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The Dutch Beggars of the Sea
By Jean-Denis G. G. Lepage
Historical background
Aside from the Caribbean and Spanish Main, there was another place where Spanish domination was challenged: the Netherlands. Between 1568 and 1648, the Low Countries sought less taxation, more self-government, and religious tolerance from the Spanish-Habsburg Empire, a struggle that became known as the Eighty Years' War. The Low Countries (part of Northern France and present-day Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxemburg) consisted of seventeen provinces, which in the 15th century, one by one, had been inherited, purchased, or conquered by the dukes of Burgundy, from whom they were inherited by Charles V of Spain and his son, Philip II. For centuries, these provinces had been busy trading and financial centers with wealthy commercial cities and ports. Besides, during the 16th century Protestantism had gained ground in the Netherlands. So the Dutch Provinces' revolt was both a war of independence and a religious war.

Charles V by
                Anthony van DyckPhilip II by Titian
Charles V (left) and Philip II (right)

William of
                    Orange (William the Silent) by Adriaen KeijIn the 1570s, William of Orange, originally a stadhouder (literally "place holder" or lieutenant representing the king of Spain in the Low Provinces), turned against the Spanish empire and helped organize the Dutch struggle for independence. William of Orange (1533-1584), nicknamed De Zwijger (the Silent) – probably because of his secret and calculating character – was the most influential and politically capable leader. His determination and efforts led to the formal declaration of independence of the United Provinces in July 1581. Declared an outlaw by the Spanish king in 1580, he was assassinated in July 1584 in Delft by a fanatical Catholic named Balthasar Gerardts. Known ever since as the Vader des Vaderlands ("Father of the Fatherland"), William was the founder of the dynastic House of Orange-Nassau, which still reigns in the Netherlands today.

Placing himself openly at the head of the revolt, William needed soldiers to combat the formidable Spanish armies. He made diplomatic alliances, raised militias, hired mercenaries, and also turned his attention to a group of desperadoes and pirates known as the Watergeuzen ("Beggars of the Sea").

The Watergeuzen
The origin of the name geuzen (singular geus, from the French gueux meaning ragged tramp or beggar) is unclear, but it is often attributed to the councillor Charles Berlaymont (c. 1510-1578), who is reputed to have made, in French, a sarcastic remark about the Dutch rebels to Governess Margaretha van Parma in 1566: Vous n'avez pas à avoir peur d'eux, Madame, ce ne sont que des gueux (You do not have to be  afraid of them, Milady, they are only ragged beggars). When war broke out, the name geus or specifically watergeus referred to a member of irregular Dutch rebel forces. The Watergeuzen originally included adventurers, smugglers, and pirates who attacked vessels of almost any nation as well as fishing boats, villages, and towns on the southern coast of the Dutch Provinces. As a result, in 1547 the Regent and Governor of the Low Countries, Maria of Hungary (1505-1558, Emperor Charles V's sister), ordered the constitution of a protection fleet with ten armed ships from the port of Henkhuizen in the Zuiderzee to escort and defend Spanish convoys in the North Sea.

From 1569 William of Orange issued letters of marque to the Watergeuzen, making official privateers of those who until then had been criminal pirates. Under the command of a succession of daring and reckless leaders, William of Orange formed the Sea Beggars into an effective and organized fighting force against Spain.

Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I by
                    George GowerThe Dutch revolt was secretly supported by Anglican England and the French Huguenots. At first the Beggars of the Sea were content with plundering both by sea and land and carrying their booty to English and French ports where they were able to refit and replenish their stores. For several years their bases of operation included such Protestant-held ports as Emden (North Germany), La Rochelle (France), and Dover (England). In 1572 Queen Elizabeth, under Spanish pressure, refused to admit them any longer to her harbors. Deprived of a safe refuge, the leaders Lumey and Ripperda and their Sea Beggars, in desperation, made a surprise attack upon the small Spanish-held port of Brielle (also known as Den Briel near Rotterdam) in April 1572. Encouraged by their success, they sailed to Vlissingen (Flushing, in the province of Zeeland), which was taken after an audacious raid. The capture of these two towns gave the signal for a general revolt in the Netherlands, and is often regarded as the real beginning of Dutch independence.

