First League of Armed Neutrality

The first League of Armed Neutrality was an alliance of European naval powers between 1780 and 1783 which was intended to protect neutral shipping against the Royal Navy's wartime policy of unlimited search of neutral shipping for French contraband.[1] British naval commanders followed their instructions with care, ordered away boarding parties and made seizures with impunity. Four-fifths of ships sailing, according to one estimate, made port in safety.[2] But it was the loss of the other fifth which rankled. By September 1778, at least 59 ships were taken prize-8 Danish, 16 Swedish and 35 Dutch, not mentioning others from Prussia.[3] Protests were enormous by everyside involved.


Empress Catherine II of Russia began the first League with her declaration of Russian armed neutrality on 11 March [O.S. 28 February] 1780, during the War of American Independence. She endorsed the right of neutral countries to trade by sea with nationals of belligerent countries without hindrance, except in weapons and military supplies. Russia would not recognize blockades of whole coasts, but only of individual ports, and only if a belligerent's warship were actually present or nearby. The Russian navy dispatched three squadrons to the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and North Sea to enforce this decree.[4]

Denmark (which also ruled Norway at the time) and Sweden (which also ruled Finland), accepting Russia's proposals for an alliance of neutrals, adopted the same policy towards shipping, and the three countries signed bilateral agreements and then a tripartite convention forming the League in August 1780. The intention was to band their ships together in convoys and declare their cargoes to not be contraband, although such a declaration would not be accepted by the British. Spain, at war with Britain, pledged to respect the League's neutrality, while Britain demurred. The Netherlands planned to join the League in January 1781, but Britain found out before the treaty could be signed and declared war after capturing a Dutch ship bearing what the British called contraband. The Netherlands could not thus join a league of neutrals.[5]

The league members remained otherwise out of the war, but threatened joint retaliation for every ship of theirs searched by a belligerent. In 1781, Prussia, Austria and Portugal joined the League; in 1782 the Ottoman Empire joined; and in 1783 the Two Sicilies.[5]

As the Royal Navy outnumbered all their fleets combined, the alliance as a military measure was what Catherine later called it, an "armed nullity". Diplomatically, however, it carried greater weight; France and the United States of America were quick to proclaim their adherence to the new principle of free neutral commerce. Britain—which did not—still had no wish to antagonize Russia, and avoided interfering with the allies' shipping. While both sides of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War tacitly understood it as an attempt to keep the Netherlands out of the League, Britain did not officially regard the alliance as hostile.[6] Throughout the war most of the naval supplies of the Royal Navy continued to come from the Baltic Sea.

The League ceased to have any practical function after the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1783.

It was followed in the Napoleonic Wars by the Second League of Armed Neutrality which was massively less successful and ended after the British victory at the Battle of Copenhagen.[7]

See also


  1. Armed Neutralities - International maritime law in the eighteenth century
  2. Albion and Pope, Sea Lanes in wartime, p. 35
  3. AS, Genoa, AS. 2293, letter, Ageno to Serenissima, London, 29 September 1778
  5. 1 2 John D. Grainger, The Battle of Yorktown, 1781: A Reassessment (Boydell, 2005), p. 10.
  6. Encyclopedia of American foreign policy, Volume 1, Editors Alexander DeConde, Richard Dean Burns, Fredrik Logevall, Simon and Schuster, 2001, ISBN 978-0-684-80657-0

Further reading

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