The First Anglo-Dutch War — Conflict Over the First Navigation Act

1652–1654

The First Anglo-Dutch War was fought from 1652 to 1654 between the Commonwealth of England and the Dutch Republic. England won the war, which allowed it to expand its maritime shipping operations and tighten its control over the American Colonies.

First Anglo Dutch War, Battle of Scheveningen

This painting by Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraaten depicts the Battle of Scheveningen, a major battle of the First Anglo-Dutch War. Image Source: Wikipedia.

First Anglo-Dutch War Summary

The First Anglo-Dutch War was a conflict fought entirely at sea between the navies of the Commonwealth of England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands, also known as the Dutch Republic. 

The war was caused by disputes over maritime shipping rights and political disagreements, including Parliament’s passage of the 1651 Navigation Act that prohibited Dutch ships from carrying English cargo.

The conflict started with small-scale attacks on merchant ships but escalated into full-fledged fleet battles that took place on the high seas. During the war, the English Admiral, Robert Blake, developed the Sailing and Fighting Instructions for the English Navy, which introduced a new style of fighting on the high seas.

In 1653, the English fleet blockaded the Dutch coast, leading to the decisive Battle of Scheveningen (July 31, 1653), which was won by the English.

In North America, there was tension between New England and New Netherland, but hostilities were avoided.

The war ended with the Treaty of Westminster, which was signed on April 15, 1654, between Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of the English Commonwealth, and the States General of the United Netherlands. The treaty restored peace between the two nations and was to be enforced until 1660.

Oliver Cromwell, Portrait
Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. Image Source: Wikipedia.

First Anglo-Dutch War Facts

  • The First Anglo-Dutch War is also known as the “First Dutch War” and the “First English Sea War.” 
  • England won the First Anglo-Dutch War.
  • The primary cause of the First Anglo-Dutch War was the passage of the Navigation Act of 1651, which caused economic harm to Dutch shipping interests.
  • Another cause was England’s requirement that foreign ships sailing through the English Channel salute English ships. The practice had been originated by the Stuart Monarchy, and reinstated by Oliver Cromwell and Parliament. The Dutch were offended by the requirement.
  • The leader of the English Navy was Robert Blake and the leader of the Dutch Navy was Maarten Tromp, although Tromp was temporarily replaced early in the war by Cornelius de Witt.
  • The first battle of the war, the Battle of Dover, occurred after a Dutch fleet failed to properly salute an English Fleet.
  • The first major battle of the war was the Battle of Kentish Knock. Blake defeated de Witt and Tromp regained control of the Dutch Navy.
  • Tromp led Dutch forces to victory at the Battle of Dungeness and gained control of the English Channel. 
  • In 1653, the Dutch suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Portland, which lasted for three days. Admiral Blake was wounded during the battle.
  • While he recovered from his wounds, Blake documented a new set of naval tactics for the ships and captains in the English Navy to follow, which he called Sailing and Fighting Instructions
  • In following the Sailing and Fighting Instructions, the English won key victories that overwhelmed the Dutch and led to the end of the war. 
  • Admiral Tromp was killed at the Battle of Scheveningen by a sharpshooter serving on an English ship under the command of Sir William Penn. Penn’s son, William, is most famous for founding the Colony of Pennsylvania, which was named after Sir William Penn.
Admiral Maarten Tromp, Dutch Republic
Admiral Maarten Tromp. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Background of the First Anglo-Dutch War

The First Anglo-Dutch War was the initial of three 17th-century conflicts between England and the Netherlands. Like the later wars, it mainly involved naval battles and stemmed from intense competition in the commercial maritime sector between these two nations.

During the Eighty Years’ War (1566–1648), England supported the Dutch, which culminated in the independent Dutch Republic.

The Eighty Years War, also known as the Dutch Revolt, was an armed conflict that took place in the Netherlands between the Spanish government and various groups of Dutch rebels. In 1609, the two sides agreed to a truce, which was to last until 1621.

