Unseen Hand in British History - Ian D. Colvin




VII. The State of Europe

The National Policy of the Long Parliament and of Cromwell is in the main the policy of the Merchant Adventurers. Here for a brief space we almost seem to find that ideal State propounded by Schmoller where economic and political control are united: that it came short of that ideal we shall see in the latter part of the story. But at the beginning the Merchants of London are the unseen hand behind Cromwell and the Long Parliament.

The Merchant Adventurers lend Parliament £30,000; when the King applies to the governor for a loan of £20,000 the matter is immediately reported to Parliament, and the House thanks the company and votes a convoy for its cloth fleet to the Elbe. At the same time an ordinance is passed which in fact enormously strengthens the company. The company is declared to have been "very serviceable and profitable unto this State and for the better government and regulation of trade, especially that ancient and great trade of clothing." The company is given rights to levy money on members and their goods, to imprison members, and to administer an oath approved by Parliament. The fine for admission is doubled, all previous privileges are confirmed; membership is limited to those who have been bred merchants. "No person shall trade into those parts limited by the corporation but such as are free of the corporation, upon forfeiture of their goods."

The Levant Company lends Parliament £8000 and obtains a similar ordinance. Its services to the State are recited in the preamble. It had "built and maintained divers great ships," "advanced and maintained navigation," "vented kersies, says, perpetuanas," and "transported into foreign parts for several years together above twenty thousand broadcloths per annum besides other commodities dyed and dressed in their full manufacture." It was therefore continued as a corporation and given power of "free choice and removal" of "all ministers and officers by them maintained either at home or abroad, whether they are dignified or called by the title or name of Ambassadors, Governours, Deputies, Consuls, or otherwise."

They are to have power to "levy moneys on the members of their corporation and strangers, upon all goods that shall be shipped in English bottoms, as also upon all the goods of English shipped in strangers' bottoms which go into or come from the Levant seas, for and towards the necessary charge and maintenance and support of their ministers, officers, and government." None are to trade in those parts but "such as are free brothers" on forfeiture of goods or ships. The fellowship is to admit any person "by way of redemption," but only "if such person be a meer merchant and otherwise capable thereof," on payment of certain fines which are named, and the company is to have the right to distrain, imprison, and administer an approved oath.

The Eastland Company is also high in the favor of Parliament; but it is noteworthy that the East India Company, although it promises £6000 on getting its Bill against interlopers through Parliament, suffers a check. The House of Commons its members well primed with special terms of subscription speedily send it up to the House of Lords; but the House of Lords rejects it. Nevertheless the company lends Parliament £4000 and is vigorously supported in its quarrel with the Dutch.

If the Civil Wars had really been fought upon questions of religion and government we should expect to find the foreign policy of the Commonwealth pursuing the same objects. The Civil Wars would naturally be followed by an alliance with Holland and a war with Spain, and it is considered rather shocking by our historians that the Commonwealth followed exactly the opposite course, went to war with Holland and made friends with Spain. Gardiner confesses that "the strong Puritan zeal which is supposed to have animated the officers (of the Fleet) is . . . conspicuously absent from their letters." "Yet," he consoles himself, "the tide of religious emotion which had swept over the country could not fail to leave behind it a mental and spiritual vigor which prompted men to worthy action on mundane fields."

The idea of a seventeenth-century English sailor uplifted on a tide of religious emotion to fight a Dutchman does not altogether satisfy our sense of reality. Gardiner is equally puzzled by the understanding with Spain, and here his reasoning even becomes grotesque.

"It is undeniable," he says, "that by advanced Puritans the policy of agreement with Spain was at that time held to be the Protestant policy; probably because Spain, though still remaining the home of the Inquisition, had no Protestants left to persecute while Protestants were still numerous in France." And again: "The animosity of the heroes who had fought against Spain with Drake and Raleigh appeared to have died out in the hearts of the sailors of the Commonwealth. The fact was that the understanding with Spain was merely political, and in no way bound the nations together after existing conditions had passed away."

But why was there this "merely political understanding"? Was it, as Gardiner suggests, because there were no longer any Protestants in Spain? Or was there some more substantial and reasonable motive? Now Gardiner mentions that the party which favored the war with Holland desired a commercial treaty between Spain and England: if he had put these two facts together he might have solved both conundrums. For this is the policy of the merchant Thomas Mun and of the Merchant Adventurers.

