The Spice Must Flow: The Dutch-Portuguese War-Part 1
Pirates, privateers, colonies and companies, who will rule the waves?
The historically inclined audience members may be familiar with the notion that the “World Wars” were not in fact, the first conflicts to span the globe. Some might argue that the Napoleonic Wars, or the Seven Years War were the first “real World Wars”. However, I recently learned about a conflict I think is more deserving of the “World War 1” moniker. Welcome to the Dutch-Portuguese war, where the trade winds blow and the spice must flow!
The Dutch-Portuguese War, fought between 1598 and 1663, marked a pivotal turning point in global history. Lasting nearly 70 years and spanning across South America, Africa, and Asia, this protracted global conflict saw the forces of the Dutch East India and West India Companies (abbrev. V.O.C. and W.I.C. respectively) battle those of the Portuguese Empire for control of colonies, lucrative spice islands, trade routes, and ports. Fleets clashed, pirates and privateers abounded, fortunes grew, and fortresses fell, from Ayutthaya to (old) Zeeland.
The opportunistic great powers of Europe intervened throughout the course of the decades long conflict, which by it’s end had involved Spain, England, France, Ming China, and many south-Asian kingdoms. Calling it the Dutch-Portuguese war is underselling it by a large margin!
On the surface, the war was fought over colonial territories and commercial trade dominance. But at a deeper level, it represented a clash between two divergent economic systems – capitalism and mercantilism. The Portuguese fought to bring territory and trade under the crown of their king, but the V.O.C. was much more internationalist, and fought for shareholder value!
The conflict catalyzed the rise of capitalism as a dominant global force that would shape international relations for centuries to come.
FIRST SHOTS AND MOTIVATIONS
The conflict kicked off in earnest when the Portuguese treasure ship the Santa Catarina was captured by three ships belonging to the V.O.C. The riches contained within the hull of the captured galleon represented a doubling of the companies assets. This parallels the 1592 capture of the Madre de Deus treasure ship by the English during the Anglo-Spanish war (1585-1604) in which the value of the captured goods amounted to half of the Crown treasury at the time of capture. The privateering expedition that captured the ship was paid just 3,000 pounds, while the returns to investors (in this case Elisabeth I of England) amounted to more than 80,000 pounds.
The massive amount of wealth at stake on the high seas drove the Northern Europeans to re-imagine maritime legal policy to their advantage and fueled the fires of prospective pirates and privateers. Although the age of privateering had already dawned, huge captures such as these sparked investment in privateering and piracy from private coffers. Interestingly, and in the case of the ship captured by the Dutch the ownership of the captured property was often disputed in court once it reached European soil.
SIDE NOTE ON MARITIME POLICY
Previously, the Iberian colonial empires had espoused a policy of “Mare Clausum” or “Closed Sea”. Entrance of foreign ships to these closed seas required a passage rate to be paid, and fishing was a monopolistic right of the owner.
In 1455, the pope declared that no vessel could navigate the seas under Portuguese exclusive claim without express permission from the Portuguese king, the Portuguese kings would later come to title themselves “King of Portugal and the Algarves, within and beyond the sea in Africa, Lord of Commerce, Conquest and Shipping of Arabia, Persia and India” demonstrating their claim over the right to ship and conduct commerce within their claimed territory.
France, Holland, and England, of course did not take kindly to this policy and began to engage in privateering, especially around maritime chokepoints like the horn of Africa and Strait of Magellan. You can read about some famous Dutch privateers and pirates here.
I recently visited Sale in Morocco, which was a famous pirate haven and was governed by a piratical republic led by Jan Janszooon. It is now home to the third tallest tower in Africa, Mohammed 6 tower. Here’s a photo I took:
The Dutch capture of the treasure galleon led to a long legal battle in which the Dutch developed the legal-political theory of Mare Liberum, which allowed for free navigation of the seas and stood poised to end maritime monopolies like the Iberian claims. This school of thought was later revised to give countries sovereignty over the distance from their coast they could defend by cannon, resulting in the three-mile-rule. This extension of sovereignty outwards from a countries coastline is the basis from which we derive the current system of Exclusive Economic Zones.
THE ACTUAL WAR-INDIAN OCEAN THEATRE
Key battles in the Dutch-Portuguese war centered around trading posts and colonies. In the Indian Ocean Theatre, the Portuguese held a strong concentration of ports and bases in India, and had peripheral bases in places like Macau, Malacca, The Cape of Good Hope, and Hormuz.
The Dutch strategy hinged on chipping away at the Portuguese peripheral bases and using the captured ports to strangle the connection between Lisbon and Portuguese India. They would begin operations out of the port of Batavia in Indonesia, but would come to surround Portuguese India by the conflict’s end, turning many local kingdoms to their side along the way. The map below shows a number of Portuguese settlements in southern India that were captured by the Dutch and their allies.
Key to the theatre was the Siege of Malacca, which was a strategic fortress-port in a chokepoint for shipping between India and China. After multiple attempts, the Dutch were able to successfully siege the city. The capture of this key chokepoint, along with Dutch subterfuge and diplomacy resulting in the expulsion of the Portuguese from Japan, effectively isolated Macau, and diminished it’s importance to the Portuguese as a stepping stone port between Japan and their Indian holdings.
Over the course of the war, the established Portuguese power-base in India would vie for control over the periphery against Dutch incursions from Batavia and without.
By 1665 the Portuguese were left with a few major ports in the theatre. Although they did not lose all their territory, they lost something far more important; control of the shipping lanes. Their remaining ports were isolated and their ability to enforce the policy of Mare Clausum was broken. With the markets of the Orient open for business, the Dutch, French, and English would enter a feeding frenzy and quickly come to lay the Portuguese distributive monopoly to rest.
Join me next time in part two, where we take a look at the war in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean Theatres. Will the capitalistic Dutch companies triumph over the Portuguese colonial empire? Fires rise across the globe as stocks are sold and ships are sunk!
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