During most of Elizabeth's reign, Holland and England had been allied against Spain; whenever the Dutch lagged in their fight for freedom, Elizabeth lent a helping hand. Throughout history England has repeatedly expended her strength to keep the Low Countries free. But, between 1652 and 1674, England went to war with Holland three times. This reversal of the traditional policy resulted from clashes over colonies and trade.
Although Sir Walter Raleigh had shown keen recognition of the worth of colonies in North America, the average Englishman could see little of commercial value there except the fisheries in Newfoundland. As everyone knows, the first permanent English colonies in the New World were settled during the early seventeenth century; and by the late 1640's, some of those colonies, particularly the plantations in the West Indies, were producing for export. But the British did little to service these colonies. In that day of smuggling, piracy, and armed merchantmen, King Charles sent not a single man-of-war across the Atlantic during his entire reign ( 1625-1649). Less energetic people than the Dutch would have seized the opportunity, and Dutch merchantmen almost completely monopolized the trade of such British-settled islands as Barbados, Antigua, and St. Kitts and of the southern colonies in North America, buying their sugar and tobacco and selling them slaves. It almost seemed, so the English complained, that they had established colonies so that the Dutch could grow rich on their trade.
Commonwealth statesmen set out to change the situation when they passed the Navigation Act of 1651, which required that goods produced in their colonies be shipped in British ships. War followed in 1652. Because the parsimonious Dutch burghers had failed to provide themselves with a navy adequate to protect their far-flung merchant fleets, Cromwell's powerful ships-of-the-line were able to blockade the coast of Holland. Grass grew in the streets of Amsterdam; the Zuider Zee was a forest of masts. In the peace of 1654, the Dutch acknowledged the right of England to control her own trade and colonies. English military might at sea had proved the stronger, but Dutch commerce remained almost intact. During the war, the English had taken as prizes of war some 1,500 merchant ships, probably double the British merchant fleet at the beginning of the war. Estimates of the Dutch fleet at this date vary. One source gives 10,000 ships about 1660, but, of course, these vessels were much larger than those of about 1610.
With the peace, the Dutch continued to trade and to trade with British plantation owners, who were ready and willing to accept their services because Dutch ships operated much more cheaply than English ships. Clashes occurred between English and Dutch traders in the Indies, both East and West. The war that broke out in 1664 was England's first colonial war, but it soon spread to Europe. This was a commercial war, pure and simple, although it was supported by King Charles of England, who hated the Dutch, their energy and enterprise, and their democracy. Holland's navy was in much better shape than it had been in 1654. The fighting was indecisive though bitter; in the peace of 1667, the honors were divided. The English acquired New Amsterdam, which they renamed New York, but gave up Surinam in New Guiana. In the Far East, the Dutch agreed to confine their trade to the islands, leaving India to the English.
The third war was caused by European politics, for Charles and Louis XIV of France plotted Holland's destruction. When the French invaded and the Dutch as a last resort opened their dikes to create a barrier between the enemy's armies and their cities, British sympathies turned, and Charles was forced to conclude the war. Within a short time, England and Holland were in an alliance designed to check France. England furnished sea forces and some 40,000 troops, while Holland was committed to maintain an army of 120,000 men. Holland's secondary position as a sea power was determined, not on the high seas, but on the battlefields of Europe.