From the middle of the Seventeenth Century to the early Eighteenth Century, the Dutch Republic, which in 1648 had it’s independence recognized in the Peace of Westphalia, was an important commercial and military presence in Western Europe which later experienced challenges to its security, unity, and prosperity: in security, the Dutch faced navel challenges from England and land-based invasions from France; the challenges to prosperity came from the cost of wars and fierce competition to it’s trading empire; in turn, the financial stress caused by war and commercial decline threatened the unity of the Republic, as the financial burden of the wars fell disproportionately on the province of Holland.
The Dutch Republic, once a strong military force which was able to fend off the Spanish in the Eighty Years War, struggled with naval attacks from the English and land-based invasions from the French.
The Dutch greatly suffered during the three Anglo-Dutch wars from 1652-1674; the English defeated the Dutch and seized 2,000-2,700 ships, compared to the Dutch capture of only 500 ships (Doc. 3). The fact that Dutch trade routes passed by England (Doc. 1) allowed the English ready access to seize Dutch merchant shipping. From documents one and three, evidently, the English naval power in the English Channel and the North Sea threatened Dutch merchant shipping from its origins and allowed it to seize many Dutch ships.
Britain was not the only foreign nation to threaten the Dutch security. The military state of the Netherland continued to deteriorate when in 1670, The Treaty of Dover between England and France provided that France would fund English land attacks on the Netherlands: “The king of France will defray all expenses of the [English] campaign by land.” (Doc 6). The Treaty of Dover shows that concern with Dutch power led to alliances with England and its traditional enemy France. In 1671, the Amsterdam City Council resolved “the French monarch [and] other kings seem more and more to scheme how to ruin what remains of the trade and navigation of the Dutch Republic” (Doc. 7).
The threats to Dutch security were not just to maritime trade but to the Netherlands’ prosperous agriculture as well. As the Dutch Ambassador to England wrote in1672, the wars exhausted the Dutch resources, so that the provinces would eventually become overwhelmed or flooded, ruining Dutch commerce (Doc 8). Because Document 8 was written by the Dutch ambassador to England, it may only reflect concerns with the English and not Netherland’s overall situation in Europe.
The combination of attacks against Dutch shipping and territory not only threatened Dutch security, but also damaged the financial condition of the Republic. During the Republic’s Golden Age, the Dutch economy was thriving as a result of its trading empire. However, after repeated attacks on the Dutch from the English and French, the prosperity of the Republic was challenged. The ongoing wars cast the Dutch into a deep state of national debt.
Other European countries soon began to compete with the Dutch for a dominant spot in the world of merchant shipping and hoped to replace The Dutch East India Company, the main source of it’s thriving economy. During the mid 17th century, the Dutch Republic prospered on a monopoly in the Baltic Sea trade. However, with their loss of merchant vessels to England in the first three Anglo-Dutch Wars, the Dutch control of the Baltic Sea Trade declined from a little under 80% of trade in 1645, to just 30% in 1695. In just 50 years, the Dutch lost 50% of trade in the Baltic (Doc 2.).
This damaged their economy, which was based primarily on trade. Along with the loss of Baltic Sea Trade, the Dutch began to face fierce competition that would challenge their prosperity in other areas of commerce. The Dutch once had superior shipbuilding technologies, but as the century turned to a close, the English stole this technology, leading to competitive shipbuilding and less of a monopoly on trade routes for the Dutch. Eventually, all major European nations came into the running for overseas trade, with new and stolen technologies.
Commercial competition included that from the English, French, Portuguese, Chinese, and Muslims (Doc 13.). Documents 13 and 2 both show an increase of foreign trade competition with the Dutch, which ultimately weakened its trade economy. The Marquis de Pomponne, a French ambassador to the Dutch Republic, reported to his country that “the English East India Company has grown larger and causes the Dutch much anxiety.” (Doc. 11).
The French ambassador to the Dutch Republic may have a favorable view of the Republic, and so he may want the French to be kinder to the Dutch and more concerned with English competition. The Dutch East India Company had been one of the Netherlands’ main resources for a thriving economy, but with the English competition, the Dutch no longer saw a thriving trade. They instead saw many economic losses and a devastating national debt. By the end of the Wars of Spanish Succession in 1713, the debt had increased almost five times from what it had been in 1688 (Doc. 12).
Along with the loss of their trading empire, the Republic was cast into a deep national debt as a result of fighting many wars. This put stress and burdens among the people of the Seven Provinces, and led to disunity in the Republic. The stress of the wars and the economic decline threatened the unity of the Seven Provinces. Heavy taxes that fell disproportionately on the Province of Holland caused resentment and distrust between the Provinces.
The fact that the Dutch were seven separate provinces and not a nation with a sole ruler complicated efforts for unity and attempts to gather funds. The idea of separate, free provinces had been ingrained in Dutch society, though it had demonstrated to be inefficient and as later seen, ineffective. In 1664 Sir George Downing, an English ambassador to the Dutch Republic, a foreign opinion, reported that the government of the Dutch Republic was shattered and divided, and that Holland bore the financial burden because the other provinces were poor (Doc. 4).
Since the republic was a “shattered and divided thing”, the nation could not function smoothly because each weak and isolated province was unable to sustain itself successfully. Holland, being the richest of the Seven Provinces, was the most heavily taxed, and merchants resented how they needed to pay for the security of the entire country. In 1669, an anonymous pamphleteer complained about the heavy taxes and argued that “we are who are naturally merchants must have low taxes, peace, and trade as well as protection” (Doc 5)
This pamphleteer was from Holland, so he could not have had a clear idea of what the other provinces were being taxed. Still, this document shows that resentment and division were growing on the provinces as a result of financial stress. Both documents 5 and 4 demonstrate the resentment Holland had for its need to pay unfairly high taxes, and how the other provinces were isolated and poor. The resentment was especially strong in Amsterdam, which was the wealthiest in Holland.
The citizens felt like they were being treated as a “milk cow” of money for the rest of the Netherlands (Doc. 10). This strong resentment brought a growing mutual distrust among the Seven Provinces. In 1664, the Dutch government reported that distrust among the provinces hindered agreement on how to oppose the “violent attacks” of the French (Doc. 9). The “mutual distrust” of the providences disallowed the Republic from functioning smoothly as a unified Republic, and also as a military.
Finally, not only did the wars fought by the Netherlands lead to internal stress as a result of the unequal financial burden born by Holland, but also the human loss of the fighting, in a country with a small population, lead to dissatisfaction with war as a policy tool. As an Englishman living in the Netherlands during the War of Spanish Succession reported:
“The cries of widows, orphans, and tender virgins, deprived of their husbands, fathers, and young men…Dutch armies…have suffered extremely” (Doc 14). The loss of lives and the pains of fighting a war led to even more disunity among the Provinces of the Republic. From the middle of the Seventeenth Century to the early Eighteenth Century, the Dutch Republic, which had experienced a “Golden Age” based on commercial and naval power, experienced challenges to its security, unity, and prosperity which led to its decline:
England’s naval power challenged Dutch maritime dominance, and French invasions on land threatened its territory and population; the expense of the wars and foreign competition threatened the Republic’s commercial standing; and the fiscal stress caused by the wars and commercial decline caused disharmony among the Seven Provinces. Ultimately, despite of the Republic’s previous commercial and naval success, the small and loosely federated provinces could not hope to compete with wealthier and more centralized nations.