Britain’s long history of sea wars explains its ongoing struggle with France for fishing

A dispute between Britain and France over fishing grounds quickly escalated. French authorities arrested a British trawler on October 28, and Britain quickly summoned the French ambassador for talks.

The larger issue here is the licenses now required under the new Brexit deals. French fishermen complain that many of their permit applications have been rejected, notably by the Jersey authorities.

The French government threatened to subject British fishing companies to an obscure bureaucracy, perhaps to ban British fishing vessels from French ports, and even to cut off power to the Channel Islands. The British government, meanwhile, has threatened retaliatory measures. He put the Royal Navy ships on hold in case French fishermen try to block these islands. Discussions to resolve the issue have apparently not been successful.

These events follow previous protests and deadlocks in the Brexit negotiations, but they also have a longer history. The most obvious comparison might be with the “cod wars” of the 1950s and 1970s when Britain’s role was reversed. At the time, Iceland ended a previous deal with Britain and excluded British fishermen from Icelandic territorial waters.

Yet conflicts over fishing go back even further than that. The history of these disputes over territorial waters and access to maritime resources can help us understand why these issues remain emblematic of modern national identity – and why both governments have reacted so dramatically.

In the early 1600s, for example, the Dutch Republic had the largest fishing fleet in Europe. Scottish lawyer William Welwod wrote that their overfishing in the North Sea threatened the region’s marine stocks.

But the interests of the British rulers were more economic than ecological. They wanted a piece of the action and challenge Dutch domination. The first monarch Stuart who ruled all the British kingdoms, James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England, Wales and Ireland) and his son Charles I, attempted to impose new licenses and taxes to Dutch fishing vessels, but the efforts of the Royal Navy – at the time underfunded, ill-equipped and ineffective – to enforce this policy bordered on farce. The narrower Dutch ships literally sailed around their British pursuers.

‘Closed sea’

Later in that century, the British and the Dutch fought three wars for commercial and maritime supremacy. These fisheries policies were thus part of a wider debate that was then raging on maritime sovereignty. This debate has become fundamental for modern international law.

The dispute began with Dutch lawyer and diplomat Hugo Grotius, who wrote that no one could control the sea or prevent others from fishing and trading. Grotius’ book, Mare Liberum (The Free Sea), was intended for the Portuguese Empire, which was trying to prevent the Dutch from trading in the Indian Ocean. Nonetheless, his ideas have gone awry in Britain as well.

Encouraged by the monarchs Stuart, Welwod and other writers, notably lawyer and MP John Selden, responded to Grotius in defense of British territorial waters. Selden’s influential Mare Clausum (The Closed Sea) challenged Grotius and relied on historical examples to show why states had the right to claim parts of the sea.

Selden returned to the Romans and Greeks, mentioned contemporary states like Venice, and explored English medieval history in search of suitable, but often dubious, precedents including Saxon King Alfred. Selden made much of Alfred’s shipbuilding program, recorded in various Saxon chronicles, but these accounts were most likely exaggerated. Alfred’s naval activities were far less successful than his sympathetic chroniclers claimed.

Nonetheless, even popular culture has involved the rewriting of history to justify British claims to the sea. The famous song “Rule, Britannia!”, Now repeated every year on the last night of the Proms, was written in the 18th century. century as part of a court mask that portrays Alfred (again, rather arguably) as a naval hero, supposedly Britain en route to a maritime destiny.

These ideas were of course easily manipulated for realpolitik. When the Dutch in turn tried to ban the British from trading in the Indian Ocean, British negotiators quoted Grotius’ writings to their Dutch counterparts (one of whom, ironically, was Grotius himself). Grotius also changed his mind about openness, to an extent, when exile from the Netherlands led him to serve the King of Sweden, another monarch with strong views on maritime sovereignty.


By the 18th century, these disputes had resulted in a broad agreement over territorial waters in Europe (the “three-mile limit”, based on the range of a cannon shot), as well as a general acceptance that the sea should otherwise be open.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, with the expansion of the British Empire and the aggressive search for new markets, the British government embraced the idea of ​​a free sea. While British rulers did not give up on the idea of ​​territorial waters, those who interrupted British trade, often claiming their own maritime sovereignty, were labeled “pirates” and often destroyed.

The British Empire. Photo credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

These concerns reappeared during the twentieth century, both with the development of weapons with ranges exceeding three miles and the growing importance of access to submarine oil and other natural resources. Some countries have claimed territorial waters extending 200 miles offshore and while the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea sought to address some of these problems (and was influenced, in part, by wars cod), several nations, including the United States, have never formally ratified it.

If the current fisheries dispute revisits these earlier arguments in some way, there is also an important difference. In the 17th and 18th centuries, fishing was economically vital for Britain. By 2019, the sector had fallen to just 0.02% of the national economy. It also depends on cooperation with the European Union, with almost half of the UK’s annual catches exported there.

The intransigent stance of the British and French governments in this dispute may therefore seem excessive. It does, however, reflect the continued symbolic status of fisheries and maritime sovereignty – a status that has been debated many times since at least the 17th century.

Richard Blakemore is Associate Professor of Social and Maritime History at the University of Reading.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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