Sea-Power in the Seventeenth Century II

But the local balance of maritime trade had changed long before the mid-seventeenth century. In the long period of official truce between Spain and the Turks after 1580, Dutch and English ships entered the Mediterranean in increasing numbers. They not only dominated the trade between the Mediterranean and north-west Europe, but also captured an ever-increasing share of trade within the Mediterranean. They introduced a new type of ship, known there as the berton, and a new phase of warfare. The berton was smaller, but more heavily armed and built, faster and more manoeuvrable than the Mediterranean argosies which were similar to the Portuguese carracks. Around 1600 the northerners engaged in both trade and piracy, as opportunity offered, making the sea unsafe for native shipping. After about 1604 northerners who specialized exclusively in piracy began to appear. They mostly operated from Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers and Sallee and they taught the Muslims there to use bertons. Before 1620 their pupils had become so apt that the golden age of the Barbary corsairs began, at its height they may have had 150 ships. They raided throughout the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic as far as Cape Verde, Iceland, the Azores and the Great Banks, though they usually concentrated on the approaches to the Straits and the Channel. But even after the first generation of northern captains had gone, piracy was not an exclusively Muslim enterprise; the. dukes of Savoy and Tuscany provided bases for privateers at Villefranche and Leghorn, while the knights of Malta and San Stefano took prizes indiscriminately. In these conditions only heavily armed ships, like those of the English Levant Company, could trade safely and the worst sufferers were native traders, especially the Venetians. Venice not only provided the richest prizes in the Levant, but was often unable to protect her shipping in the Adriatic from the local pirates, the Uscocchi. Piracy helped to weaken Venice and to make her increasingly dependent on northern shipping.

The amount of shipping using the port of Venice increased from 1587 to 1609, but the proportion of foreign-owned and -built ships also grew. By the early 1620s the total volume was barely half that of 1607-9 and the decline continued; interrupted during the 1630s, it became very steep during the Cretan war and the relative share of foreign shipping probably increased. The main reason for hiring foreign ships was that they were better able to protect themselves. Venice had to hire Dutch and English ships to meet the challenge of Osuna, the Viceroy of Naples, in the Adriatic in 1617-18. Both sides in the Cretan war made extensive use of foreign- built and -hired ships. Of course the northerners were not immune to piracy; from 1617 to 1625 the Algerines took some 200 Dutch ships. But the northerners increased their trade, while that of Venice declined, and in the long run they were more successful in forcing the Barbary states to respect their flags. In the mid-1650s the English and Dutch had squadrons in the Mediterranean partly for this purpose. England made treaties with Sallee, Algiers and Tunis from 1655 to 1658. After the English squadron withdrew in 1658 there were difficulties, but after 1661 the treaties were observed.

If only well-armed ships could usually trade securely in the Mediterranean, conditions in the North Sea and Baltic were different. The main cargoes of the Baltic and Scandinavian trades were bulky ones, grain, timber, salt, wine and fish. The Dutch had long dominated these trades and by the last years of the sixteenth century had developed a type of cargo carrier, the fluit, which perpetuated their domination. This was a slow, lightly built, virtually unarmed ship, with a long keel, bluff bows and a relatively flat bottom, needing only a small crew to manage its relatively small area of sails. Its cheap building and running costs meant cheap freight rates which ensured Dutch supremacy in the carrying trades so that in 1669 Colbert enviously guessed that they owned three-quarters of Europe’s total tonnage. The Dutch themselves in 1636 estimated that they had 1,050 ships trading to the Baltic, Norway and south-west France averaging a hundred lasts, 250 ships (of 120-50 lasts) in the Mediterranean and Archangel trades, 450 of 20 to 40 lasts in the Channel and North Sea as well as 2,000 fishing busses and 300 ships in the extra-European trades. This would suggest a total of 4,500 to 4,800 ships with a tonnage of 600,000 to 700,000, four or five times that of England. The basic Dutch trades were very vulnerable to the Dunkirkers so that they flourished most in peacetime. In war they were checked by losses which meant high insurance and freight rates. With the Peace of Westphalia trade boomed and the customs figures suggest that from 1648 to 1651 it reached a level which was possibly never surpassed in the seventeenth century, while Dutch shipping threatened to eliminate all rivals from the Baltic, North Sea and Atlantic trades.

