in the Mediterranean, destroyed an English fleet in March 1653 off Levarno in the Levant.  The VOC fleet was largely unchallenged in the East Indies during much of the war.

The Military Revolution of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.

Sea-Beggar Beginnings

The emergence of the Dutch Republic as a naval power should not be surprising, given its seagoing traditions.  The herring grounds of the north Atlantic had provided one of its early sources of economic wealth.  Fleets of herring busses, small fishing vessels of thirty to forty tons, were being organized in the 1400's.  In 1470 there were an estimated 250 busses.  The fleet had risen to 500 by 1560, employing some 7,000 men.  The state of Holland alone is estimated to have had some 1,800 seagoing vessels in 1560, a fact which might have given Philip II pause in planning for the Armada.  The sea provided the Dutch with another economic opportunity.  They developed ships which were cheap to construct, carried small crews, and could carry bulk cargo, such as grain or timber, at low cost.  In the 1560's Dutch shippers were sending over 1,000 ships through the Baltic annually.

The Sea-Beggars (Gueux), the embryonic force established by Count Louis on the Ems estuary in May and June 1568, was the first attempt to translate Dutch know-how into an organized navy.  Their skills as seamen made the Sea-Beggars a potent raiding force, which also made them irritating enough to Queen Elizabeth to have them expelled from English ports where they had found refuge.  Their first military success was not so much a battle as an unopposed landing.  On April 1, 1572, the Spanish garrison at Brill (Brielle) had been called away by the Duke of Alva (Don Fernando Alvarez de Toledo) to guard the border with France.  The Beggars, with only 600 men, were only planning a raid on the town.  However, with the Spanish garrison away, their leader, Count Lumey de la Marck, decided to try to hold the town.  It was not so much the fighting abilities of the Beggars which allowed them to take Flushing on April 6th, but the town's hatred of the Spanish.  The town threw out a Walloon garrison and invited the Beggars in.  The force sent, 800 men plus eight ships, was not much bigger than the Brill force, but the control of two towns was enough to encourage the town of Veere and most of the towns of Walcheren Island to join the revolt.  Enkhuizen joined in May, followed by Hoorn and Alkmaar in June, and Haarlem in July.

The inability of the Spanish to quickly suppress the revolt allowed it to survive.  It took a year to recapture Haarlem, which withstood a Spanish siege until July 1573. The strength of the rebel naval forces, in a war which measured success by the capture and control of cities, often proved the Achilles' heel of the Spanish.  Even where the Spaniards had superiority in numbers, they failed to adapt to local conditions.  At the battle of the Zuider Zee, in October 1573, many of the Spanish vessels, including the flagship 'Inquisition,' ran aground in the shallows.  The battle left the city of Bossu and the Scheldt estuary in rebel hands. Beggar vessels were able to prevent relief convoys from reaching the Spanish garrison at Middelburg, which finally surrendered in February 1574.  In the case of Leiden, it was not the Dutch naval force which prevented the Spaniards from recapturing the city, but the low-lying terrain.  The city was starving by September and, in desperation, a decision was made to cut the dikes, in hopes of inundating the besieging army.  The plan was frustrated by a lack of rain until late in the month, when rains finally came.  The Spanish army gave up the siege and retreated.

Naval Expansion

Notwithstanding their victories over the Spanish in the early stages of the revolt, a seagoing tradition was no guarantee of military success.  What accounted for the transition from a regional to a world power was more likely the introduction of advances in military technology and tactics. The Dutch Republic benefited from the so-called Military Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which involved changes in fortification design and construction, increases in the size of armies, and the development of new systems of supply and support.  Some of these advances were in response to the invention of gunpowder and the technological advances in weaponry which followed.

Some 120 years before the Dutch revolt, the world had seen a demonstration of the effectiveness of modern weaponry.  On May 29, 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to Mehmet II (Mohammed II), Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, after a seven-week siege. The contest had been unequal. Mehmet's army numbered 80,000, while the defenders numbered only 7,000.  The Ottoman force had a battery of 70 guns, some capable of firing balls of 800 pounds.  The rate of fire was slow, only three shots a day, and the weight of the biggest gun, nineteen tons, made it cumbersome.  Nevertheless, the impact of the stone balls eventually collapsed the walls at the St. Romanus gate.  Constantine XI and the few defenders there were unable to stem the tide of Janissaries, Mehmet's elite troops.

