Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The Sovereignty of the Seas.

The sovereignty of the seas, which foreigners dispute with us, is as much a conquest as any one obtained on land; it is gained and preserved by our cannon, and the French, who, for ages past, exclaim against what they call our tyranny, are only hindered from becoming themselves universal tyrants over laud and sea, by that sovereignty of the seas without which Great Britain would cease to exist.

In a memoir of the French Institute, I read a bitter philippic against this sovereignty, and a notice then adapted to a writer’s purpose, under Bonaparte, of two great works: the one by Selden, and the other by Grotius, on this subject. The following is the historical anecdote, useful to revive:—

In 1634 a dispute arose between the English and Dutch concerning the herring-fishery upon the British coast. The French and Dutch had always persevered in declaring that the seas were perfectly free; and grounded their reasons on a work of Grotius.

So early as in 1609 the great Grotius had published his treatise of Mare Liberum in favour of the freedom of the seas. And it is a curious fact, that in 1618, Selden had composed another treatise in defence of the king’s dominion over the seas; but which, from accidents which are known, was not published till the dispute revived the controversy. Selden, in 1636, gave the world his Mare Clausum, in answer to the Mare Liberum of Grotius.

Both these great men felt a mutual respect for each other. They only knew the rivalry of genius.

As a matter of curious discussion and legal investigation, the philosopher must incline to the arguments of Selden, who has proved by records the first occupancy of the English; and the English dominion over the four seas, to the utter exclusion of the French and Dutch from fishing, without our licence. He proves that our kings have always levied great sums, without even the concurrence of their parliaments, for the express purpose of defending this sovereignty at sea. A copy of Selden’s work was placed in the council-chest of the Exchequer, and in the court of admiralty, as one of our most precious records.

The historical anecdote is finally closed by the Dutch themselves, who now agreed to acknowledge the English sovereignty in the seas, and pay a tribute of thirty thousand pounds to the King of England, for liberty to fish in the seas, and consented to annual tributes.

That the Dutch yielded to Selden’s arguments is a triumph we cannot venture to boast. The ultima ratio regum prevailed; and when we had destroyed their whole fishing fleet, the affair appeared much clearer than in the ingenious volumes of Grotius or Selden. Another Dutchman presented the States-General with a ponderous reply to Selden’s Mare Clausum, but the wise Sommelsdyke advised the States to suppress the idle discussion; observing that this affair must be decided by the sword, and not by the pen.

It may be curious to add, that as no prevailing or fashionable subject can be agitated, but some idler must interfere to make it extravagant and very new, so this grave subject did not want for something of this nature. A learned Italian, I believe, agreed with our author Selden in general, that the sea, as well as the earth, is subject to some States; but he maintained, that the dominion of the sea belonged to the Genoese!

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37