This triumphant position was partly founded on the eclipse of the Hanseatic towns’ ability to assert any effective power, either collectively or individually. Their share of Baltic trade had declined in the sixteenth century. About 1600 they had about 1,000 ships amounting to some 90,000 tons, about one-third belonging to Hamburg (7,000 lasts) and Lübeck (8,000 lasts). Lübeck’s fleet was still growing in the early seventeenth century; its first fluit was built in 16182 and its shipbuilding only declined decisively after 1648. Hamburg’s fleet doubled to about 14,000 lasts between 1600 and 1650. But the shipping of Danzig declined, as did that of Wismar, Rostock and Stralsund. These last had been heavily involved in trade to Norway which after 1625 was completely dominated by the Dutch and Danes. Hamburg and to a lesser extent Lübeck were able to increase their trade to southern Europe after 1621. Although Hamburg sustained a flourishing entrepdt trade, it was dominated by foreign merchants, while after 1648 Sweden levied tolls of 350,000 thalers a year on the other Hanseatic towns, a revenue approaching that of the Sound tolls. Thus Lübeck’s and the Hanse’s rejection of Spain’s offers in 1628 lost them their last dubious chance of reversing their decline at the expense of the Dutch. The decline of Iberian sea-power meant increasing exploitation by foreign merchants. First Cromwell forced Portugal to grant privileges to English merchants both there and in the Brazil trade. Spain later tacitly acquiesced in the exploitation of her trade by Dutch, English and French merchants. The failure of the Hanseatic towns to find effective allies and their inability to mobilize naval power condemned them to exploitation by Sweden, under which only Hamburg prospered, having 277 ships (42,000 tons) by 1672.

If by 1650 the Hanseatic towns were powerless to avoid exploitation by the victors at Westphalia, the English were not. Their reply to the Dutch was war.

English shipbuilders had never attempted to imitate the fluit. Their topical product was the ‘defensible’ ship of sixty tons and upwards more heavily built, with finer lines, faster, needing a larger crew and carrying a number of guns proportionate to its size. Even colliers in the Newcastle trade conformed to this type, so that foreign ships dominated in the export of coal. Such ships were very suitable for dangerous Mediterranean waters and for privateering, but in most other trades they could not compete with the Dutch in peacetime. Nevertheless the tonnage of English shipping had probably doubled between 1582 and 1624 but the opportunity provided by the Dutch being at war after 1621 was spoilt initially by England also being involved in war from 1625 to 1629. England lost some 300 ships amounting to well over 20,000 tons and may have taken rather more prizes herself. In 1629 England’s total tonnage was 115.000 and it may have risen to about 140,000 by 1640. Until then the greatest expansion since 1600, apart from the Mediterranean and the coastal coal trades, was in the Newfoundland fisheries which came to be dominated by the English. In the early 1630s the East India Company had 9,000-10,000 tons of shipping. If the Dutch dominated the North Sea fisheries, the English held their own to a greater extent off Iceland and in whaling off Spitzbergen. After 1640 direct English exploitation of all these fisheries declined. To compete successfully even for the carrying trade of their own ports, English ships needed either government protection or the advantages of neutrality when the Dutch were at war.

The Civil War obviously hindered trade and shipping, but it increased England’s naval strength. From 1642 to 1647 Parliament sent thirty to forty warships to sea every summer and kept a winter-guard of some twenty ships, so that the fleet was more continuously manned than ever before. Then the Commonwealth expanded the fleet from 1649 to 1651 and forty-one new ships were added, almost doubling it. The ships were used to pursue the ships which had joined the Royalists in 1648, to secure the trans-Atlantic colonies and enforce respect for the Commonwealth’s flag in European waters. These efforts, meant long voyages to Portugal, the Mediterranean and America. The French not only assisted the Royalists, but also placed an embargo on English cloth. This produced an embargo on French wines and silk in 1649. Both sides proceeded to seizures of goods and ships. Convoys were needed for English ships in the Mediterranean and the Dutch became the neutral carriers of Anglo- French trade. The Navigation Act, searches of Dutch ships for French goods and exaction of salutes all annoyed the Dutch. By February 1652 the States General, alarmed by the growth of the English fleet, resolved to fit out 150 ships in addition to the 76 already available. The expansion of the English fleet continued even after the end of the Dutch war; from 1650 to 1656 80 new ships were built and many prizes added to it. In 1625 the navy had about 30 ships, in 1640 about 40, in 1651 about 95 and in 1660 about 140. Probably many fewer large merchant ships were built in the 1650s compared with the 1630s, so that the naval building may only have made up this difference.