During the truce in the Dutch Revolt, English Separatists escaped to the Netherlands from England. Around 1617, some of the Separatists decided to leave the Netherlands and move to Virginia. One of the reasons they left was they feared the war between the Dutch and Spanish was going to resume.

Those English Separatists, who are also known as the Pilgrims, left the Netherlands in 1620 and eventually made their way to the New World where they established Plymouth Colony, the first permanent English settlement in New England.

Embarkation of the Pilgrims, Weir
This painting by Robert Weir depicts the Pilgrims as they prepare to set sail for the New World. Image Source: Brooklyn Museum.

At the end of the Thirty Years War (1618–1638), Spain was weakened. The Netherlands gained its independence and the Dutch Republic was established. Soon after, the Dutch Republic was able to increase its trade with Spain and Portugal, which harmed English trade.

By 1650, the Dutch had a significant presence in the waters near England and the English colonies, which concerned English businesses. The Dutch possessed the largest merchant fleet in Europe and dominated European trade. Many goods imported into England arrived on Dutch ships. In the North Sea, Dutch fishing fleets were surpassing and squeezing out English ones. 

Additionally, the Dutch settlement, New Amsterdam, located at the mouth of the Hudson River, posed a continuous challenge to the Navigation Acts, which required the North American colonies to exclusively trade with England.

English Reaction to the Dutch Republic

In the mid-17th century, England’s maritime strength lagged behind the Dutch’s, but a significant shift was taking place in English society and politics that would shape both European and colonial affairs.

After the English Civil War (1642–1649), Parliament gained more influence in governing England. Many of the members were from England’s rising merchant class, and they supported government policies that aligned with their commercial interests. 

Concerns regarding Dutch dominance of maritime trade came to the forefront, and the merchants wanted to make sure natural resources from the American Colonies were making their way to England, which was an important part of the Mercantile System.

Another factor fueling the tension between England and the Dutch was that Dutch ships often transported French goods, and France openly supported the Royalist side during the English Civil War. 

English Naval Expansion

To address its concerns about the Dutch and the dominance of shipping, Parliament started to expand the English Navy by constructing ships specifically designed for warfare. By the end of the English Civil War, England had the largest fleet of ships in Europe built specifically for warfare.

Navigation Act of 1651

Parliament turned its attention squarely toward addressing the Dutch situation by enacting legislation that prohibited the American Colonies from using Dutch ships to transport goods. In 

In August 1651, Parliament passed the first Navigation Act, which included key provisions: 

  1. Goods destined for England had to be transported on English vessels or ships from the country where the goods originated.
  2. Fish sold in England had to be caught by English fishing fleets.
  3. Parliament gained the authority to impose taxes on fishing activities in the North Sea.
  4. Foreign commercial ships were barred from engaging in coastal trade along England’s shores.

England also asserted its sovereignty over the waters of the English Channel and ships in the Royal Navy were given the authority to stop and inspect any passing vessels and demand a formal salute from foreign ships that were sailing in the Channel.

Naval Warfare in the 17th Century

Naval warfare was still evolving at the onset of the First Anglo-Dutch War. There was no consensus about what methods were best and the Dutch and the English used different approaches. Over the course of the Anglo-Dutch Wars, naval warfare would dramatically evolve.

Dutch Navy

The Dutch recognized the threat the Navigation Act posed to their shipping operations and passage through the Channel and took measures to protect their interests.

When it came to battle fleets, the Dutch Navy differed significantly from the English Navy. The majority of the ships in the Dutch fleet were armed merchant vessels. The Dutch had a small number of warships, but they had light armaments. The largest Dutch warship, the Brederode, could carry up to 60 guns, but it was the only ship of that size. 

Dutch naval strategy also followed the conventional ideas of sea combat. The renowned Dutch admiral, Maarten Tromp, was an advocate of traditional tactics involving the use of grappling hooks and boarding techniques against enemy ships. This approach, which was best for ship-to-ship combat, made the need for a fleet of expensive warships unnecessary, as far as the Dutch were concerned.

English Navy

In contrast, the English Nay featured nearly 20 ships, each armed with more than 40 cannons. The English cannons were also heavier than the Dutch cannons.

