Saturday, 7 June 2008

The Anglo Dutch wars

The same spark that lit the genius of the Dutch masters had a darker more mendacious reflection on the waters of the Channel. William the 111 would eventually accede to the throne of both England and Holland as the reliable Protestant but the path that led him there began a hundred years earlier and was wrapped around the oyster histories. By 1550s the Dutch were colonising east Africa and the Hudson bay. Their trade boats dominated the Channel. They would come to Faversham in particular and buy oysters for cash for pickling.

In 1630 a petition of 400 women and children of Faversham said: “for the space of 70 years and upwards it has been usual for Flemish vessels to come into the river and with their ready money to buy oysters and transport them overseas.”

The Dutch had a privateer system where small collectives would commission boats to trade and they were known not just as good sailors but also for putting up with hardships at sea that no other Europeans would put up with.

The Dutch boats that returned from the other side of the world after 1500 excited the curiosity and greed of the English. Of a sudden, the returning cargo were not the familiar local trades of wine, wool and brandy and contraband. The holds were filled with spice and silks from the East Indies and then tobacco from Virginia. And ornaments from Turkey. And who knew what else?

While the civil war raged on land in England, another kind of skulduggery was afoot on the waters in a battle for the Channel which came to be known as the Dutch wars.

English history books talk politely of the wars that were fought “purely for commercial gain”. They talk of Admiral Robert Blake’s brilliance in plotting the naval broadside that would eventually lead to other great sea victories down to Trafalgar. But it was a plan hatched in defeat.

Two images that come down from that era which seem to invoke the passions and reasonings that must have been going on. The one is of the Dutch Admiral Tromp raising a brush on his top mast to signify that he had successfully swept the Channel clean of the British marauders.

The other is of James 11, then the duke of York whose name was invoked through the colonies of America as justification for the English ascendancy. In 1664, James, claimed the Connecticut and Delaware rivers. English troop ships arrived in New Amsterdam harbour and prepared for battle. The Dutch mayor Stuyvesant bellowed orders to the citizens to defend the colony, but could not motivate them. The New Netherland became NewYork without a shot fired….the greatest city, built on the greatest oyster beds in the Hudson River the world has probably ever seen were handed over without a murmur.

It is hard to reconcile such compliance in the new world to the complicated cauldron of passions that were being played out on the Channel and would spur on the development of the west coast ports of Bristol and Liverpool, to avoid having to sail past the white cliffs of Dover. The battle for the Channel was fierce enough and by the end of the Second Dutch war the pride of both sides was more than at stake.

In 1666 West-Terschelling was ransacked by the English fleet. They destroyed 150 fleeing Dutch merchant ships and burnt the island town to the ground. In retailiation, the Thames saw battles. The Medway ship yards were ransacked by the Dutch. The Dutch, under Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, bombarded and captured Sheerness, went on to Gravesend, then up the River Medway to Chatham, where they burnt three capital ships and towed away the Royal Charles, pride and normal flagship of the English fleet. It was the biggest naval victory in Dutch history and worst English naval defeat. Peace followed.

How far any of this was noble or just piracy given a steel of legitimacy by the English sailors, shipbuilders and ambitions for wealth and status, and crucially control of the Channel, is hard to comprehend as much of that strange political era when perhaps England most of all had governance that reflected in part the will of some of its people. Armed robbery it was. The Dutch through William retaliated with marriages and politics and somehow inherited the British throne through a mix of chicanery and alliances, a desire to distance themselves from Catholicsm and kings themselves.

The answer is that at the time, these were allies who were also squabbling with each other. Holland gave shelter and finance to the royalists, but these same royalists would eventually return to take the throne, but in return would give their sovereignty to Parliament. Post the English civil war the Dutch saw the English as rivals but also allies in the greater causes of the fight against monarchy and poppery. The victorious Parliamentarians even went to the Hague to suggest creating one trading empire.

All this would have been witnessed first hand by the oystermen and where history books were full of dates and facts, on the waterfront it seems more than likely that the trading in smuggled goods and exchanges of illicit exports carried on regardless. England fought a war that it lost and won when William invaded on November 15 1688. He was lucky. The storm that swept him past the Thames estuary as far as the most southerly tip at Torbay, also trapped the English fleet in harbour in the Thames. William made for Exeter and the Catholic James was prevailed on to stand down. England was saved and the modern world began.