Capture of Brielle by Jan Luycken
The Capture of Den Briel (Brielle) in 1572 by Jan Luycken

The capture of Brielle indeed marked the start of the secession of the Northern Provinces from the Spanish empire. Soon after, the Sea Beggars managed to repel an attack by a Spanish force led by Maximilian de Hennin, Count of Bossu, by flooding the surrounding land. After this, the Sea Beggars counter-attacked and plundered the Spanish-held harbor of Delft. Mixing with the native population, they quickly sparked rebellions against "the Iron Duke" (the Duke of Alva, commander of the Spanish army of Flanders) in town after town and spread the resistance southward. From their new bases the Sea Beggars continued to harass Spanish shipping and coastal cities.

Dutch ships
                after the Battle of Zuiderzee, 1573
Dutch ships after the Battle of Zuiderzee in 1573

In 1573 the Sea Beggars, reinforced by Elizabethan volunteers, intercepted and destroyed a Spanish supply convoy off the port of Hoorn in the Zuiderzee. The following year, the Spanish army besieged the city of Leiden, whose citizens had joined the rebellion. The Dutch defenders flooded the countryside around the town, enabling the Sea Beggars to use small boats to drive off the besiegers. These operations of harassment helped the consolidation of Dutch control of the lands north of the River Scheldt, which for the rest of the war marked the front line between the Dutch independents and the Spaniards.

                      of Leiden by Otto van Veen
Relief of Leiden by Otto van Veen

The Eighty Years' War was a complicated conflict. It was a war of independence, but also a religious and civil war in which economic and political factors played major roles. Both sides often committed pointless atrocities. The Watergeuzen and the northern Protestant insurgents regarded all Spaniards and Catholic Dutchmen as enemies. They therefore attacked churches, monasteries, and Catholic villages and towns, killing priests, monks, and administrative representatives of the Spanish crown, as well as Catholic citizens. In return the Spanish army (mostly composed of mercenaries) had no problem sacking towns and murdering innocent victims. For example, infuriated and neglected hired soldiers in Spanish service plundered and made a bloodbath at Delfshaven in April 1572, Mechelen in October 1572, Naarden in December 1572, Antwerp in 1576, and Oostende in 1604.

The Cruel Massacre of Naarden by the
                  Spanish by Jan Luckyen
Massacre of Naarden by Spanish troops, 1572, by Jan Luyken

                    Farnesse, Duke of Parma by Jean I De SaiveIn 1578, in an attempt to crush the rebellion, Philip II of Spain replaced the Duke of Alva, who obviously had failed, with the highly skilled diplomat and military leader, Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma and Piacenza (1545-1592) as commander of the army of Flanders and Governor of the Spanish Netherlands. By 1580, after a series of successful military operations and well-conducted diplomatic handlings, Farnese had consolidated Spanish control of the territories south of the Scheldt. Late that year, the war stagnated as both sides needed time to regroup their forces and refill their coffers in order to pay their mercenaries.

By 1585 he decided to lay siege to the rebel-held port of Antwerp. The duke encircled the city and linked his siege works by building an 800 yard-long pontoon bridge across the River Scheldt. The Sea Beggars launched a daring attack against the bridge with explosives and fire-ships ("hell-burners") in April 1585. The Spaniards repulsed them and Antwerp fell in August. After this episode, the role of the Watergeuzen decreased. Some crews were incorporated into the newly created Dutch navy, where Watergeuzen leaders were isolated and ceased to conduct operations, which were now directed by Willem van Orange and his General Staff.

