Monday, January 30, 2012

February 18, 1637 – Dutch Convoy Defeats Spain off Lizard Point

The Dutch War of Independence had dragged on for some seventy years after the lowland provinces began their attempt to break away from Spain. There were numerous reasons for the rebellion, including cultural and religious differences exacerbated by the birth of Protestantism, political ideals, and, perhaps most importantly, the growth of the Dutch economy. While Spain had made tremendous wealth by conquering the lands of the Aztecs, Inca, and others, Dutch merchants prospered greatly from the increasing maritime trade. This income fueled Dutch desires for independence as well as giving it the ability to hire, train, and outfit some of the greatest soldiers Europe had seen.

In 1637, the Dutch economy was soaring. Spanish embargoes had limited Dutch trade for some time, but victories at sea lifting river blockades in 1629 came alongside the timely end of the Polish-Swedish War, which opened the Baltic to safe trading once again. When the Franco-Spanish War erupted in 1635, Spanish Flanders lost its southern trade and instead had to pay hefty tariffs for a route through the north. Along the same time, demand for supplies for the Thirty Years’ War in Germany gave an enormous market, easily fed by the victories of the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company, which gave the Dutch extensive colonies, including vast sugar plantations in newly conquered regions of Brazil. This massive influx of money led to speculation, including the projects of draining land in Holland and famous spikes in luxury goods such as tulips.

The economy of the small nation depended upon trade at sea, which was readily targeted by the Spanish navy. Miguel de Horna, new commander of the Dunkirk squadron as his predecessor was captured and died of illness, was fresh from the capture of a merchant ship when his fleet came upon a convoy of 28 Dutch and 16 English merchant ships escorted by six Dutch men-of-war off Lizard Point, Great Britain’s most southerly tip. Horna’s fleet of six galleons and two frigates descended upon the Dutch, whose warships lined up to fight closely while artillery from the armed merchantmen gave support. Three of Horna’s ships, including his own flagship, assaulted the Dutch flagship, which was crippled early in the battle. Whether through accident or desperation not to be captured, the Dutch flagship was set aflame. Explosions riddled the Spanish ships when the fire reached the magazine, injuring Horna and turning the tide of battle. The remaining Dutch were able to disengage and make safely for port while the Spanish were forced to limp home for repairs.

The Battle off Lizard Point was said to wreck Horna’s nerves. He continued to harass Dutch shipping, though rarely again fighting closely enough to capture prize ships. Two years exactly after his fateful defeat off Lizard Point in 1639, Horna was due to leave Dunkirk and join Admiral Antonio de Oquendo's fleet, but he was pinned by the Dutch blockade under Admiral Maarten Tromp. Horna sailed close to the shore, using batteries from shore as cover. Tromp pursued and came into the shallow waters where the vice-flagship had lost its steerage and run aground. Though he was able to capture the ship, it limited the Dutch maneuvers, and the rest of the Spanish fleet escaped with fair damage.

That October, the fleet under Oquendo was set to escort a series of neutral English transports bringing fresh troops to relieve Dunkirk. Tromp arrived with over one hundred ships to block them, and the Battle of the Downs began. Tromp dispatched several squadrons on tasks of preventing escapes to the north or south and interference by the English populace (gathered to watch the battle) and attacked directly with his three remaining squadrons, using principally fire ships against the large, ungainly Spanish warships. Horna and his seven ships were placed as the vanguard due to their familiarity with the Channel, and Oquendo had already experienced a battle with Tromp that September. Horna’s slow hand recommended defensive tactics, and Oquendo had learned a lesson from his humiliation from bravado at the battle on September 16. The battle raged tightly with the Spanish troops meant for Dunkirk used to keep away the grapples of fire ships until a fog fell. Unable to use their artillery, the Dutch were drawn in close, and the Spanish swarmed them. With Tromp imprisoned, the Dutch fleet was in disarray, and the Spanish managed to escape the blockade.

While the war was largely over with Spain increasingly caught up in battles inside Germany and an uprising in Portugal, the Dutch were unable to confirm themselves as masters of the sea. The Republic affirmed its independence in 1648 with the Peace of Munster, and the economy gradually switched to peacetime. However, without maritime laurels to rest on, the Dutch found themselves needing to maintain their navy as protection from privateers. Although losing out in North America to the English, the Dutch would become the principle force in the Pacific, maintaining Formosa despite Chinese attack and expanding their East Indies colonies to include New Holland and New Zeeland.


In reality, Horna would be one of Spain’s most effective commanders. After seizing seventeen ships off Lizard Point, he would ravage Dutch shipping in the English Channel. Although his initial attempt to break the Dutch blockade in the Action of 18 February 1639 would fail, he injured the Dutch forces enough to force a retreat. Horna fought valiantly against tremendous odds at the Battle of the Downs and led his squadron to escape a blockade once again, though the rest of the Spanish fleet would be wiped out, establishing Dutch dominion over the sea for some sixty years but never again afterward. Horna was knighted further battles with the Dutch and French, but died in 1641 while on another convoy raid.

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