Competing Cousins - Anglo-Dutch Trade Rivalry

Jonathan Israel charts the progress from commercial competition to open war and finally 'snarling alliance' of two assertive naval powers.

The three bitter, hard-fought Anglo-Dutch Wars of the seventeenth century (1652-54; 1665-67; and 1672-74) constitute one of the very few major conflicts in Britain's history which can be ascribed in the main to commercial rivalry. Of course, dynastic, religious and other factors, sometimes downright xenophobia, played a sporadic part in shaping events. But, in essence, this vast seaborne conflict, fought out right around the globe, was about shipping and trade. The claim that the Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century were the outcome of 'commercial rivalry' is no doubt an old-fashioned commonplace of historical studies. But not all well-worn views are wrong.

But why did serious conflict between the Dutch and England break out only in the 1650s? This question has long perplexed historians. The Dutch, after all, first began to encroach seriously on English interests, especially in Russia and the Baltic, as far back as the 1590s. For it was at that time that the Dutch began to go beyond their traditional sphere of dominance – the bulk carrying traffic of northern Europe – and engross the world's 'rich trades'. This was largely the result of the upheavals of the 1580s in the southern Netherlands, and the closing of the River Scheldt, paralysing the trade of Antwerp, all of which caused a vast migration of textile and other industrial workers, of mercantile expertise, and of capital, to Amsterdam and other cities in Holland and Zealand. Around 1590, the Dutch became the first trading power in history equipped for hegemony over both the bulk and the rich trades.

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