Leaders of the Sea Beggars
The best known of Sea Beggars’ leaders was the Belgian William II van der Marck, Baron of Lumey (1542-1578). An anti-Spanish rebel of the first hour, Lumey was banned and his properties seized in the late 1560s. He soon returned to the Low Countries and became admiral of the Sea Beggars. Having taken Brielle on 1 April 1572, he conquered South Holland and took control of North Holland and Zeeland. In June 1572, he was appointed stadhouder of Holland and consequently Captain General, i.e. military Commander in Chief of the conquered territories. The resentful and ruthless Lumey was accused of more than one atrocity, including the execution, without trial, in July 1572 of the so-called "martyrs of Gorcum," nineteen Dutch Roman Catholic monks and priests, who eventually secured sainthood. In 1576 Lumey's career came to an end. Considered too radical, he was banned from the Netherlands by the States of Holland, and went back to his homeland, the Bishopric of Liège, where he died in May 1578.

One of Lumey's lieutenants was Baron Willem Blois van Treslong (c. 1530-1594), who had served in the Spanish navy since 1558. As an experienced naval officer, van Treslong (English translation) served with Lumey's Watergeuzen in 1571 and 1572, notably during the famous seizure of Brielle.
Another famous Beggar of the Sea leader was Barthout Entens van Mentheda, Baron of Middelstum, Dorema, and Engelboort (1539-1580), villages in the north of Groningen. Entens van Mentheda led the Watergeuzen during the capture of Dordrecht in April 1572, and participated in the sieges of Haarlem, Goes, and Groningen. As Vice-Admiral of the Beggars of the Sea, he also took part to the campaigns in Walcheren and South Beveland, islands in the southern province of Zeeland, in 1580.

Watergeuzen leader Wigbolt Ripperda (c. 1535-1573) came from an old and rich family in the Ommelanden, an area in the northern province of Groningen. He studied in Geneva and Orleans, where he came in contact with Protestantism, the new religion that inspired the Dutch Revolt, and became a strong and radical believer in this religion. When he returned to the Netherlands, he joined the army of the Prince of Orange. Until August 1572, he was commander of the guard of William van der Marck, Baron of Lumey, and became governor of Haarlem, a city he defended with gallantry and determination when besieged by a large Spanish army in 1573. After a long and bitter siege, the city had to surrender because of a lack of food and supplies. Ripperda, together with his soldiers, was captured and beheaded soon after.

The Watergeuzen, an ambiguous ragtag assemblage of Dutch aristocrats, ultra-Calvinists, pirates, and riffraff, were a prime example of those warrior mariners who strayed between legal privateers and illegal sea robbers. Pirates turned patriot privateers, they waged guerrilla sea warfare against Spanish interests, and proved an effective instrument of the Dutch cause between 1568 and 1574 in the early phase of the Eighty Years' War.

English support
As the Beggars of the Sea consolidated the insurgents' situation, Queen Elizabeth I of England openly sided with the Dutch rebels and unleashed her Sea Dogs. Francis Drake attacked the coasts of Spain, inflicting serious damage, while Walter Raleigh attacked the Spanish fishing fleets in the North Atlantic. Another English officer played an important role on the side of the Dutch rebels: Francis Vere.

Francis DrakeWalter RaleighFrancis
                  Vere by Aert Meuris
(From left to right) Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, and Francis Vere

Francis Vere (1560-1609) first went on active service under the Earl of Leicester in 1585, and was soon in the thick of the war raging in the Low Countries. At the siege of Sluys, young Vere greatly distinguished himself under Sir Roger Williams and Sir Thomas Baskerville. In 1588 he was with the garrison of Bergen op Zoom, which repulsed the Spanish besiegers, and was knighted by Lord Willoughby right after the battle. Sir Francis Vere became commander of the English troops in the Low Countries, which operated in close cooperation with the Dutch forces under Maurice of Nassau (1567-1625, the son of William the Silent). Vere served in the Cadiz expedition of 1596, and the culminating point of his career came in July 1600 at the Battle of Nieuwpoort when Vere and Maurice completely defeated the veteran Spanish troops of Archduke Albert. This was followed by the celebrated defense of Ostend from July 1601 to March 1602. When James I made peace with Spain, Vere retired from active service and spent the remainder of his days in the English countryside, writing his memoirs. Sir Francis Vere died in 1609, soon after the truce that recognized the independence of the Northern Dutch United Provinces.