The cannon which pounded Constantinople had been designed by Urban, a Hungarian cannon-founder.  He had first offered his services to Constantine, but thought the stipend he offered too small.  He then approached Mehmet, who was willing to pay more.  Urban himself was killed during the siege when one of his guns exploded.

When Prince Maurits laid siege to Steenwijk in 1592, he had a battery of fifty artillery pieces which fired some 29,000 shots.  The siege would last forty-four days.

Artillery capable of firing at a faster rate was just one of the technological advances adopted by the Dutch.  A system of regular and frequent payment of troops was also adopted, as well as a code of military conduct.  The death penalty was imposed for serious infractions, which included rape and abduction.  Weapons and ammunition were standardized.  The Dutch also developed a more systematic approach to training and drills.  New tactics, such as the use of the volley technique, in which troops maintained a more or less continuous rate of fire by forming separate firing lines within a formation which fired in unison, required more intensive training.

The downside of the tactics and advances adopted by the Dutch was that they were expensive.  If regular payment improved discipline, costs to maintain an army on a continuing basis increased.  These cost increases were compounded by increases in the size of the Dutch forces.  In 1588 20,000 men were under arms.  In 1595 the army had been increased in size to 32,000.  By 1607 the army had increased to over 50,000.  Part of the reason for the expansion was the need to garrison new strongholds, which were themselves expensive.  A ring of fortresses was constructed from Delfzijl in the north to Cadzand in the south.  The intensive fortification program required an expansion in the corps of engineers, although added costs may have been partly offset by the international prestige gained.  Dutch military engineers had the reputation of being the best in Europe.  Increased use of heavy weapons, such as the artillery bombardment of Steenwijk, required greater outlays for guns and ammunition.

The ability to utilize the latest, most expensive, technology said something about the economic productivity of the Republic.  By 1590, just eleven years after the formation of the Republic, the Dutch began a campaign of territorial expansion.  Breda was the first Spanish-held city to fall.  The cities Zutphen and Deventer were captured in 1591, along with forts along the Ijssel, followed by Delfzijl on the Ems, and Hulst and Nijmegen.  In 1592 Groningen would join the Dutch side and Steenwijk would be captured.  Coevorden would be subjected to Maurits' bombardment next.  Geertruidenberg would fall in June 1593 and Groningen in 1594.  Maurits may have become more efficient at conducting siege operations, since only 10,000 shots from the Dutch artillery were needed to subdue Groningen.  The siege took two months.  In 1597 Dutch forces would capture Rheinburg, Grol, Oldenzaal, and Encschedé. In all, they had captured forty-three towns and fifty-five forts, by the time the campaign was over.

Economics was not the only explanation for Dutch successes in the 1590's.  Philip was distracted by events in France.  In 1589 Henri IV emerged victorious in the War of the Three Henris.  Determined to prevent a Protestant from establishing himself on the throne, Philip moved troops out of the Netherlands to support the Catholic League forces in France.  While Philip did not prevent Henri from claiming the throne, he did force him to convert to Catholicism in 1593, following which he entered Paris as king in 1594.  Philip's determination to thwart Protestant expansion in Europe weakened his forces in the Netherlands.

Success on land was not won at the expense of the navy.  Economic survival was heavily dependent on foreign trade and open sea lanes.  European trading partners, particularly Spain and Portugal, were unreliable, if not openly hostile.  Foreign trade, one of the few options left when European ports were closed, came with its own increased risks, particularly on seas which had become militarized.  There may also have been the view that investment in naval forces paid bigger dividends than investment in land forces.  Spectacular victories could be achieved with smaller expenditures.

The first naval campaign outside the Netherlands took place in 1599.  A force of 8,000 men was sent to the Azores and Săo Thomé.  Although several fleets were sent to prowl the coasts of Portugal and Spain in subsequent years, they achieved little until April of 1607, when a  twenty-six ship fleet destroyed ten Spanish galleons in the Bay of Gibraltar.

