Navigation Act Leads to Anglo-Dutch Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Navigation Act, Britain’s attempt to regulate foreign trade by a national statute, led to three naval wars between former Protestant allies England and the Netherlands. The conflict marked the first modern war waged from nonreligious motives on a global scale. Moreover, it was the first global war between two representative governments or republics.

Summary of Event

The Navigation Act passed in 1651 stated that all imports to England had to be in English ships or else in ships of the producer country (Royalist colonies such as Virginia routinely used Dutch shipping), and it forbade fishing in English waters by foreigners (the Dutch had fished in the English Channel since at least 1295). [kw]Navigation Act Leads to Anglo-Dutch Wars (Oct., 1651-May, 1652) [kw]Wars, Navigation Act Leads to Anglo-Dutch (Oct., 1651-May, 1652) [kw]Dutch Wars, Navigation Act Leads to Anglo- (Oct., 1651-May, 1652) [kw]Anglo-Dutch Wars, Navigation Act Leads to (Oct., 1651-May, 1652) [kw]Act Leads to Anglo-Dutch Wars, Navigation (Oct., 1651-May, 1652) Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct., 1651-May, 1652: Navigation Act Leads to Anglo-Dutch Wars[1740] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct., 1651-May, 1652: Navigation Act Leads to Anglo-Dutch Wars[1740] Netherlands;Oct., 1651-May, 1652: Navigation Act Leads to Anglo-Dutch Wars[1740] England;Oct., 1651-May, 1652: Navigation Act Leads to Anglo-Dutch Wars[1740] Anglo-Dutch War, First (1651-1652)[Anglo Dutch War, First (1651-1652)] Navigation Act (1651) Blake, Robert Cromwell, Oliver Tromp, Maarten

This act by England’s newly established republic hit its mark: It crippled Dutch trade and shipping, and within two months Holland sent a delegation to Parliament to ask that the Navigation Act be repealed. The Dutch, however, offered no concessions in return. Parliament ignored their request, and England’s navy continued to seize Dutch merchant vessels on the grounds that their cargo was contraband. In May of 1652, Maarten Tromp, Tromp, Maarten a Dutch admiral sailing to protect a merchant fleet, clashed near Dover with English warships under Admiral Robert Blake Blake, Robert . The encounter was the beginning of the Anglo-Dutch War.

Both sides had been spoiling for this war as a test of strength. The closeness between the two Protestant nations arose from the circumstance that Holland had come into existence by rebelling from Spain not long after Queen Elizabeth I had come to the British throne in 1588 after the death of her half sister Mary I, who had been the wife of King Philip II of Spain. English volunteers, with Elizabeth’s blessing, served Holland in its struggle against Spain. In trade, the Dutch originally relied on Portugal, which had discovered the route to India through the efforts of explorer Vasco da Gama. When Spain annexed Portugal, the Dutch had to make their own way to the Far East.

In 1602, they founded the celebrated Dutch East India Company Dutch East India Company , which before long was disputing with Portugal the command of the Indian Ocean. A second company that launched in 1621, the Dutch West India Company Dutch West India Company , gained control over the Atlantic from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to the Straits of Magellan in South America. These powerful trading companies were authorized by Amsterdam to establish colonies in both Indies, to coin money, and to make war or peace. Besides settling New Amsterdam (later ceded to the English and renamed New York), the Dutch kept up their conquests in Brazil until 1661.

By the time of the English Civil Wars (1642-1648) English Civil Wars (1642-1651) , Amsterdam was the financial center of Europe, where businessmen established their credit and raised loans, and Holland became a vast entry point to which goods were brought for exporting overseas. Holland had more ships than all the navies of Europe combined. With no rivals to their commercial shipping, the Dutch naturally upheld the doctrine of mare liberum (an open sea). English merchants looked on enviously as Holland imported Gloucestershire woolens and then reexported them as Dutch products. When the Civil Wars ended, the English Parliament, purged of Royalist sympathizers, beheaded King Charles I and established the Commonwealth. They expected support from Holland, a sister republic. Having only recently been delivered from the Thirty Years’ War, Holland kept a wary distance from the new English republic. The Dutch waited to see whether Charles II Charles II (king of England)[Charles 02 (king of England)];Restoration of , proclaimed king in Scotland, would succeed in getting back his father’s throne. Only when Oliver Cromwell Cromwell, Oliver;Battle of Worcester defeated Charles at Worcester Worcester, Battle of (1651) in September, 1651, was Holland forced to take the Commonwealth seriously.

In its Navigation Act the next month, Parliament answered Holland’s doctrine of the mare liberum with an English doctrine of mare clausum (a closed or private sea). The idea that anyone should have exclusive right to part of the ocean—in this case, the English Channel and the seas around England’s colonies—sounds odd to modern observers, because the complex notion of free trade across international waters has become so commonplace. In the seventeenth century, however, international law was unheard of and foreign relations were based on what might be called the law of the jungle. A nation expected its king to protect it and to increase its trade by cowing its rivals. For nearly half a century after the 1620’, Europe was in a recession. Not yet having developed technologies to increase their industry, European countries found their best profits in carrying and shipping, and with each decade, the Dutch were claiming a larger share.

