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Hugo Grotius' Theory of Trans-Oceanic Trade Regulation: Revisiting Mare Liberum (1609)

IILJ Working Paper No. 2005/14

60 Pages Posted: 28 Dec 2005  

Peter Borschberg

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Department of History

Date Written: August 2006


Four hundred years ago, the Dutch humanist and jurisconsult Hugo Grotius was commissioned by the United Netherlands' East India Company (VOC) to write a defence of Admiral Jakob van Heemskerk's seizure of a Portuguese merchant carrack in the Straits of Singapore (February 1603). At the time he was twenty-one years old. What Grotius produced between 1604 and 1606 is a comprehensive political and historical exposé on war. Today, this work is known as De Jure Praedae Commentarius, or "Commentary on Law of Prize and Booty". Only part of this comprehensive manuscript was published during its author's lifetime and is known as Mare Liberum or "The Free Sea" (1609).

Mare Liberum is essentially a propagandistic treatise and argues for Holland's merchants to freely access emporia in Asia by unimpeded navigation across the high seas. The freedom of navigation forms a subset to the overarching arguments on the freedom of access and trade. This particular assessment of Mare Liberum stands in sharp contrast to past interpretations, insofar as these have placed the 'freedom of the seas' - and not the broader issues surrounding 'free trade' - at the forefront of scholarly attention. From this vantage point, Grotius was surprisingly consistent in his thinking on the broader issues of maritime trade and navigation.

During the first two decades of the seventeenth century, Grotius lent a helping hand in the process of forging political and commercial treaties between the VOC and Asian rulers. Far from championing peace and the freedom of navigation on the high seas for which the Dutch humanist is best remembered in modern times, Grotius should also assume a place among the intellectual fathers of Dutch colonial rule in Asia.

JEL Classification: K29

Suggested Citation

Borschberg, Peter, Hugo Grotius' Theory of Trans-Oceanic Trade Regulation: Revisiting Mare Liberum (1609) (August 2006). IILJ Working Paper No. 2005/14. Available at SSRN: or

Peter Borschberg (Contact Author)

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Department of History ( email )

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