Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The decline of the Netherlands in the 17th Century

I have wondered how much the decline of the Netherlands in the 17th Century was due to Louis XIV and how much was due to William III (William of Orange). They both were brilliant men.

Louis XIV energized France, upon taking control of the government. Under his leadership, France was like a rocket. It rose to great heights, before crashing at the end of the flight. His reign setup France for the revolution at the end of the 18th Century, and put people into the frame of mind where Socialism looked pretty good to them. When Louis XIV took an interest in the Netherlands, the Netherlands developed a big problem.

When the French attacked the Netherlands (in the form of the Dutch Republic, the United Provinces), he brought down the government of Jan De Witt, and caused his death at the hands of a mob, along with his brother Cornelis. The "Young Prince", William III (or Willem III), Prince of Orange, stepped up to save the country. I suspect that William III was trained by the French during the 1660's, when the Dutch and French were nominally allied. The French were supreme on land. They had the greatest generals, perhaps of all time, in Prince Conde and Turenne. They had a fine army, and Vauban was advising Louis XIV in the field, and was revolutionizing military fortifications in a way that was copied for the next 250 years or more.

The bad thing about the regime change in the Netherlands was that Jan De Witt had achieved an understanding of naval warfare, while William III was totally ignorant, and remained so for the rest of his life. He also had no interest, perhaps accounting for his ignorance. Yet, naval power is what saved the nation in the Third Anglo-Dutch War, as much as the valiant defence and William III's statement about "the last ditch" ("There is one certain means by which I can be sure never to see my country's ruin -- I will die in the last ditch").

The Netherlands was sustained past 1673 as an independent nation largely due to the efforts of Michiel Adriaanszoon De Ruyter and the navy. There are not enough superlatives to describe Michiel De Ruyter. I consider him the greatest admiral of all time. If you compare him with someone like Horatio Nelson, De Ruyter towers over him. If you look at their careers, Nelson never really commanded in a battle that was critical to the defense of his nation. Even Trafalgar was not very important, as France had rebuilt its fleet in a short time. De Ruyter, on the other hand, fought in battles that determined the continued existence of his country. He won the Third Anglo-Dutch War, which knocked England off the field by 1674. De Ruyter was a flag officer for a great number of battles in the First Anglo-Dutch War, the war with Sweden in 1658 and 1659, and the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars. He died at an age when few of his contemporaries were still alive (at 69 years) in a fight against the great Huguenot admiral Abraham Duquesne, during the extended war against France that lasted until 1678.

When the Glorious Revolution took place in 1688, William was eager to enter the fray against his old enemy Louis XIV and his uncle, James II. He fought the War of the English Succession to secure his throne, and then in the following War of the League of Augsburg. His wife, Mary II died of Smallpox, as had his mother and father. His sister-in-law, Queen Anne would also die of Smallpox. William III died from a fall from his horse. He left the Netherlands in shambles. They were shorn of trade and capital. The English gladly took over from their allies as the premier commericial empire and naval power. With William III as king, England's navy had suffered as well, due to his lack of interest and knowledge. This was in sharp contrast with Charles II and James II, who were both knowledgable and had a keen interest in the navy.

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