English merchants had first clashed with the Dutch in the East Indies in 1623, when the Dutch overran and massacred some English traders at Amboina. When the Navigation Act was passed and the Dutch sent ambassadors to remonstrate, England responded by raking up old grievances against Holland. Besides Amboina, various Dutch acts of piracy were scored against them. For years, England had issued letters of reprisal authorizing its captains to seize Dutch merchant vessels; then as now, a country always pretended it took up war solely to defend its interests (particularly its merchants and trade). Just like a monarch, the new English republic sought to establish its sovereignty by protecting its merchants against an enemy. This kind of patronage is feudal rather than patriotic. (One should note that the urge to further the good of the whole nation played no part in the Dutch wars themselves, as it would do when England fought with France in the next century.) The Navigation Act required, for example, that the Dutch strike their sail in salute to an English ship, which in turn had the right to search any Dutch vessel. That the Commonwealth’s navy could enforce such a humiliating provision shows how far the Commonwealth and Protectorate governments increased England’s might and prestige.


Coming at the end of the wars of religion that had been concluded by the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the Anglo-Dutch War was the first modern war waged from nonreligious motives on a global scale. Moreover, it was the first global war between two representative governments or republics. Historians who believe that the war resulted from commercial rivalry alone ignore the significant motive behind the Navigation Act, which was intended to shape a national policy. Up to that time, the English trading companies were supported by money from investors and by royal grants of monopolies in a commodity, such as tin, or in a geographical area, such as the Baltic. Yet in 1651, with the monarchy abolished, English merchants looked to Parliament instead of the king, and Parliament obliged them by even challenging allies such as Holland and Sweden. In other words, the Navigation Act signaled that the Commonwealth had thrown off the old ties to religion and to the feudal hierarchy that used to bind the crowned heads of states, and had replaced them by something like a sense of the national interest.

This new sense of a national interest was born of the republic. When Cromwell put an end to the Commonwealth with his Protectorate (1654-1658) Protectorate (1654-1658) , he strove to identify the national interest with the Reformation dream of a Protestant crusade against the pope, beginning with war on Spain. He died without having succeeded in rallying the country to his cause, however, and with the restoration of monarchy in 1660, feudal motives of self-interest were reasserted by the restored nobility and gentry who demanded the old privileges. The second and third Anglo-Dutch Wars were not in England’s interest but were started by factions of courtiers and by King Charles II. Yet the memory of a united republic was not forgotten. Restoration Parliaments renewed the Navigation Act, and eventually the rival parties—country and court, Whigs and Tories—would rediscover the national interest in the Revolution of 1688.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gardiner, Samuel Rawson, ed. Letters and Papers Relating to the First Dutch War, 1652-1654. 6 vols. London: Navy Records Society, 1899. Edited by one of the greatest nineteenth century historians of England, this work attempts to exculpate England for its role in the First Anglo-Dutch War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Groenveld, Simon. “The English Civil War as a Cause of the First Anglo-Dutch War, 1640-1642.” Historical Journal 30 (1987): 541-566. Groenveld’s account tells the story of the First Anglo-Dutch War from the Dutch perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hainsworth, Roger, and Christine Churches. The Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars, 1652-1674. Stroud, England: Sutton, 1998. Establishes the background and causes of the wars, describes major battles, and discusses the role of Robert Blake, the Tromps, and other naval leaders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, James Rees. Britain and the World, 1649-1815. Sussex, England: Harvester Press, 1980. Jones presents a useful analysis of international politics of the period on pages 60-70 of this work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pincus, Steven C. A. Protestantism and Patriotism: Ideologies and the Making of English Foreign Policy, 1650-1668. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Outlines the causes and consequences of the first two Anglo-Dutch Wars, focusing on the religious and political ideologies that led to the conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schama, Simon. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. In this already classic work of popular history, Schama provides an informative survey of Holland’s glorious century of expansion.

Dutch East India Company Is Founded

Dutch Dominate Southeast Asian Trade

Thirty Years’ War

The Great Protestation

Founding of New Amsterdam

Dutch and Portuguese Struggle for the Guinea Coast

Algonquians “Sell” Manhattan Island

English Civil Wars

Confederation of the United Colonies of New England

Establishment of the English Commonwealth

Restoration of Charles II

British Navigation Acts

British Conquest of New Netherland

Second Anglo-Dutch War

Related articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Robert Blake; Charles II (of England); Oliver Cromwell; George Monck; Prince Rupert; Michiel Adriaanszoon de Ruyter; Maarten and Cornelis Tromp. Anglo-Dutch War, First (1651-1652)[Anglo Dutch War, First (1651-1652)] Navigation Act (1651)

Categories: History