The military theories, discipline, and technology which revolutionized land warfare provided the Dutch navy with an edge in sea battles, as did their tactic of concentrating forces to overwhelm opponents. The Dutch were entering the spice race at a unique time. Europe was preoccupied with New World possessions and gold and the naval expenditures of England and Spain were geared to naval conflict closer to home. The location of spice producing lands far from European conflict left them ripe for exploitation.  Any power willing to adopt new technology would be in a position to displace the Portuguese, until the end of the sixteenth century, the reigning military power in the region. In addition, the Dutch avoided competition by effectively limiting themselves to the spice markets of the East Indies.  Competing powers, such as England, found other markets, such as those for Indian textiles and calicoes, open.  With gold, Spain had thrust itself into one of the most competitive markets on earth.

And retreat...

On April 6, 1672, Louis XIV declared war on the Dutch Republic. In May he led an army of 118,000 infantry and 12,500 cavalry across the Maas north of Maastricht.  On June 23 the city of Utrecht surrendered without a fight.  The Dutch managed to avoid total defeat by flooding their lands.  Spain entered the war on the side of the Dutch in August 1673 and Louis would finally conclude a peace in 1678.  Ten years later the War of the League of Augsburg (Nine Years' War) would pit France against the Republic again, this time with consequences for the East Indies.  War in Europe marked the end of expansion in Asia.

The Dutch Republic, whatever its early successes, did not have the resources to match France, let alone England.  The population of France was three times that of England in 1678 and ten times that of the Dutch Republic.  The French fleet was the largest in the world.  The Dutch navy had suffered a major defeat at Palermo, Sicily in June 1676, a loss from which it would never recover.

In the final analysis, military conflict came down to population and resources.  Innovative technologies could provide an edge temporarily, but technologies were transferable.  The edge was gone once a hostile power acquired the latest technology.  Constantine had discovered both facts in 1453.  Urban's knowledge went to the highest bidder almost as soon as it was available.

Suggestions for further reading.

Charles Corn, "The Scents of Eden: A Narrative of the Spice Trade," Kodansha America, Inc., (New York, NY 1998).

Fairfax Downey, "Cannonade: Great Artillery Actions of History and the Famous Cannons and the Master Gunners," Doubleday & Company, (Garden City, NY 1966)

"The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition," Grolier, (Danbury, CT 2002).

David Howarth, "The Seafarers: The Men-of-War," Time-Life Books, Inc. (Alexandria, VA 1978).

Richard Humble, "The Seafarers: The Explorers," Time-Life Books, Inc. (Alexandria, VA 1978).

Jonathan I. Israel, "The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806," Clarendon Press, (Oxford 1995).

Jonathan I. Israel, "The Emerging Empire: The Continental Perspective, 1650-1713" from "The Oxford History of the British Empire, (Volume I): The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century," Nicholas Canny, ed., Oxford University Press, (Oxford 1998).

John Keay, "The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company," Macmillan Publishing Company, (New York, NY 1991).

Jack Kelly, "Gunpowder Alchemy. Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive That Changed the World," Basic Books, (New York, 2004)

Angus Konstam, "Historical Atlas of Exploration: 1492-1600," Checkmark Books, (New York, 2000)

Andrew Lambert, John Keegan, Gen. Ed., "War at Sea in the Age of Sail 1650-1851," Cassell & Co., (London 2000).

Richard Russell Lawrence, ed. "The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness Naval Battles," Carroll & Graf Publishers (New York, NY 2003).

Michael Maclagan, "The City of Constantinople," Frederick A. Praeger, (New York, 1968)

Giles Milton, "Nathaniel's Nutmeg or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History," Farrar, Straus and  Giroux, (New York, NY 1999).

Bryce Walker, "The Seafarers: The Armada," Time-Life Books, Inc. (Alexandria, VA 1981)

Oliver Warner, "Great Sea Battles," Exeter Books, (New York, 1963)

Antony Wild, "The East India Company: Trade and Conquest from 1600," The Lyons Press, (New York, NY 2000).