Sea-Power in the Seventeenth Century I

Changes in the distribution of sea-power among the states of Europe affected large areas outside Europe more directly than ever before. For Europe’s sea communications had encompassed the world. Besides the regular trans-Atlantic routes, little-frequented ones went across the Pacific to the Philippines and from the East Indies to Macao, Formosa and Japan. Commercial exchanges with Europe might require a cycle of as long as five years, quantities were minute, in some of these cases only one ship a year reached the final destination, but a regular pattern of trade existed. Originally the Portuguese had established themselves in the East thanks to a margin of technical superiority in sea- fighting, but by the late sixteenth century they were accustomed to peaceful trading in almost unarmed ships. After 1600 both they and the native traders were to suffer from the competition and incursions of heavily armed Dutch and English ships. In particular the heavier armament, superior organization and better seamanship of the Dutch East India Company enabled them to establish a commercial supremacy in Indonesia by 1650, despite prolonged and sometimes effective resistance by the Portuguese and others. Europeans did not control the trade of the Indian Ocean or Indonesia, even the Dutch never held a completely effective monopoly of the spice trade. Nevertheless they dominated important and profitable trades, because ultimately their naval power was greater than that of the native states. If Iberian power was eclipsed in the East, their monopoly of trans-Atlantic trade, still virtually intact in 1600, was also broken. By 1621 over half the carrying trade of Brazil was in Dutch hands, by the 1650s the Dutch and English were permanently established in the Caribbean and were establishing treaty rights in Brazilian and Portuguese trade.

Distribution of sea-power was itself changed by changing distribution of trade and also by technical developments in shipbuilding and the con- duct of war. Heavily armed ships from north-western Europe began to dominate the trade and warfare of the Mediterranean. The traditional galleys were still used in war, but together with sailing ships which more and more dominated the battles. By the 1650s the battle-fleets of the English and the Dutch were dominated by specialized fighting ships with two or three gun-decks, designed for inboard-loading and for increasingly heavy and controlled broadside fire, which in turn involved the gradual adoption of line-ahead formations. There was increasing professionalization of naval officers, though in wartime seamen from the merchant marine were essential to man the fleets which still also included merchant ships. Naval strategy turned more than ever on the protection and destruction of trade, and sea-power as always depended upon both trading and fighting fleets. But the maintenance of a fighting fleet was more expensive than ever before, requiring a larger permanent organization which could design, build and maintain specialized ships, unsuitable for trade. In 1639 before the Battle of the Downs Tromp’s strength had been trebled in a matter of weeks by fitting out merchant ships. Before 1642 hired merchantmen had usually made up more than half the numbers of English fleets. Their proportion in the Parliamentary fleets during the Civil War was much smaller; in the Dutch war Blake wished to keep it down to a fifth and in fact it seldom exceeded a third. After 1653 hired merchantmen might still play a decisive part in the war between Venice and the Turks but not in wars between great naval powers.

By the 1650s the distribution of sea power had changed decisively. In 1600 the Iberian kingdoms might still claim to be the greatest maritime power, their merchant fleet was second only to the Dutch and their combined naval strength greater than that of either the Dutch or the English. Even in the 1620s Spain was the strongest naval power in the Mediterranean and in the Atlantic and could hopefully plan to challenge the Dutch in their home waters. The Habsburgs could even dream of dominating the Baltic in alliance with a revivified Hanseatic League. By 1659 Spain was weaker in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean than England or Holland and was soon to be outstripped by France. The technical changes of the period seem to have largely passed Spain by. In the 1630s the English and Dutch built the Sovereign and the Aemilia, prototypes of the heavy and medium ships of the future battle lines. The Spaniards still built relatively undergunned galleons, just as they failed to adopt newer types of fishing vessels and cargo carriers, although they were more receptive to the Dunkirkers’ example in developing fast frigates. Spain’s fleets were chronically short of gunners and seamen so that their ability to fight and even to survive the ordinary hazards of the sea were both impaired. Matters were even worse for the Portuguese on the Cape route, since they persisted in using unwieldy carracks of 1,000 tons or more, though well aware smaller ships would be more seaworthy. They then persistently overloaded and overcrowded them, despite regulations to the contrary and a shortage of seamen. Losses from shipwreck increased in the late sixteenth century and continued to be heavy until 1650, after- wards the rate dropped steeply; from 1590 to 1635 some 220 sailings from Lisbon resulted in the loss of thirty-four ships, while some 130 from India lost thirty-three.

