The Capture of the Santa Catarina (1603)

On February 24, 1603 three Dutch ships anchored at the mouth of the Johor River off the Strait of Singapore. The next morning, the sailors woke to a wondrous sight: the Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina had arrived during the night and was moored right beside them. It was a gigantic U-shaped vessel transporting nearly a thousand soldiers, sailors, women, children and captured natives to be sold as slaves. At eight in the morning, the admiral of the fleet, Jacob van Heemskerck, ordered his crew to attack. He instructed them to fire only at the carrack's mainsails, "lest we destroy our booty by means of our own cannonades". The attack was one-sided as the Portuguese were unprepared for naval battle. The battle was over by six-thirty in the evening. The Portuguese captain, Sebastiano Serrao, surrendered to Van Heemskerck, thereby setting a series of events that would change the course of international relations.

What had happened? By 1602, the newly formed Dutch East India Company (VOC) was threatening Portugal's monopoly over the Asian spice trade. In response, the Portuguese government designed an extensive campaign to drive out the Dutch from the East Indies. They also punished the natives who had granted the Dutch access to their ports and markets. Outraged by the atrocities the Portuguese inflicted on the Dutch and their allies, Van Heemskerck and his crew prepared to retaliate against the Portuguese. After spending months of looking for a Portuguese ship to capture, they at last found one on that morning of February 25, 1603. And not just any ship, but the treasure ship Santa Catarina. The ship and its cargo ended up as booty of war and were taken back to Europe.

Booty of War

Following standard procedure, the Dutch East India Company and Van Heemskerck filed a lawsuit before the Amsterdam Admiralty Board to secure rights to the ship and its contents. The Admiralty Board sent out notices summoning all claimants to contest the seizure. Nobody responded, of course. On September 9, 1604, the Admiralty Board declared the seizure to be a 'good prize' and ordered it to auctioned. The auction was an eye opener for many European merchants. Until that point in time, the Portuguese had been able to keep their trading activities within Asia a fairly well-kept secret. The sale of the Santa Catarina’s cargo, however, emerged as a very important event in commercial terms as it opened the eyes of merchants in Europe to the profits that could be reaped from the trade within Asia, and especially in the trade with China.

Hugo Grotius

The incident surrounding the seizure of the Santa Catarina was most certainly not uncontroversial from a legal point of view. Van Heemskerk attacked the ship without a so-called privateering commission from the Dutch Republic, and his action could be considered an act of piracy. Shareholders opposed to the fact that their enterprise was supporting piracy, or at least - if granted a legal commission - privateering. They were traders, not pirates! For this reason the directors of the Dutch East India Company commissioned the young and talented lawyer and humanist Hugo de Groot, better known today by his Latinised name Hugo Grotius, to write a formal justification of the incident. Interesting to know, Grotius had a personal stake in the case as well: through his paternal grandmother he was a cousin of Van Heemskerck. So he was defending his own cousin! It is assumed that what the directors had in mind was a sharp, pointed pamphlet that would attack the Portuguese and Spanish powers for the policies of obstruction in Asia, and would justify Admiral van Heemskerk’s act of piracy as a legitimate deed under the laws of war.

What Grotius produced was not a short, pointed pamphlet, but an expansive treatise  (ca. 500 pages!) on the Law of Nations that systematised then prevailing ideas about the Laws of War and implicitly also acts of privateering under such laws. It is generally accepted today that this treatise penned by Grotius forms one of the most important cornerstones in the origin of the moral Law of Nations. Grotius spent two years finishing the treatise, nowadays known under the title De Jure Praedae commentarius (“On the Law of Prize and Booty”). However, it remained unpublished during his lifetime, except for one chapter - in which Grotius defends free access to the ocean for all nations - which in 1609 appeared under the famous title Mare Liberum (“The Freedom of the Seas”). Mare Liberum was widely circulated and often reprinted. Only until 1868, the whole treatise De Jure Praedae was published.