Hugo de Groot

In the 16th and early 17th centuries privateering (often intimately linked with piracy) was not always recognized by naval powers. In 1604 the famous Dutch captain Jakob van Heemskerck (1567-1607) attacked and plundered the Portuguese carrack Santa Catharina, which allowed the Dutch Republic to make a tremendous catch, estimated to be three million florins. To justify this act of pure piracy, the cunning and legal-minded Dutch authorities turned to their well-respected and influential jurist, Hugo de Groot (1583-1645), also known as Grotius. One of the pioneering natural rights theorists of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Grotius defined natural law as a perceptive judgement in which things are good or bad by their own nature. This was a break from Calvinist ideal, in that God was no longer the only source of ethical qualities. These things that were by themselves good were associated with the nature of man. The Dutch Republic had been founded on principles of religious toleration, but had become a Calvinist theocracy.

Jakob van HeemskerckCarrackHugo Grotius by Michiel Jansz van
Jakob van Heemskerck, a carrack, and Hugo de Groot

Grotius, a humanist and Dutch patriot, struggled with Calvinism all of his life. In this struggle, he dealt with the international laws of war and issues of peace and
justice. Grotius' conception of the nature of natural law was set forth in his works, notably in an important book, De Jure Praedae Commentarius (Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty), which eventually influenced the British liberal philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). De Groot, a remarkable international law theorist, helped form a concept of international society. He introduced the new and modern notion of Mare Liberum ("free sea" accessible to all), and the right of booty and free trade, the substitution of the ancient "natural piracy" by the notion of regulated and legal privateering in official service of the State. Although Grotius considered war a "necessary evil," conflicts needed to be regulated. The "just war" in his eyes was a war waged to obtain a right. The concept of free sea, widely adopted by all European sea-going nations, marked the official rejection of the Iberian monopoly expressed by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.

The end of the Eighty Years' War
Although the war weighed enormously on its treasury, the tiny Republic of the Netherlands had become Europe’s economic powerhouse. With new, innovative ship designs like the flute (also spelled fluyt), new capitalist economic arrangements, such as the joint-stock company taking root, and the military reprieve provided by the Twelve Years' Truce with Spain (1609-1621), Dutch commercial interests expanded explosively across the globe, particularly in the New World and East Asia.

In January 1648, after many vicissitudes – too long and too complex to be related here – the Eighty Years' War ended with the Treaty of Münster between Spain and the Netherlands. This treaty was part of the European Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years' War in Germany. In the treaty, the power balance in Western Europe was readjusted, and the Dutch Republic of the Seven United Provinces (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Guelders, Overijssel, Friesland, and Groningen) was recognized as an independent state.

Dutch WIC privateers 1621-1661

In the early seventeenth century (even before the Treaty of Westpahalia of 1648), the Dutch Republic of the Seven United Provinces was virtually an independent state already. The most powerful Dutch companies, like the Dutch East India Company (VOC), were most interested in developing operations in the East Indies (Indonesia) and Japan, and left the West Indies to smaller, more independent Dutch operators who hired privateers. In 1621 the West-Indische Compagnie (WIC, West India Company) was created, and soon became a serious competitor against the Portuguese and Spaniards in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean, and the waters off Brazil. Trade was the main objective of the Company, but the slave trade from Africa to the Americas, which provided labor for the plantations founded by the European settlers, and also privateering represented important profits.

Piet HeynIn 1624 two WIC privateers, Pieter Schouten and Hendrick Jacobszoon Kat, undertook several successful expeditions and came back to Amsterdam with important booty. In 1626 the few WIC raiders, placed under the leadership of Captain Boudewijn Hendrikszoon, were reinforced by a small fleet headed by the then unknown Piet Heyn (1577-1629). At first, Heyn was rather unsuccessful, making only minor catches, but in 1627 his privateers captured no less than fifty-five Spanish ships. In September 1628, the Dutch privateer fleet, now reinforced and including 3,800 sailors manning thirty-one ships armed with 689 guns, launched surprise attacks on the Spanish silver flotas from Honduras and Mexico in the Strait of Florida and in the Bay of Matanzas. They boarded and captured, with only a few casualties, the heavily laden galleons, seizing a treasure of 180,000 pounds of silver, 134 pounds of pure gold, thousands of pearls and precious stones, and expensive cloth, silk, and furs. The formidable booty, with a total value of 11.5 million florins, was brought back to Amsterdam, and divided between the crews, WIC share holders and merchants, and Prince Frederik-Hendrik of Orange (1584-1647, William the Silent's youngest son and Maurice's successor), who, owing to his function as General-Admiral of the Dutch fleet, was entitled to pocket ten percent of the loot.

