Ernst Reventlow,
The Vampire of the Continent

Chapter II
The Pious Pirates
Seventeenth Century

Whereas the whole of the once prosperous German industry disappeared in the course of the Thirty Years’ War, leaving a convenient vacancy for English production to fill; this was by no means the case with the Netherlands. After the separation of the latter from Spain, their industry and commerce reached an unprecedented height of development. Colonies were acquired in East India, in the Indian Ocean, in North America, and in South Africa. During the German wars of religion, the Netherlands offered a place of refuge to many of the best elements of the German population, and also convenient and profitable investments for their money. Emigrants and investments contributed very largely to the growing prosperity of the little country. If the German Empire had evolved normally, Holland would have become its “window” opening on to the North Sea and the Channel. Nature would certainly seem to have destined the Netherlands, including Belgium, to play this part. But the German Empire had been turned into a desert, and its commercial importance had ceased to exist.

The fact that Holland was able to become, in the seventeenth century, the greatest Sea Power in Europe, is all the more remarkable in view of the circumstances. And inevitably the question arises: what would have happened if only the Netherlands could have been amalgamated with the German Empire, as Nature intended them to be ?

The Netherlands were everywhere in England’s way: whether as maritime Power or commercial Power, in European or in British waters, on the high seas or in the colonies. This could not be tolerated. Least of all could the Dutch be forgiven for having acquired rights of property there where the English had so far only claims — in North America and India, and especially on the high road between India and China. England saw at once that she must have recourse to those weapons which had already proved so successful in the case of Spain and Portugal: the roots of Dutch sea power must be cut off, so that the fruit might then fall without further effort into the hands waiting to gather it. Unfortunately the majority of the Dutch were not Catholics, so that the war of destruction against their commerce could not conveniently be carried on under the pretence of defending the Protestant faith. England understood this, and chose another pretext accordingly.

Puritanism was now dominant in England. The pious regicide Cromwell had uttered the significant words: “Pray and keep your powder dry.” It is certain that the carrying out of this last recommendation entailed considerably more work than did the praying ! The Germans have been in the habit of searching in English Puritanism for ideals which it never contained. The mainspring of Puritanism was the fanatical belief that the English people constitutes a divinely chosen race, which is destined to reign over all other nations and to monopolise the world’s commerce. The “religious enthusiasm” of which it boasted did, in the long run, but serve the ends of egotism. As a matter of fact, Puritanism never got beyond the Ego; and it was fundamentally irreligious. It believed itself to be entrusted with the mission of founding the Kingdom of God on earth. But this Kingdom of God was nothing if not a world-empire dominated by England; and its realisation further implied that the Chosen People of God should have the entire trade of humanity exclusively in their hands. Here we have the real spirit of Puritanism; and it is neither an exaggeration nor a misrepresentation to describe it as we have done. The pharisaical creed of a greedy and thieving race which, living in the security of an island fortress, cast, like unto a pack of vultures, its lustful glances over seas and continents — this hypocritical creed could not possibly recognise the Protestantism of other nations to be anything like as pure as that of its own adherents. A Christian people which should be stupid and criminal enough not to grovel in the dust before the Chosen Nation — which should even push such criminal folly to the extent of competing with that Chosen Nation on the sea: such a people deserves nothing else but annihilation. The God of the English commands it !

It was not a mere accident that precisely those pious men should have waxed ever more indignant at the spectacle of Holland’s prosperity, who were always ready to commit every crime calculated to ensure the glory of God and of England. Their indignation was justified; during the first half of the seventeenth century, at the very moment when a certain reaction was visible in England after the “heroic age,” Holland had risen to the first rank alike as a trading Power, a maritime Power, and a colonial Power. By means of indomitable energy the Dutch had succeeded, if not in monopolising the oversea trade, at least in acquiring the lion’s share of it. Their trading ships sailed along every coast, and did a very considerable carrying trade to and from English ports. Dutch industry flourished, and proved a serious competitor for English manufacturers on the Continental markets. The Chosen People on the other side of the Channel could not possibly tolerate such a state of affairs. The Puritan Cooper proclaimed that “Carthago delenda est.” Carthage must be destroyed, Protestant Holland must be crushed, for she is in our way!