While we have been absorbing ourselves in these little domestic quarrels at home a great change has come over Europe. The Imperial system had long since collapsed. The Thirty Years' War, from 1618 to 1648, had made a desert of a great part of Germany, and broken into pieces and desolated the Empire.

In all history there is no greater collapse. Hamburg had become, and remained for two hundred years, the pensioner of England; Lubeck, the illustrious, bowed her proud head to the upstart States of Sweden and Denmark; Danzig had prudently left the Empire before the disaster occurred, and was "tied for better or worse to Poland."

"On the Middle and Upper Rhine the balance of trade, which had formerly been largely in favor of the products of Germany . . . had now entirely shifted in favor of France. The towns of Westphalia and the adjoining districts lay low; and if the Rhenish were in a somewhat better state, it was as hangers-on of the Dutch that they picked up a small share of their neighbors' prosperity."

Spain, which had formed a part of the economic as well as the political system of the Empire, found it difficult to stand alone. She had relied for almost everything upon Germany and the Netherlands, and had neglected her shipbuilding and her manufactures.

"At this time," says Adam Anderson, speaking of the year 1647, "her want of manufactures, produce, and other necessaries, within herself, for the supplying of her vast American colonies, occasioned all the gold and silver brought from thence home to be paid away, as fast as they received it, to the English, Dutch, French, Germans, and Italians, for all kinds of necessaries for her said colonies."

And no doubt Anderson founds himself on Thomas Mun, who observes that while Spain's West Indian mines of gold and silver are the richest in the world, yet all parts of Christendom are partakers of this treasure "by a necessity of commerce," for Spain being unable to supply herself and the West Indies "with those varieties of foreign wares whereof they stand in need, . . . their moneys must serve to make up their reckoning."

Although Spain was "the fountain of money," she was forced to a base copper coinage by her "wars and want of wares." And again: "Spain by wars and want of wares doth lose that which was its own." Her treasure went all to foreign countries, especially to the Netherlands and to Italy.

While Spain thus guttered away like a candle alight at both ends, two countries were rising, the one to commercial, the other to industrial, greatness. Those unconsidered estuaries and sea meadows which had become the seven provinces had first raised themselves to power on the back of that noble fish the little silver herring. A certain Dutchman, one William Beakelson of Biervliet, who lived at the beginning of the fifteenth century, discovered the exquisite knowledge of Beakeling or pickling, and these pickled herrings, packed in little oaken kegs with oaken shavings, made so great a trade for the Dutch that in the seventeenth century it employed a thousand great busses and a hundred and seventy smaller vessels, and yielded to Holland more than eight millions of guilders per annum.

From herrings the Hollanders proceeded to whales, and sought to establish a monopoly of the Greenland fisheries. They also invaded the Baltic, allied themselves with Denmark, and in 1511 fought a great but inconclusive battle with the fleet of the Hanseatic League.

These wars with the "German merchants of the Holy Roman Empire" continuing, embroiled the Dutch with the House of Habsburg, and as the Dutch commanded the estuary of the Rhine, the chief vent for English cloth, Elizabeth gave them her disinterested support in the long wars of independence. Their political importance was well understood by our Elizabethan statesmen.

"The Low Countries," says Burghley in a State Paper of 1583, "hitherto have been as a counterscarp to your Majesty's dominions. . . . The King of Spain without the Low Countries may trouble our skirts in Ireland but never come to grips with you; but if he once reduce the Low Countries to an absolute subjection, I know not what limits any man of judgment can set unto his greatness."

By English aid the Dutch achieved their independence and proceeded to secure the Spanish trade.

"As to Spain," says De Witt, "it is very observable that all the welfare of that kingdom depends on their trade to the West Indies, and that Spain affords only wool, fruit, and iron; and in lieu of this requires so many Holland manufactures and commodities that all the Spanish and West Indian wares are not sufficient to make returns for them . . .

"It is well known that Spain during our wars lost most of their naval forces; and that we during our peace have for the most part beat the Eastern (Hanseatic) merchants and English out of that trade. So that it is now certain that in Spain all the coast is navigated with few other than Holland ships, and that their ships and seamen are so few, that since the peace they have publicly begun to hire our ships to sail to the Indies, whereas they were formerly so careful to exclude all foreigners thence. It is manifest that the West Indies being as the stomach to the body of Spain must be joined to the Spanish head by a sea force, and that the kingdom of Naples with the Netherlands being like two arms they cannot lay out their strength and vigor for Spain, nor receive any from thence but by shipping. All which may be very easily done by our naval power in time of peace and may as well be obstructed in time of war."