Although Dutch resources in shipbuilding and seamen were so much greater, their ability to transform them into effective naval power was limited. The fact that they had far more trade to protect and that Britain lay across the vital routes nourishing their Baltic trade were severe handicaps. Their naval administration suffered from decentralization among five boards of admiralty and from friction between the provinces. The English had more very large ships and in general their ships were more heavily built and armed with heavier guns. They were also quicker to see the advantage of line-ahead formations and made greater efforts to found their battle tactics upon them. All these factors helped to give them the balance of advantage in the whole series of battles. The English attempt to blockade the Dutch coast in 1653 was not completely successful, but the Channel was closed to Dutch shipping from February 1653. The Dutch economy depended on the sea far more than the English and for the first time they were fighting an enemy whose naval strength was ultimately more effective. The truth of this can be seen not by claiming the last battle off the Texel as a decisive English victory-both sides could have put powerful fleets to sea again in 1654, if they had not chosen to make peace-but in the fact that the war was disastrous for Dutch trade. The English took between 1,000 and 1,700 Dutch prizes (a figure nearer the lower one seems more likely) and lost few of their own ships. The English having failed to build economical cargo carriers had now captured them in abundance. They appeared to have checked the growth of Dutch trade which had been so evident after 1647 and had acquired the means to survive in the carrying trade; it is probable ‘that between 1654 and 1675 foreign built ships were never less than a third of the total tonnage in English ownership . . ..

The immediate consequences of the effective mobilization of so much naval power were not altogether happy for English trade. Despite the Navigation Act, English trade to the Baltic remained depressed and the Dutch continued to carry a large part of English colonial trade. One of the reasons for undertaking the Western Design against the Spanish Indies was that Cromwell’s council were mostly anxious to find a use for the large navy which had been created and hoped the venture would pay for itself, as the Dutch West India Company had done in its heyday. The resulting war with Spain demonstrated the greatness of English sea-power, since Spain’s Atlantic communications were far more effectively cut than they had ever been by the Dutch. But the gains were disappointing; instead of delivering a death blow to the Spanish Empire, Jamaica was captured; Blake destroyed the silverfleet, but failed to capture the treasure. English sea-power commanded the approaches to Spain, but the Dutch as neutral carriers monopolized Spanish trade, while the English suffered severely from privateering. Anti-Cromwellian propaganda put the loss as high as 1,800 ships, more probably about 1,000 were lost as against some 400 captured by the English; in three months, May to July 1656, the Dunkirkers claimed to have taken over 100 English ships.

Cromwell’s acquisition of Dunkirk not only removed a real threat to English shipping, but also reinforced the command of the Channel, already asserted in the Dutch war. By 1659 an equilibrium existed; if Dutch naval and commercial power still dominated the Sound, they had to respect English interests there; if the English dominated the Straits of Dover more completely than before, the Commonwealth’s hopes of mobilizing naval power to destroy or capture Dutch commercial supremacy and the Protectorate’s dreams of using it to destroy the Spanish Empire in America had both proved equally illusory. Nevertheless England was enabled to share naval, though not as yet commercial, hegemony with the Dutch and to assert her power and interests in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Baltic. Temporarily England might even claim to be the strongest naval power in Europe, though this would be challenged again by both the Dutch and the French. Her achievement had altered the balance of power in Europe and was part of the process whereby power was being concentrated in north-western Europe at the expense of the Iberian and Mediterranean states.

If England had become one of the two greatest naval powers by 1660, in terms of merchant shipping her relative position is less clear, but despite losses in the Spanish war the total may have been about 200,000 tons. In 1664 French shipping, including fishing boats, amounted to about 130,000 tons. This total was probably little larger than it had been about 1570, when it was perhaps twice as great as that of England. The total of the German ports had probably fallen slightly since 1600, when it was about 120,000 tons; 2 that of Spain and Venice must have declined drastically. The years 1600-60 seemed to show men such as Colbert and Downing that the prosperity of trade and shipping depended more closely than ever on possession of effective naval power. The changes in the tactics and in organization of armies between 1560 and 1660 were so considerable that they have been held to amount to a military revolution. For sixteenth-century lansquenets war had been a seasonal occupation, for the soldiers of the Thirty Years War it was a full-time one. By 1650 many states were heavily in debt to tax-farmers and military entrepreneurs, but the future did not belong to entrepreneurs, such as Wallenstein, Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, or Charles IV of Lorraine, who raised whole armies. As the organization of armies became more elaborate, so they came more and more completely under the control of the state. In France Le Tellier had endeavoured since 1643 to reform military administration and to give the crown real control over its officers and regiments, though he did not begin to achieve anything appreciable until after the peace of 1659, when royal control grew rapidly. Taxes continued to be farmed out to contractors, but not armies and regiments. As long as naval power could be farmed out to entrepreneurs such as the West India Company and as long as hired merchant ships were a major part of battle-fleets, direct and continuous control by the state was restricted. While privateering remains an obvious exception, the growth of professionalism and specialization in naval forces in the 1650s can be seen as part of a general process in which states were beginning to exercise much more rigorous and effective control over their armed forces.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.