Herring or Hellfire: PSU researcher endorses alternate cause for Anglo-Dutch Wars

June 23rd, 2014 by Tim

From a distance of more than 350 years, the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the mid-17th century are easily forgotten. Historians still examine the causes of those conflicts, most pointing to shipping controversies or political issues arising from England’s civil war.

"The Battle of Leghorn" (March 4, 1653). Painting by Willem van Diest (1610-1673)

Peter Kovacs endorses a different theory. The 2014 Plymouth State University graduate writes in a capstone paper for his History major that the wars had a more fishy origin, specifically North Sea herring. “There was something profitable and very important in the water,” he writes, and the English accused the Dutch of taking more than they should.

Kovacs first encountered the Anglo-Dutch Wars in a class on “Early Modern England.” As his interest in the rise of the English empire grew, he was curious about events that contributed to the rise of England as a world power. One factor he discovered was the English struggles with the Dutch leading to their first war in 1652.

He acknowledges many factors brought tensions to the point of war, most related to the growing dominance of Dutch trade. Other historians claim more political origins arising from the English Civil War. Both sides in that struggle interfered with shipping and trading. Also, the Dutch, while claiming neutrality, “rebuked” representatives of the Commonwealth, even allowing one to be killed.

The experience in performing such high level research was as valuable to Kovacs as the result. He read 17th century laws, foreign trade documents, economic articles, legal writings, government documents and philosophical treatises. And he soon learned that 21st century English language is very different from that of the 17th century.

“I had to get my feet in the mud in order to dig up documents from the 1600s and weave them together with research done in more recent years,” he said. He also continued to carry a full class load in order to graduate in May.

The first of four Anglo-Dutch wars was fought from 1652 to 1654. With a growing population and less-than fertile farmland, the Dutch turned to shipping to import food, primarily grain from the Baltic states and those pesky North Sea herring caught off the English coast. Their shipping prowess was soon noticed as other countries used Dutch ships to transport a variety of goods throughout Europe.

In order to grow and protect their own trading, the English government in 1651, then governed under Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, passed the second of its Navigation Acts. These Acts favored the use of English vessels to transport goods to and from England and her possessions. This Act also re-asserted English rights to its territorial waters, including herring swimming off the coast.

Herring, Kovacs says, was used to feed the Dutch population and as a trading commodity. Traveling from port to port herring was safer – and often more useful – currency than bullion. And the herring swimming off the Northern English coast were larger and more prized than those off the Dutch coast. “Not only were the Dutch hauling away finned gold from the North Sea,” Kovacs says, “but they did so right off the English coast, in full view of the country’s occupants, and such boldness was beginning to stink of thievery to the British.”

After months of escalating tension, the conflict finally erupted in summer, 1652. The resulting war ended two years later with the Treaty of Westminster; England won the military battle, but the Dutch remained victors in the mercantile war. However, issues not resolved by this treaty were the basis of future conflicts.

After spending so much time with the subject, Kovacs found himself disagreeing with other historians. Kovacs is also not the first to embrace this alternate yet lesser- acknowledged theory. “It was interesting to view other people’s arguments,” he says, “but you can take away some things from other people’s research. It only adds to the spectrum of dialogue among historians.”

[Read the full paper here.]

 For more information on this release, contact Tim Kershner  tlkershner@plymouth.edu or (603) 535-2476