“The obscure conflict, which began on March 30, 1651, was a curious by-product of the English Civil War.”
IN AN EARLIER article, we reported how the shortest war ever clocked in at a mere 38 minutes. At the other end of the spectrum is what could be considered the longest war in history — it lasted more than three centuries. But what’s even more remarkable than the length of the conflict is that this war between Holland and the Isles of Scilly in Celtic Sea had no casualties and not a single battle! That’s because for centuries, neither side even realized that they were at war.
The obscure conflict, which began on March 30, 1651, was a curious by-product of the English Civil War. The Dutch, long-time allies of England, had chosen to support the stronger Parliamentarians side in the decade-long conflict. The Royalists considered Holland’s decision a betrayal and promptly used the king’s ships to punish their former friends by raiding Dutch shipping.
But by 1651, the war with Parliament was going poorly for the Royalists. In fact, the king’s forces had been all but chased from England. Among their last remaining strongholds was on the Isles of Scilly, a tiny group of islands about 45 kms off the western tip of Cornwall. And “tiny” is by no means an exaggeration: the largest of the Scilly Isles is only 4 square miles. Hoping to recoup some of their losses at the hands of the raiders, the Netherlands dispatched a fleet of warships to bully the remaining Royalists on the islands into paying reparations for the damage done to Holland’s trade.
The Dutch commander, Admiral Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp, supposedly had orders to declare war on the Scilly Isles if the Royalists failed to cough up the money. The king’s supporters refused and according to the story, Tromp declared war. But with so few Royalist forces remaining on the islands and very little in the way of spoils to be had anyway, Tromp withdrew his fleet without firing a shot and sailed for home. By June, the Royalists fleet had formally surrendered to Parliament and the English Civil War finally sputtered out. So did Holland’s interest in following up on its earlier war declaration. In fact, the Dutch soon forgot they ever issued it.
More than three centuries later in 1985, a local historian on the Scilly Islands named Roy Duncan stumbled across this odd historical footnote. Duncan wrote to the Dutch Embassy in London informing them of his discovery. When officials in the Netherlands confirmed the fact that indeed no suspension of hostilities had ever been issued, Duncan invited the Dutch ambassador to Great Britain to visit the islands and formally negotiate an armistice. On April 17, 1986, a peace treaty was signed. The ambassador reportedly joked after signing the document that the Scillians must have been living in fear for 335 years knowing that at any moment the Dutch might have attacked them.
Other historians have since questioned whether the Dutch commander in 1651 actually had been issued authority to declare war. And some have pointed out that technically it’s not possible for a country to declare hostilities on a specific region of another sovereign nation. Furthermore, any state of conflict that would have existed between Scilly and the Netherlands would have been terminated at the end of a subsequent fight between England and Holland between 1652 and 1654.