It has always been my understanding that the Netherlands lost control of the seas because of land wars against France, especially Louis XIV, and because of the difficulties involved in holding possessions in America and the Indies.

But I read in an article (Article: "Venice, maritime superpower", in 'War History', July-August 2019 *) that philosophical and juridical reasons led the Netherlands to consider the impossibility of controlling the seas, and that they only managed to control the commercial lines.

Is this true, and what are these reasons? I am open to other suggestions, but if those juridical and philosophical reasons are any part of the causes, I would like to know them.

* Regarding 'War History': A magazine whose native tongue is not English. It did just mention "the Netherlands did not achieve the control of the sea because of philosophical and juridical reasons". The article is not available on the internet, so I have no link. And for information, the article was about Venice, so no link with the part they made about the Netherlands

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    Did you notice the spelling of my name? It's Dutch and Fries. Please link the article regardless of what language it's in - in the question, as comments are ephemeral and subject to arbitrary deletion at any time by moderators. Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 18:55
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    I would suggest another reason: the wars with England. See "Anglo-Dutch wars" on Wikipedia.
    – Alex
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 18:36
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    Possibly the Netherlands never had control of the seas and so never lost it for juridical or other reasons. The Netherlands may have had the most powerful navy and the largest merchant fleet at one time, but that does not translate into total control of all the oceans.
    – MAGolding
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 19:06
  • Why did these advantages were not conserved? Commented Aug 21, 2019 at 18:34
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    @totalMongot - Try reading up on Grotius, the "Father of International Law" (meaning maritime trade law in some contexts) and refer to late-16th / early-17th century dispute by the Dutch themselves (I cannot keep track of the provinces). This 1930 article could be a good starting point. Unfortunately I don't answer "legal history" questions given so much expertise here. Good luck.
    – J Asia
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 7:54

2 Answers 2


The Dutch lost control of the seas in spite of, not because of, their "juridical" strengths. They had a different, more enlightened view of the "Law of the Sea", which they were ultimately unable to "enforce" against stronger countries.

Specifically, Dutch philosophers such as Grotius, called for "open" seas for all countries, and thereby equal (commercial) opportunity. "Middle" powers, such as the King of Sweden favored his views.

On the other hand, more powerful countries reacted negatively because wanted to "carve up" large parts of the seas for themselves. Spain, for one, claimed the whole pacific Ocean for its own. More serious contenders were countries like the U.K., and France. The relative "lack of size" of the Netherlands (compared to the others), included the relative shallowness of her internal waterways, that led to the use of the shallow-drafted fluyt, which eventually declined in value compared to others' men of war, as a commenter noted below.

Ultimately, Dutch views prevailed during "peacetime" with regards to maritime law, but stronger countries were able to enforce more restrictive measures during wartime.

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    Did it ever occur that perhaps the Dutch ascendancy declined just as the fluyt became obsolete as a first class ship-of-war - yet was still favoured, due to its shallow draft, by Dutch merchants as being navigable in their shallow canals and other waterways? Commented May 3, 2020 at 5:29
  • @Pieter Geerkens: That was certainly a factor. But I would argue that it was basically symptomatic of the overall issue, the relative size (in land area, population, and the shallowness of the internal waterways) of the Netherlands vs. the U.K. and France. That led to their "juridical" strength and military weakness. I took the liberty of incorporating your excellent comment into my (revised) answer.
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 17:19

I'm inclined to write an answer with a different tone to that of the other one: namely, the Dutch never had control of the seas and as such they couldn't lose it.

The strategic options that a naval power has include the control of the seas, denying the seas to the enemy, or, in essence, fighting on an equal footing (i.e., not using overpowering numbers to prevent an enemy from taking to the seas but also not using asymmetrical forces to prevent the enemy from sailing and slugging it out until a victor emerges in battle after battle).

The three 'classic' examples that are generally given for 'control of the seas' are those of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, the United Kingdom from Trafalgar to 1914, and the United States in the later part of the 20th century.

In the Age of the Sail, effective denial of the seas could be accomplished by obtaining supply bases in areas where the potential enemy had none: this would make combat in these areas a logistical impossibility for the attacking force (lest it be gathered and sent to fight the enemy on a win-or-die basis. The Portuguese, the Spanish, and the Dutch, while possessing grand trading empires, only sought to deny the seas to their potential opponents in very specific circumstances, such as the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, the Spanish in the Pacific Ocean, and the Spanish–Portuguese dividing up the world for their own colonization.