It may be surmised that the sack of Antwerp and the Thirty Years' War had driven Flemish and German capital into the strong sea-girdled towns as into a safe deposit. De Witt boasted that the Dutch merchants had the use of money at 3 percent. "without pawn or pledge," and they were able to erect a great mercantile system on cheap credit.

"The Hollanders may buy and lay out their ready money a whole season before the goods they purchase are in being and manufactured, and sell them again on trust, which cannot be done by any other nation considering the high interest of money."

Nearness to the Baltic and an understanding with Denmark gave them command of shipbuilding material. "Almost all great ships for strangers are built by the Hollanders," says De Witt. They were the sea-carriers not only for Spain but for France and indeed for all Europe.

"It is nevertheless evident that the Hollanders have wellnigh beaten all nations by traffic out of the great ocean, the Mediterranean, Indian and Baltic Seas; they are the great and indeed the only carriers of goods throughout the world."

Their greatest achievement was, as we have already seen, in the East Indies, where, as De Witt says, the trade of spices and Indian commodities was "pretty well fixed" to Holland. Their East India Company was the finest trade organization in the world: we might call it a Dutch development of the Hanseatic system.

The company was divided into four chambers: Amsterdam, Zeeland, Hoorn and Enkhuisen, Delft and Rotterdam. The towns equipped their own ships and traded with their own stock; but they contributed also to the joint stock of the company and met in Grand Council on matters of common policy. They were at least as strong as the States General; they directed fleets and armies; they built fortresses, garrisoned cities, and conquered countries. They claimed and enforced a monopoly of the trade of Asia, and those who call the Dutch free traders should remember that the chief source of Dutch wealth was held against all comers by an armed monopoly.

In 1620 two English skippers, Shilling and Fitzherbert, annexed the Cape of Good Hope in the name of King James. The annexation was never enforced, and thirty years later the Dutch founded Cape Town, "the frontier fortress of India," which gave them command of the Indian Ocean. Their fortresses in Batavia, Ceylon, and elsewhere commanded every trade route: they maintained this trade empire not by cheapness but by organized power.

Nor was the rise of Holland founded altogether upon trade. Besides the shipbuilding and fishing industries they had their linen and woolen manufactures. The troubles in Flanders had driven many Flemish weavers and cloth-finishers to take refuge in the United Provinces, and Holland took over a great part of the finishing of English cloth. Using her position of command over the Rhine Valley as a lever, she forced the Merchant Adventurers to bring their cloth unfinished, finished it in her own workshops and distributed it throughout Europe. There lay the root of the quarrel between Dutch and English.

One or two of the more thoughtful Dutch burghers realized that the foundation of their wealth lay not in trade but manufacture.

"Though," says De Witt, "we should lose our freight ships, yet we should not therefore lose our manufactures, fisheries, and traffic; but on the contrary by these means, and by lessening the taxes at any time, the freight ships would easily be induced to return to Holland. We know that heretofore in Flanders, Brabant, and Holland many inhabitants were maintained by manufactures, fisheries, and traffic, when the Easterlings (Hanseatics) were the only carriers and mariners by sea; as also that the said owners of freight ships were for the most part gradually compelled by our manufactures, fisheries, and traffic to forsake these Easterlings and to settle in Holland."

Here at least we have the sound doctrine that shipping grows out of manufacture, and that production is the foundation of wealth. But the shipping interest and the cloth-finishing trade were together too strong for the national policy of De Witt. He protests that "the undrest English cloths are not charged at all, and the English traders enjoy every way more freedom and exemption from taxes in Holland than even our own inhabitants."

And this is the secret of that decay which brought Holland to ruin in the end. The easy wealth begotten of trade tempted her to forsake the more laborious course of a national manufacture.

France, under a line of great kings and statesmen, understood better the foundations of national power. In the seventeenth century she was rapidly developing into a great industrial Power, following the same principles of protection and organization as England under Elizabeth.

But the policy of France, as it was not fully developed or understood in Cromwell's day, may be left over for another occasion.

Such then was the Western Europe on which Cromwell looked out after he had defeated the Cavaliers and cut off the head of his King. If the ruling impulse of his government had been religious and constitutional he would have looked at the enormous wealth and power of Holland with complacency and at the decline of Spain with pleasure. But the motive being the healthy motive of mankind, the motive of livelihood, the mind and policy of the Commonwealth were what we shall see in our next chapter.