Piet Heyn's exploit made him a national hero, and the event is still remembered in one of the most popular Dutch folk songs. Other expeditions were planned and carried out in the 1630s and 1640s, but the formidable success of 1628 was never repeated. The surprise effect did not work any longer and the Spanish fleets were better organized and protected. The Dutch Admiral Cornelis Jol suffered heavy casualties when attempting to attack Spanish ships in 1638 and 1640. By that time the WIC was at war with Portugal for the territorial possession of Brazil, and all its resources were engaged in that conflict. Although privateering was a fruitful business, the Company could not afford to fight on two fronts.

The outbreak of the First English War (1652-1654, also known as the First Anglo-Dutch War) between the rival Britain and the Dutch Republic saw a revival of privateers in the European seas. When this war was over, privateers were again engaged against the Portuguese, particularly off the shores of West Africa. Finally, in 1661, a treaty was signed with Portugal, and this marked the end of all privateering undertakings commissioned by the Dutch West India Company.

For more information, Jean-Denis recommends the following:
Blockmans, Willem. Oorlog door de Eeuwen Heen (War Through the Ages). Weert: M. & P. Uigeverij, 1998.

De Voogd, Christophe. Histoire des Pays-Bas (History of the Low Countries). Paris: Editions Hatier, 1992.

Jansen, H. P. H. Middeleeuwse Geschiedenis der Nederlanden (Medieval History of the Netherlands). Utrecht: Uitgeverij Prisma, 1965.

Korteweg, Joke E. Kaperbloed en Koopmansgeest: "Legale Zeeroof" door de eeuwen heen (Business Sense and Blood Hijacker: “Legal Piracy” through the Ages). Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Balans, 2006.

Prud'homme van Reine, Ronald. Kapers en Piraten (Pirates and Privateers). Hilversum: HD Uitgevers, 1996.

Sloot, R.B.F. v.d. Middeleeuws Wapentuig (Medieval Weaponry). Bussum:Van Dishoek Uitgeverij, 1964.

For those seeking English sources on Dutch privateers, I recommend:
Bevan, Tom. Beggars of the Sea: A Story of the Dutch Struggle with Spain. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1912.

Dewald, Jonathan. Europe ,1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

Lunsford, Virginia West. Piracy and Privateering in the Golden Age Netherlands. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. (read my review)

About the author:
Jean-Denis G. G. Lepage, who lives in the Netherlands, is a fellow author with an interest in pirates. He is also a historian and illustrator. This article is taken from one of his unpublished manuscripts, but he has written numerous books. If you would like to read more of Jean-Denis’s works, here’s a complete listing.

British Fortifications through to the reign of Richard III (2012)
German FLAK 1935-1945 (2012)
French Fortifications 1715-1815 (2010)
Vauban and the French Military Under Louis XIV: An Illustrated History of Fortifications and Strategies (2010)
Luftwaffe Aircrafts (2009)
Hitler Youth 1922-1945 (2008)
The French Foreign Legion (2007)
German WW2 Vehicles (2007)
Fortifications of Paris (2005)
Medieval Armies & Weapons (2004)
La Jeunesse Hitlérienne 1922-1945 (published  in French, 2004)
Castles and Fortified Cities of Medieval Europe (2002)
The Westwall: Siegfried Line 1938-1945 (2002)
Vestingen en Schansen in Groningen (published in Dutch, 1994)
Vestingbouw Stap voor Stap
 (published in Dutch, 1992)


Copyright © 2011 Jean-Denis G. G. Lepage

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