The largest English warship, Sovereign of the Seas, carried 100 guns. In addition to this formidable vessel, the English had a considerable number of other warships, including a new class of frigates, typically equipped with between 32 and 38 guns. 

These ships were not designed for close-quarters combat involving grappling and boarding but rather for engaging in long-range battles with cannon fire.

Prelude to War

As a result of the Navigation Act, English ships seized Dutch ships on the open seas, including  140 in 1651. The Dutch protested, but seizures continued into 1652.

The Dutch responded by outfitting approximately 150 merchant ships with cannons, so they could defend themselves. 

The First Anglo-Dutch War Begins

The news that the Dutch were arming ships reached London on March 12, 1652, and Parliament prepared for war.

The Battle of Dover

On May 29, 1652, a Dutch fleet under the command of fleets of Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp sailed through the English Channel. Tromp sailed past the English fleet near Dover, which was under the command of General-at-Sea Robert Blake. Tromp failed to properly salute the Blake and the English opened fire. 

Although the outcome of the battle is considered inconclusive, the English captured two Dutch ships in the small battle, and the Dutch withdrew.

England Declares War

England declared war on July 10, 1652. Over the next three years, most of the fighting involved one fleet attempting to attack merchant convoys or fishing fleets while the opposing fleet tried to protect the unarmed ships. 

On September 28, 1652, during the Battle of Kentish Knock, the English, led by Blake, severely damaged a Dutch fleet, leading to the imprisonment of several Dutch commanders who were accused of cowardice. 

First Anglo Dutch War, Battle of Kentish Knock
This painting depicts the Battle of Kentish Knock. Image Source: Wikipedia.

However, two months later, on November 30, during the fiercely contested battle, Tromp triumphed over Blake and the English fleet near Dungeness off the southeast coast of England. This defeat at the Battle of Dungeness was a significant setback for the English.

The war turned in favor of the English at the Battle of Portland, which was fought from February 18 to 20, 1653. The Dutch lost 12 warships and over 40 merchant vessels, while the English only lost 1 or 2 warships, with 3 others disabled. 

The English victory essentially closed the English Channel to Dutch shipping, however, Tromp managed to escort a vital convoy through to the Netherlands.

Blake’s Sailing and Fighting Instructions

Following these naval encounters, the English conducted a thorough assessment of their tactics, leading to the issuance of the first set of Sailing and Fighting Instructions, written by Blake, in March 1653. 

The instructions adapted land-based tactics for use at sea. Blake advocated the use of line-ahead formations to maximize the firepower of the heavier broadside cannons. The tactic marked the end of the era of grappling and boarding during naval battles.

It’s worth noting that most English commanders were former land generals — which is why they were called “general at sea” — who had transitioned to naval warfare. 

The strategy was highly effective, especially when used by larger, slower, and heavily armed warships. The larger ships, capable of holding their position in the main battle line, would later be referred to as “ships of the line.”

The Battle of Scheveningen

By July 1653, the English fleet moved to blockade the Dutch coastline, intending to exert economic pressure and bring an end to the war. Determined to break the blockade, Tromp set sail in August with a fleet of more than 100 ships. 

The Battle of Scheveningen was fought off the Dutch coast from July 29 to 31. During the battle, both fleets used different tactics. The English used the line-ahead formation, and fired from a distance, while the Dutch tried to fight at close range. The Dutch also used “fireships” to attack the English fleet.

Tromp was killed early in the battle, and the Dutch lost several warships that their strained government was unable to replace. The English fleet suffered significant damage and was returned to port.

The Battle of Scheveningen made it clear to the Dutch that the English fleet possessed the ability to control the North Sea and the Dutch saw that continuing the war was futile.

The Battle of Scheveningen was the last significant engagement of the First Anglo-Dutch War. 

The First Anglo-Dutch War Ends

In late 1653, Oliver Cromwell, who had taken control of the English government and proclaimed himself “Lord Protector” of the Commonwealth, was also inclined to bring the war to an end.