The Anglo–Dutch Wars are brought out as an example of the Dutch supremacy. I embrace this in full with the caveat that the Dutch skill in seamanship and naval leadership was such that they fought others, sometimes outnumbered, sometimes outnumbering, when and where they had to, but they didn't pursue a policy of denying the sea to their potential opponents (at least no more than anyone else—Portugal as an example—in the 17th century would have). Neither was there a specific policy of outnumbering an enemy in warships like the United Kingdom would have in the 19th century.

Dutch power was mercantile power (Wikipedia):

During the Dutch Golden Age in the late-16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch Republic dominated world trade, conquering a vast colonial empire and operating the largest fleet of merchantmen of any nation.

Also (Wikipedia):

The States-General had only two direct sources of income: it taxed the Generality Lands directly, and the five Dutch admiralties set up under its authority, financed their activities nominally from the Convooien en Licenten levied on trade. ...

Mercantile trade brought risks of shipwreck and piracy. Such risks were often self-insured. The East-India Company armed its vessels, and maintained extensive military establishments abroad, thereby internalizing protection costs. Arming merchantmen was quite usual in those days. However, the type of cargo vessel most often used by the Dutch, the Fluyt ship, went usually without guns, or was but lightly armed.

Regarding the fluyt (Wikipedia):

Unlike rivals, it was not built for conversion in wartime to a warship, so it was cheaper to build and carried twice the cargo, and could be handled by a smaller crew. Construction by specialized shipyards using new tools made it half the cost of rival ships. These factors combined to sharply lower the cost of transportation for Dutch merchants, giving them a major competitive advantage. The fluyt was a significant factor in the 17th-century rise of the Dutch seaborne empire.

The standard fluyt design minimized or completely eliminated its armaments to maximize available cargo space, and used block and tackle extensively to facilitate ship operations. ... At times fluyts were also armed and served as auxiliary vessels, which was a common practice in the Baltic Sea.

Hence, insofar as it existed, Dutch command of the seas was mainly dependent on trade that generated income, directly allocated by the Admiralties for the construction of ships, as well as the type of combat in those days, i.e. mobilizing non-specialized warships for combat in times of war, which the Dutch were able to do in great numbers due to their power as a trading nation. This was further enhanced by the institutionalization of officer training and standards, e.g. Tromp and de Ruyter who understood the method of war at sea perhaps better than their contemporaries (with several English naval leaders being generals who were thrown on ships in time of need).

Nevertheless, the Dutch did not have (or strive towards) peace-time command of the seas, i.e. denying the use of the sea to its neighbours, though they strove towards mercantile equality (which would give them, the better, faster, and more specialized traders, the edge).

  • "The Portuguese, the Spanish, and the Dutch, while possessing grand trading empires, never sought to deny the seas to their potential opponents nor did they have comprehensive policies with this aim in mind" — Why did the Portuguese conquer Malacca and Hormuz, then? Why did the Portuguese try to conquer Aden several times? Why did the Dutch conquer Portuguese Malacca? Doesn't control of chokepoints allow one to "deny the seas" to opponents? Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 10:57
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    @RodrigodeAzevedo: Malacca is clearly outlined as a trading venture, sought for it's riches by the Portuguese. It's not a one vs the other, and of course owning certain points (Cape Town...) would deny it to the enemies, but the primary motivation (as difficult as it is to establish one) would have been for regional trade interests (or for the location being situated on a trade route that needed more defenses).
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 11:01
  • Mare Clausem in the Age of Discovery Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 11:16
  • @RodrigodeAzevedo: Fair point. At most, that makes a case for certain Portuguese and Spanish "controls of the sea", though still primarily economic with the exception of Spanish patrols in the approaches to the Pacific. However, wrt the Dutch, the points stand. I've edited my post with respect to the Portuguese and the Spanish.
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 16:04
  • The Portuguese conquests of Hormuz and Malacca had nothing to do with the Treaty of Tordesillas. They were part of Afonso de Albuquerque's strategy of denying the Indian Ocean to everyone but the Portuguese and those "allowed" to sail by Portugal. Putting Portugal and Spain in the same bag is immediately suspicious, as Spain built a land-based empire whereas Portugal built a sea-based one. Only when the Dutch started making acquisitions in the Indian Ocean and Portugal focused on Brazil did the Portuguese Empire started to resemble the Spanish Empire. Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 16:42

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