The decline of Iberian sea-power did not happen because statesmen were blind to its importance, though the general contempt for sailors and their profession found in both Spain and Portugal may have contributed to it. As with so many problems which beset Spain, the need to maintain her power at sea was understood and analysed, but the resources for effective action were lacking. To renew the war against the Dutch Spain had to accept continental commitments and communications, sending troops and money from north Italy overland to the Netherlands. To secure these communications Spain had to subsidize and assist allies in the empire whom she could neither control nor afford. Spain’s maritime resources had to be concentrated on keeping her Atlantic communications open for her treasure-fleets and the western Mediterranean safe for the transfer of funds and troops to Genoa for Milan, Germany and Flanders. The failure to continue the land campaign against the Dutch with real success after the capture of Breda (1625) meant that the risk of the Dutch wearing down Spain’s Atlantic communications by the organized attacks of the West India Company increased. To counter this pressure Olivares wanted to erode Dutch sea-power by destroying her trade. Like his predecessors he would have liked to close the Straits of Gibraltar to the Dutch and English, but there was no real prospect of establishing an effective blockade. Hopes of a potentially much more decisive counter- stroke caused the revival of projects for attacking the Dutch in the most vital area of their maritime and commercial hegemony, the Baltic. In 1624 Olivares proposed to found a company with Flemish and Hanseatic participation which would have a monopoly of Iberian trade with the rest of Europe, thus undermining the entrepot trade of Amsterdam as well as providing a fleet of twenty-four ships to challenge the Dutch from bases in East Friesland. After 1626 this last objective was changed and the fleet was to be based in the Baltic in order to harry Dutch trade there. Sigismund III of Poland had long wished to build up a fleet and was anxious to ally himself with Madrid, but none of the Hanseatic towns would entertain the project for fear of offending the Dutch. In 1628 the arrival of Wallenstein on the Baltic coast roused fresh hopes, but he refused to accept Madrid’s terms for subsidizing a fleet. He was determined to keep complete control of it himself and to use it against the Danes rather than the Dutch. The Spanish envoys did buy some ships from the Hanse, but in 1629, to the fury of Sigismund, they were sent to Flanders. The main result of these projects was to disillusion Sigismund about Habsburg plans and promises and to encourage him to make his truce with Sweden. The only real damage to Dutch trade was done by the Dunkirkers. They seldom had more than thirty ships at sea at one time, but the admiralty records show that from 1626 to 1634 they captured 1,499 ships, sank another 336 (two-thirds or more may have been Dutch), and sold booty for £1,139,000 sterling, while losing fifteen royal ships and 105 privateers to the enemy. From the late 1630s the Dutch blockade may have been more effective in reducing losses, but it was never more than partially effective.

Although Spain beat off the first Dutch attacks on Brazil and the English attack on Cadiz, her Atlantic power suffered a great disaster when Piet Heyn captured and destroyed the treasure-fleet at Matanzas in Cuba in 1628. This not only financed the West India Company’s successful conquests in Brazil, but also destroyed about a third of the ships employed in Seville’s Atlantic trade. Between 1623 and 1636 the company took or destroyed 547 ships worth some 5,500,000 gulden. Spain made a last great effort to reconquer northern Brazil in 1638, when twenty-six galleons and twenty other ships were sent from Lisbon in September, later reinforced at Bahia to a total of eighteen Spanish and twelve Portuguese galleons, thirty-four armed merchantmen and twenty-three small ships. This armada was frustrated by unfavourable weather and irresolute com- mand and was scattered by the Dutch in January 1640 without achieving anything. This final failure to protect Brazil and the Caribbean from the Dutch was overshadowed by Tromp’s annihilation of the last Spanish fleet to challenge Dutch sea-power in the Channel at the Battle of the Downs in October 1639.

This Spanish effort was a last desperate gamble by planners who had lost touch with the realities of both Dutch and Spanish sea-power. Both before and after 1639 troops were taken to and from Flanders by sea, but this was done by taking risks and evading the Dutch, not by challenging them to battle. The fall of Breisach in 1638 and the consequent closing of the land route doubtless made some attempt at reinforcement by sea essential in 1639, while the French fleet’s incursions against the Biscayan ports also needed checking. But it was reckless to scrape together all available ships from the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and then in- struct the admiral, Oquendo, when encumbered with the transport of 10,000 troops, to give battle if he met the Dutch, and stake everything on destroying their fleet. Of the seventy-odd ships which sailed from Corunna some thirty had been hired from foreigners (from Ragusa, Lubeck and Hamburg, apart from at least eight English transports). In all there were some fifty warships, as usual short of gunners and seamen; Tromp with twenty-four ships established such a decisive superiority in sailing and gunnery that he drove the Spaniards to take refuge off the English coast. In the final attack the Dutch had superior numbers, but the Spaniards mostly ran their ships aground without a fight, losing forty-three ships and 6,000 men. Ironically most of the troops and treasure did reach Dunkirk along with the only efficient part of the fleet, the original Dunkirk squadron; a result which could have been achieved without destroying a large part of Spain’s navy and all its reputation.