As a result of Cromwell’s insistence, the Treaty of Westminster was signed in April 1654, officially bringing the First Anglo-Dutch War to a close.

The conclusion of the war left things unresolved between the two nations. 

  • First, England’s Navigation Acts remained in effect. 
  • The Dutch carrying trade continued, despite the Dutch losing approximately 1,500 merchant vessels during the conflict. 

Ultimately, neither nation achieved the primary objectives they had pursued throughout the war.

Effects of the Anglo-Dutch War on Colonial America

In America, the potential for hostilities loomed between New Amsterdam, situated at the mouth of the Hudson River, and the neighboring New English Colonies

In April 1653, representatives from New England met with Dutch Director-General Peter Stuyvesant in New Amsterdam. The English accused the Dutch of inciting the Native American Indians to attack settlements in Connecticut. 

Fort New Amsterdam, Hartger's View, 1651
This illustration depicts New Amsterdam in 1651. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Stuyvesant denied the charges, and the English representatives issued threats of war before departing. Stuyvesant took the threats seriously and fortified the northern defenses of the colony, from the East River to the Hudson.

The New England governments were unable to reach a consensus on a unified approach towards the Dutch.

Because they were close to New Netherland, Connecticut, and New Haven believed the war threatened their safety. They appealed to the New England Confederation for military support, but the other members decided to remain neutral and refused.

In 1654, England dispatched a squadron of four ships to New England with the intent of using them to attack New Amsterdam. However, peace was declared before this expedition could be launched.

The most significant effect of the war in North America was the disruption of overseas trade between New Amsterdam and Europe.

Aftermath of the First Anglo-Dutch War

The peace that followed the First Anglo-Dutch War was short-lived. In 1655, England took control of Jamaica, and a decade later, hostilities resumed as England and the Dutch Republic continued their battle to dominate the seas.

First Anglo-Dutch War Timeline

May 19, 1652 — The Battle of Dover was fought off the Straits of Dover. The outcome was inconclusive. It is also known as the Battle of Goodwin Sands.

July 10, 1652 — England declared war.

August 16, 1652 — The Battle of Plymouth was fought off Plymouth, in the English Channel. The Dutch won the battle.

August 28, 1652 — The Battle of Elba, also known as the Battle of Monte Cristo, was fought near Elba, Italy. The Dutch won the battle.

September 28, 1652 — The Battle of Kentish Knock, also known as the Battle of the Zealand Approaches, was fought off Kentish Knock, a shoal in the North Sea east of Essex, England. The outcome was an English victory.

November 30, 1652 — The Battle of Dungeness was fought off the coast of Dungeness. The Dutch won and gained control, temporarily, of the English Channel.

February 18–20, 1653 — The Battle of Portland, or the Three Days’ Battle, was fought off the Isle of Portland in the English Channel. The English won the battle.

March 4, 1653 — The Battle of Leghorn was fought near Leghorn, Italy. The Dutch won the battle.

June 2–3, 1653 — The Battle of the Gabbard was fought near the coast of Gabbard Bank, Suffolk, England. The English won the battle. The battle is also known as the Battle of Gabbard Bank, the Battle of the North Foreland, and the Second Battle of Nieuwpoort.

July 31, 1653 — The Battle of Scheveningen was fought in the North Sea, near Scheveningen in the Netherlands. England won the battle.

January 29, 1654 — A small battle took place near Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf. The Dutch won the battle.

April 15, 1654 — The Treaty of Westminster was signed.

First Anglo-Dutch War Significance

The First Anglo-Dutch War is important to United States history for the role it played in creating tension between New Netherland and the New England Colonies, which eventually led to hostilities. The passage of the Navigation Act of 1651 also set in motion the passage of a series of laws that applied to the colonies. Those laws placed restrictions on American merchants and eventually contributed to the ideology of the American Revolution.

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  • Article Title The First Anglo-Dutch War — Conflict Over the First Navigation Act
  • Date 1652–1654
  • Author
  • Keywords First Anglo-Dutch War
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 20, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 9, 2024

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