This was Cromwell’s view. In 1651 he caused the celebrated Navigation Act to be passed. Henceforth it was forbidden to carry foreign freights to English ports on other than English ships, or else ships belonging to the nation exporting the freights in question. It was a death-blow dealt at Holland’s carrying trade. England likewise required all foreign ships to salute in future the English flag whenever they should meet it. The Chosen People thus demanded that all other seafaring nations should recognise its claim to rule the seas — and this was 250 years ago! But this was not all. Cromwell demanded further for English warships in war time the right of searching all trading vessels belonging to neutral nations, in order to see whether or not the latter had goods on board which belonged to the enemy. We have already said that the Dutch ships were very numerous, and that they often had very valuable freight on board; as one may imagine, it was a splendid opportunity for the pious and morally pure English pirates to satisfy their greed under the pretext of the “right of search.” Innumerable neutral vessels were captured, brought to English harbors, there to await the decisions of the English Prize Courts. The latter had already in the seventeenth century — just like they have in 1915 — the inestimable advantage of always condemning a captured ship, provided the latter and its freight be of some value. The Dutch declined to submit to the convenient English custom. This angered the English so much, that Cromwell gave orders to Admiral Black suddenly to attack the Dutch fleet in the midst of peace, under the pretext that the Dutch Admiral Van Tromp had refused to salute the English flag. Thus began the great war between Holland and England, which lasted, with interruptions, until 1674.

If that war had taken place in our days, Dutch statesmen would probably have said, on the eve of its outbreak: “Not a single question can arise between Holland and England, capable of causing a war between two civilised nations who are also bound to each other by links of blood.” A crowd of people unable to form a judgment of their own would have accepted such cheap wisdom with enthusiasm, and would have abundantly denounced all those who held different opinions as jingoes, super-patriots, and so forth. It is all the more important for us, in judging the part played by England in the present war, that we should understand how Elizabethan England waged war on sea, simply because jealous of other people’s prosperity; and how Cromwellian England, and the England of later times, waged wars under different forms, but with the same underlying purpose. Englishmen and Anglophile Germans have called the war of destruction carried on by England against Holland a “commercial war” — thinking thereby to justify it. Let us for a moment examine the question as to what a so-called “commercial war” means. By dint of hard work, enterprise, and skill, a nation has acquired a high position as a commercial and maritime Power. Another nation, less clever and less capable, becomes filled with jealousy at the sight, and declares: “It is contrary to our dignity and to God’s commandments, therefore must the criminal be destroyed.” About twenty-five years ago an English review, alarmed by the first signs of a development of German trade, wrote: “If Germany were extinguished to-morrow, the day after to-morrow there is not an Englishman in the world who would not be the richer. Nations have fought for years over a city or a right of succession; must they not fight for two hundred and fifty million pounds of yearly commerce?” At the time there were many, in Germany, who were of opinion that no importance was to be attached to such utterances as this, seeing that the England of modern times is a civilised Power loving peace. It is to be presumed that these simple minds have learnt something in the meantime!

It would be a pity not to mention, while we are about it, a significant passage which we found in the work of a British naval officer some half-dozen years ago. (The work in question had obtained a prize. ) “We — i.e. England — do not go to war for sentimental reasons. I doubt if we ever did. War is the outcome of commercial quarrels; it has for its aims the forcing of commercial conditions by the sword on our antagonists, conditions which we consider necessary to commercially benefit us. We give all sorts of reasons for war, but at the bottom of them all is commerce. Whether the reason given be the retention or obtaining of a strategical position, the breaking of treaties, or what not, they come down to the bed-rock of commerce, for the simple and effective reason that commerce is our life-blood.”

The above quotation should be inserted as a preface to every history of England, and to every discussion of English politics. The passages reproduced here are in truth classical by reason of their brevity and clearness; and they were not written by some obscure scribbler, but by a British naval officer to whom a prize was awarded for his work by a committee composed of politicians, economists, and naval men.

England assisted Holland in the latter’s struggle against Spain, under the pretext of serving the cause of Protestant freedom. During the war of destruction subsequently waged by her against Protestant Holland, England relied for help on Catholic France. While England had, in the sixteenth century, given herself out as the “champion of political freedom,” and had in this capacity come to the help of the Netherlands, she allied herself, in the seventeenth century, just as enthusiastically with the absolutist French monarchy, in order to destroy republican Holland.

During the war with Holland, the typical insular policy of England assumed definite shape. This policy consists in regarding the European Continent exclusively as a means to an end; and in taking sides for or against a Power, or group of Powers, according as English interests shall dictate it. It may be objected that English interests do not necessarily remain identical in each succeeding century; and that the point of view from which they must be judged will consequently differ. But to this, we may reply: English interests have always remained the same throughout the centuries, and their basis has invariably been a commercial one. And experience, which every century in succession has confirmed, shows that English commerce develops, and that England grows ever richer, in the measure that the Continent is impoverished. The impoverishment of the Continent, in turn, grew in the measure that the nations inhabiting it were divided among themselves. With regard to the war between England and Holland, it must be observed that the latter had never aspired towards territorial expansion, and had never been one of the great European Powers. England could not even allege, as a pretext for the war, that Holland had disturbed the peace of the Continent, and must therefore be destroyed in the interests of that peace. None the less did England proclaim: Carthaginem esse delendam.