The composition and fate of Oquendo’s armada is only one symptom of Spain’s declining sea-power. The trend of Seville’s trans-Atlantic trade suggests even more serious structural changes; comparing 1616-20 with 1646-50 the tonnage employed had decreased by about half. In the later period only some forty per cent of the ships were Spanish built, roughly the same number were American built, while some seventeen per cent came from northern Europe; before 1610 most of the ships used had been built in northern Spain. In the late sixteenth century ships from northern Spain had predominated in the fisheries off Newfoundland; their share declined rapidly in the seventeenth century and was insignificant by 1650, as was their share in Spain’s European trade. The main source of Spain’s maritime strength had begun to fail even before being subjected to further stress by war. Dr Andrews has recently suggested that this failure was due to the Elizabethan war against Spain’s shipping. Although this never seriously interfered with the trans-Atlantic routes, by forcing Spain to concentrate all her resources on protecting them, it left shipping on shorter and coastal routes, especially on the approaches to Galician and Biscayan ports, unprotected against privateers. The losses in ships and seamen were certainly serious and, whether or not it decisively undermined Spain’s sea-power, it may well have contributed to the decline of her northern ports, along with shortages of timber.

When the revolts of Catalonia and Portugal followed less than a year after Oquendo’s defeat, it might have seemed dubious whether Spain could defend her own coasts. Luckily France, her nearest enemy, was not strong enough at sea to exploit the situation. Richelieu had been at pains to build up the French navy but he started from scratch; in the 1620s the crown had to hire foreign ships against La Rochelle, in 1635 there was a Channel fleet of some thirty-five sizeable ships, though many of them were foreign-built and the Mediterranean fleet had been increased from thirteen to twenty-two galleys. By concentrating her resources, especially those of the royal squadron from Dunkirk, first in Biscay, then in the western Mediterranean Spain held the French in check. French strength in the Channel declined after 1642 and Spain was able to concentrate more effectively in the Mediterranean so that the French were usually outnumbered. Despite much hard fighting in the 1640s they were never able to get command of the sea, or seriously interrupt Spanish communications. Spain’s superiority at sea helped her to reconquer Catalonia and prevented the French establishing themselves in Tuscany and exploiting the revolt of Naples. Consciousness of France’s growing naval inferiority to Spain after 1648 made Mazarin the more anxious to secure either a Dutch or an English alliance.

By the 1650s the decline of Spain and the failure to achieve a lasting revival of the French navy meant that the relative preponderance of the Dutch and English was greater and affected a greater geographical area than had been true of leading sea-powers in the past. There were now purely local balances of power between the states bordering each of Europe’s inner seas, the Baltic and the Mediterranean, but these ultimately depended upon the new powers of Atlantic Europe. The most striking local changes were in the Baltic. There Denmark had long been the dominant naval power, but Gustavus Adolphus built up the Swedish navy to protect his communications and control the Prussian ports. After his death its growth continued and in 1644 it decisively shook Denmark’s supremacy, though both sides also hired Dutch ships. Local supremacy passed to Sweden and Charles X wished to convert this into an absolute control of the Baltic, which would have been fatal to Dutch commercial hegemony. From 1649 the Dutch supported the Danes and in 1658 their fleet defeated Charles’ ambitions. The English were always jealous of Dutch power in the Baltic, but it was also against their interest to allow any local power absolute control. Thus in 1659 the local balance of power was dictated by the Dutch and English fleets’ ability to keep the area open to their influence.

In the western Mediterranean, as we have seen, Spain was still able to enforce her interests against her local rivals. In the eastern Mediterranean the Turks had been at war with Venice for control of Crete since 1645. In the first years of the war the Turkish fleets consisted almost entirely of galleys and the mixed fleets of the Venetians were more successful. In the 1650s the Turks used mixed fleets, but they suffered a severe defeat off the Dardanelles in 1656, losing forty-six ships and forty-seven galleys. However, the Venetians were unable to maintain an effective blockade of the Dardanelles and they never established command of the Aegean for any considerable period, while the effort of maintaining fleets there contributed to the final eclipse of Venice as a commercial and maritime power. If either the English or the Dutch put their naval strength, or even part of it, into the Mediterranean they could outclass any of the local powers. All they needed, as Blake and De Ruyter showed, was the use of ports which local rivalries could be relied on to provide.

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