The freedom of the oceans of the world and coastal waters has been a contentious issue in international law for the past four hundred years. The most influential argument in favor of freedom of navigation, trade, and fishing was that put forth by the Dutch theorist Hugo Grotius in his 1609 Mare Liberum (The Free Sea).
The Free Sea was originally published in order to buttress Dutch claims of access to the lucrative markets of the East Indies. It had been composed as the twelfth chapter of a larger work, De Jure Praedae (Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty), which Grotius had written to defend the Dutch East India Company’s capture in 1603 of a rich Portuguese merchant ship in the Strait of Singapore.
Liberty Fund’s new edition of The Free Sea is the only translation of Grotius’s masterpiece undertaken in his own lifetime, left in manuscript by the English historian, Richard Hakluyt (1552–1616). It also contains William Welwod’s critique of Grotius (reprinted for the first time since the seventeenth century) and Grotius’s reply to Welwod. These documents provide an indispensable introduction to modern ideas of sovereignty and property as they emerged from the early-modern tradition of natural law.
"By the law of nations navigation is free for any to whomsoever
Our purpose is shortly and clearly to demonstrate that it is lawful for the Hollanders, that is the subjects of the confederate states of the Low Countries, to sail to the Indians as they do and entertain traffic with them. We will lay this certain rule of the law of nations (which they call primary) as the foundation, the reason whereof is clear and immutable: that it is lawful for any nation to go to any other and to trade with it.
God himself speaketh this in nature, seeing he will not have all those things, whereof the life of man standeth in need, to be sufficiently ministered by nature in all places and also vouchsafeth some nations to excel others in arts. To what end are these things but that he would maintain human friendship by their mutual wants and plenty, lest everyone thinking themselves sufficient for themselves for this only thing should be made insociable? Now it cometh to pass that one nation should supply the want of another by the appointment of divine justice, that thereby (as Pliny saith) that which is brought forth anywhere might seem to be bred with all; therefore we hear poets speaking,
nec vero terrae ferre omnes omnia possunt,
and so forth."
Hugo Grotius (10 April 1583 – 28 August 1645), also known as Huig de Groot, Hugo Grocio or Hugo de Groot, was a jurist in the Dutch Republic. With Francisco de Vitoria and Alberico Gentili he laid the foundations for international law, based on natural law. He was also a philosopher, theologian, Christian apologist, playwright, and poet.
Grotius's influence on international law is paramount, and is acknowledged by, for instance, the American Society of International Law, which since 1999 holds an annual series of Grotius Lectures.
In The Free Sea (Mare Liberum, published 1609) Grotius formulated the new principle that the sea was international territory and all nations were free to use it for seafaring trade. Grotius, by claiming 'free seas' (Freedom of the seas), provided suitable ideological justification for the Dutch breaking up of various trade monopolies through its formidable naval power (and then establishing its own monopoly).
England, competing fiercely with the Dutch for domination of world trade, opposed this idea and claimed That the Dominion of the British Sea, or That Which Incompasseth the Isle of Great Britain, is, and Ever Hath Been, a Part or Appendant of the Empire of that Island. William Welwod, a Scottish jurist who was the first to formulate the laws of the sea in the English language, argued against Grotius' Mare Liberum in An Abridgement of All Sea-Lawes (1613), eliciting a response from Grotius around 1615 under the title Defensio capitis quinti Maris Liberi oppugnati a Gulielmo Welwodo ("Defense of chapter five of the 'Free Oceans,' opposed by William Welwod"). In Mare clausum (1635) John Selden endeavoured to prove that the sea was in practice virtually as capable of appropriation as terrestrial territory.
As conflicting claims grew out of the controversy, maritime states came to moderate their demands and base their maritime claims on the principle that it extended seawards from land. A workable formula was found by Cornelius Bynkershoek in his De dominio maris (1702), restricting maritime dominion to the actual distance within which cannon range could effectively protect it. This became universally adopted and developed into the three-mile limit.
The dispute would eventually have important economic implications. The Dutch Republic supported the idea of free trade (even though it imposed a special trade monopoly on nutmeg and cloves in the Moluccas). England adopted the Act of Navigation (1651), forbidding any goods from entering England except on English ships. The Act subsequently led to the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654).
Grotius' personal motto was Ruit hora ("Time is running away"); his last words were "By understanding many things, I have accomplished nothing."