The Battle of Vigo Bay. On the evening of 22 October 1702 the Anglo-Dutch fleet entered the Ria de Vigo, and sailed past the two forts of the city of Vigo that fired at them as they passed by. At the end of the bay the French fleet and Spanish treasure ships lay in the harbour of Redondela, surrounded by the Galician mountains.
In 1700 the two naval powers of England and the Dutch Republic had tried to intervene in the Great Northern War and to ease Charles XII of Sweden’s position against a strong coalition of enemies. A combined Anglo-Dutch squadron bombarded Copenhagen and the Danish fleet. Denmark was forced to make concessions. The troubles around the Spanish succession and the ensuing war forestalled any other intervention in the Nordic conflict. From 1710 onwards Dutch and British merchant vessels were being arrested in Denmark and Russia or captured by Swedes. So in 1714, after the Peace of Utrecht had ended the War of the Spanish Succession, Great Britain decided to give up its passive role in Nordic affairs. The balance by then had turned against Sweden as Peter the Great had occupied the east coast of the Baltic. Sweden had blockaded major trading ports and issued privateering commissions. British as well as Dutch shipping faced growing risks.
A British proposal for a joint naval force to protect neutral shipping was in the first instance turned down by the Dutch. The proposal itself was in line with Anglo-Dutch co-operation during the previous two or three decades. When the offer was repeated in 1715, the Dutch accepted it but their commander received strict orders to abstain from any kind of hostility. The size of the two squadrons was determined by the three-to-five ratio as established in 1689: 12 Dutch and 20 British ships. The carefully formulated Dutch instructions also curtailed freedom of operations of the British, for on its own the British squadron would have been too weak for armed actions against the Swedish Navy. In 1716 another force sailed into the Baltic. In 1717, however, Britain stiffened its policy against Sweden, creating difficult problems for its ally. The city of Amsterdam, the main seat of Baltic trade, was worried about the consequences. The Dutch therefore ordered a halt to their Baltic shipping. In 1718 it was again decided to return to the fruitful policy of sending a squadron. A force of 11 Dutch and 12 British ships operated successfully during that year. The Dutch government, however, did not accept another plan for a combined force in 1719 despite strong British pressure. From then on, the British operated alone in the Baltic until peace was concluded there in 1721. No Dutch men-of-war were sent to the Baltic. The Republic did not follow the change in British foreign policy that now favoured Sweden rather than Russia. The effects these allied squadrons had on Dutch shipping activities in the Baltic is unclear. In the years without convoys more ships passed through the Sound than in the years when there was armed protection. In the years without convoys the numbers were as follows: 569 (1714), 193 (1717, the year with a prohibition of shipping) and 544 (1719), the convoy years: 373(1715), 324 (1716) and 360 (1718). More than 200, 300 and 260 vessels sailed under armed protection in the latter years respectively. The formation of convoys always implied delay. Several vessels therefore could not make more than one voyage in a year, instead of two or three which was the norm.
The impact of the Anglo-Dutch squadrons on the Nordic struggle itself should not be exaggerated. Nevertheless, from a Dutch point of view the despatching of those squadrons were important naval activities. With one later exception in 1729, it was the last time that the Dutch Navy operated on equal terms with the British one. Another more important aspect is the fact that, in sharp contrast to previous wars, both navies now had to claim and support the rights that neutrality was supposed to give to mercantile shipping, rights they had earlier denied to Scandinavians, for example. The two allies did not enjoy mastery in the region. For Great Britain the Baltic cruises turned out to be just another incident, for the Republic it was the first and irreversible step towards the status of a second-rate naval power. During a later Baltic conflict in 1741–43, Swedish privateers again attacked neutral ships. The cry for convoy was loud in Amsterdam and nine frigates were equipped. In order to cause no political or military stir this force of small ships was split into three groups. The ships oversaw uneventful trips to Russian and Polish ports.
In 1714 there were two very good reasons for the Dutch government not to play an active role in the Nordic wars: the enormous debts of the admiralties and the inactivity of the fleet. The Republic was financially exhausted. Until around 1700 William III had been able to keep the size of the public debt under control, but Grand Pensionary Heinsius was not so successful during the War of the Spanish Succession. At the end of the war the debts were enormous. Many government activities came to a complete or nearly complete standstill after peace had been restored. Hardly any men-of-war were built and as few ships as possible were fitted out. Suppliers and naval captains did not receive their money. Many warships were laid up permanently and later broken up or sold. The fleet became smaller and smaller. For the three Baltic squadrons in 1715–18 the admiralties had to find special funds.
After the War of the Spanish Succession and the Great Northern War nearly all the European countries reduced the size of their navies and returned to configurations befitting a period of peace, the French, British and Dutch navies, in particular. After some time a period of rearmament started, gaining full speed from the 1750s onwards. It was general policy in western Europe as well as in the Baltic. The Dutch Republic did not follow other states, however. On the contrary, its fleet continued to decrease. Figures in the following table show how the navy declined, and not only to secondary status; the Dutch Republic fell temporarily to the status of a third-rate naval power.
There were no major conflicts in Europe after the War of the Spanish Succession and the Great Northern War until 1744. The Dutch Republic remained a loyal, but weakened ally to Britain, and when international tensions heated up, small squadrons were fitted out to join the British Navy. In the summer of 1729, for example, 12 Dutch men-of-war were gathered together with 20 British ships at Spithead because of a crisis on the Continent. It turned out to be a false alarm. Meanwhile the fleets killed time with races to measure the sailing qualities of some of the new ships.
The year 1744, however, was decisive for Anglo-Dutch naval relations. In that year, in the middle of the War of the Austrian Succession, Britain asked for naval support on the basis of the Treaty of 1678, and it then realised what an enfeebled naval power the Dutch Republic had become. The call for an auxiliary squadron of 20 ships for use against France in order to forestall an invasion proved a request impossible for the Dutch to fulfil. The Dutch naval organisation was accustomed to fitting out no more than five to nine ships per year. The total size of the fleet had dwindled to no more than 60 vessels. Ships- of-the-line were employed only rarely. Many months passed before this Dutch auxiliary force assembled at Spithead and it became clear immediately that it was not of much use to the British Navy. Hundreds of seamen became sick, and there was a shortage of many items on board. The ships themselves leaked; the flag officers and captains quarrelled constantly; 6,000 auxiliary troops had to be transported to Scotland by British transport vessels, where they proved to be ill provided for, badly led and very uncooperative. In 1747 the Republic at long last got involved in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48), and could not defend itself sufficiently. British warships had to help in safeguarding the Scheldt estuary from a French invasion.
The Treaty of 1678 had thus been applied two times in a row and on behalf of both signatories. The lessons to be drawn were obvious. Britain had learnt that the Republic was no longer a power to be reckoned with; the events of 1744 had been a sort of unmasking. Dutch merchants and skippers, however, continued to profit greatly from the Treaty of 1674. Until 1747 Dutch shipping was considered neutral and Dutch skippers exploited the terms of that old treaty, which favoured neutrals. They traded with France in all sorts of goods, including naval stores; only actual weapons were excluded. This trade was advantageous for the Dutch as well as the French. Naval stores were carried from the Baltic to French dockyards with little if any harassment from British warships or privateers. When cargoes were captured, they were sold to British dockyard contractors, the freight was paid and the ships along with their crews released. It was the first time Britain was commit- ted to a war on global scale, and it did not press too strongly on Dutch shipping activities. Britain would not repeat that policy in the Seven Years War of 1756–63.