We must not overlook the immense historical importance of the fact that the two first wars of robbery and destruction waged by England were directed against Spain and Holland: against the former, on account of her position at the junction of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean; against the latter, on account of her position on the shores of the North Sea and the Channel. Both these parts of the European Continent have ever since had the greatest strategical and commercial importance for England.

The first step towards the establishment of British supremacy in the Mediterranean was taken by Admiral Blake in the middle of the seventeenth century. Alleged acts of piracy committed on the coasts of Tunis, Algeria, and Tripoli furnished the necessary motive. Blake came to an agreement with the Bey of Tunis, to the effect that no English ship should in future be held up. The ships of other nations were left out of consideration as being without any importance. This event is in itself insignificant, yet it marks the opening of a new epoch in history. From that time onwards has England’s supremacy in the Mediterranean, although neither recognised nor absolute, none the less been a problem of worldwide interest. The same Admiral Blake then went with his fleet into the Atlantic, where he joined Admiral Montagu’s squadron, and waited for the Spanish treasure-ships from South America and the West Indies. They soon captured rich booty, with which Montagu returned home. But Blake waited for the rest of the Spanish treasure-ships till the spring of 1657. After more than two years, as English historians boastfully tell us, his patience was rewarded, and he attacked the treasure-ships in the harbor of Teneriffe. The Spaniards — who were criminal enough to defend their property — were massacred, their ships and port destroyed. We have recounted this little episode, because it shows us so clearly how the pious and puritan English, with their eyes lifted up to Heaven, prepared the way for the Kingdom of God on earth.

In the middle of her war against Holland, the opportunity presented itself for England to temporarily make peace with her adversary; whereupon she promptly concluded an alliance with Holland and Sweden against Louis XIV of France. We likewise only mention this little episode in order to furnish a fresh proof of the ease with which England has always changed her alliances and her enemies according as the occasion required it. In order to facilitate such changes, it is customary to periodically shift the men in power. Four years after the feat accomplished by Blake, an English squadron under Admiral Holmes attacked a large Dutch trading fleet coming from the Levant, at the moment when it was entering the Channel. English arrogance has, be it observed, long since added to the word “Channel” the prefix “English.” Holmes’ exploit served as introduction to the last and decisive period of the war. England and France were united. In 1674 Holland recognised, by the Treaty of Westminster, the British supremacy on the seas. England’s rival had disappeared from the scene.

Henceforth Holland became England’s ally and protégé the English nation and its rulers guarded henceforth jealously the “liberty” of the Dutch, and showed themselves to be passionate defenders of the rights of the weak, of the sacredness of treaties, and of the balance of power. In the course of time the balance of power has not only become a dogma of British policy; but it has become a practical criterion, according to which this policy has been systematically applied in every concrete case. England is in the habit of addressing the world in the following terms: “Our policy aims at securing a balance of power on the Continent, in order that peace may reign there, and that no European State may develop at the expense of another.” In the course of many centuries of struggle for justice and liberty, Great Britain has acquired the privilege of styling herself the legitimate protectress of these ideals, common to the whole of humanity. Such is the English contention ! In reality the English policy of the balance of power means simply the stirring up of as many European Powers as possible against the nation which Great Britain, at any given time, considers as her most dangerous competitor. This nation is, of course, always the one which, thanks to its strength and prosperity, threatens to destroy the commercial monopoly of the Chosen People.

As a result of the war with Holland, after which the two countries were bound by dynastic links, and as a result, likewise, of the further dynastic connection with Hanover, England established herself once more on the Continent. The circumstances were far more favorable for her now than in previous centuries, when she endeavored to conquer France by force of arms. The new method was cheaper and less risky. Holland and Hanover became the outposts of Great Britain in Europe; a part of the coasts of the North Sea and the Channel became de facto British. Such outposts possessed vast importance for England’s continental trade, and were also admirable political trump-cards. As for the participation of England in the continental wars, it was a fundamental principle of British policy not to allow the precious blood of Albion’s sons to be shed. But the British Government was consequently all the more generous with the blood of its continental mercenaries. The latter were allowed the honor of having their bones broken for the English idea of the balance of power in Europe. It is evident that the influence on European politics alike of the English dynasty and of the English Government, was immensely increased by these new continental connections.

A large part of the Spanish and Dutch colonies fell into English hands, and the maritime power of Holland was broken during the long war, during which Dutch trading vessels were captured and destroyed en masse. The neutral countries were obliged to submit to their ships being held up and searched by English cruisers, during every war which it pleased the English Government to wage. Such neutral ships generally disappeared then for good into English harbors. As soon as the Prize Court, with its usual solemnity and impartiality, had pronounced a ship and its freight to be lawful booty, both were promptly transferred into English hands, and the English trading fleet was increased by so much.

This method proved most lucrative. Its steady application paved the way for England’s future trade monopoly. Foreign flags disappeared progressively from the high seas, and were replaced by English ones. In this simple manner did England obtain possession of the thriving Dutch trade in the Far East.