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“Here the Sovereignty of the United States of America Was First Acknowledged”
White puffs of gun smoke over a turquoise sea followed by the boom of cannon rose from an unassuming fort on the diminutive Dutch island of St. Eustatius in the West Indies on November 16, 1776. The guns of Fort Orange on St. Eustatius were returning the ritual salute on entering a foreign port of an American vessel, the Andrew Doria, as she came up the roadstead, flying at her mast the red-and-white-striped flag of the Continental Congress. In its responding salute the small voice of St. Eustatius was the first officially to greet the largest event of the century—the entry into the society of nations of a new Atlantic state destined to change the direction of history.
The effect of the American Revolution on the nature of government in the society of Europe was felt and recognized from the moment it became a fact. After the American rebellion began, “an extraordinary alteration took place in the minds of a great part of the people of Holland,” homeland of St. Eustatius, recalled Sir James Harris, Earl of Malmesbury, who was British Ambassador at The Hague in the years immediately following the triumph of the American Revolution. “Doubts arose,” he wrote in his memoirs, “about the authority of the Stadtholder” (Sovereign of the Netherlands and Prince of Orange) . . . “indeed all authority came under attack when the English colonists in America succeeded in their rebellion.” What the Ambassador was witnessing—in idea, if not yet in fact—was the transfer of power from its arbitrary exercise by nobles and monarchs to power stationed in a constitution and in representation of the people. The period of the transfer, coinciding with his own career, from 1767 to 1797, was, he believed, “the most eventful epoch of European history.” The salute to the Andrew Doria, ordered on his own initiative by the Governor of St. Eustatius, Johannes de Graaff, was the first recognition following the rebel colonies’ Declaration of Independence, of the American flag and American nationhood by an official of a foreign state. Dutch priority was not the most important aspect of the event, but as other claimants have disputed the case, let it be said that the guns of Fort Orange were confirmed as first by the President of the United States, in a plaque presented to St. Eustatius in 1939 over the engraved signature of the incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt. The plaque reads, “In Commemoration of the salute of the flag of the United States fired in this fort November 16, 1776, by order of Johannes de Graaff, Governor of St. Eustatius, in reply to a national gun salute fired by the U.S. Brig-of-War Andrew Doria. . . . Here the sovereignty of the United States of America was first formally acknowledged to a national vessel by a foreign official.” Thereby de Graaff found a place, though it may be the least known of any, in the permanent annals of the United States.
The Andrew Doria, vehicle and protagonist of this drama, was not just any ship but already the possessor of a historic distinction. She was one of the first four ships, all converted merchantmen, to be commissioned into the Continental Navy created by act of the Continental Congress on October 13, 1775, and she was shortly to take part in its first active combat. She was a brigantine, a small two-masted vessel, refitted for belligerent action in the newly created American Navy. She had sailed from the New Jersey coast town of Gloucester near Philadelphia on October 23, under orders of the Continental Congress to proceed to St. Eustatius to take on military supplies and deliver a copy of the Declaration of Independence to Governor de Graaff. With only her limited sail area to catch the westerlies, her crossing in a little over three weeks to arrive by November 16 was a notable feat. Sailing times from North America to Europe and back varied widely depending on the type of ship, with the heavier warships taking longer than frigates and merchantmen, and depending on the wind, which might sometimes shift erratically from the prevailing westerlies blowing eastward to the reverse. At the time of the Revolution, the eastward passage to Europe, called “downhill,” ordinarily took about three weeks to a month as opposed to the westward “uphill” voyage to America against the wind and the Gulf Stream, which took about three months.
Eustatius’ salute was of no great importance except for what it led to. By intentionally encouraging, in defiance of his own government, the Dutch trade in military armament to the Colonies, the Governor assured the continuance of shipments from St. Eustatius, a critical factor in saving the American Revolution at its frail beginnings from starvation of firepower. In the first year, wrote George Washington, in the whole of the American camp there were not “more than nine cartridges to a man.” In October, six months after the Colonies had put their rebellion to the test of arms, Washington confessed to his brother, “We are obliged to submit to an almost daily cannonade without returning a shot from our scarcity of powder which we are necessitated to keep for closer work than cannon distance whenever the redcoat gentry pleases to step out of their Intrenchments.” In the tight fight for Bunker Hill in June, 1775, when American powder was nearly exhausted, the soldiers had to combat the British with the butt ends of their muskets. Long kept dependent on the mother country for military supplies because of a persistent suspicion in Britain of a rebellious American potential, the Colonies had developed no native production of weapons or gunpowder and lacked the raw material in saltpeter and the skills and facilities for its manufacture. Ammunition from Europe shipped via the West Indies was the only source of supply. As neutrals, the Dutch, for whom commerce was the blood in their veins and seafaring as ocean navigators their primary practice, became the essential providers, and St. Eustatius, the hinge of the clandestine traffic to the Colonies, became a storehouse of the goods of all nations. The British tried every means to stop the shipments, even to pursuing vessels right into Eustatius’ harbor, but the Dutch shippers, with the advantage of local knowledge of winds and tides, could outwit their pursuers, and stubbornly continued to sail. British protests that the “traitorous rebels” in the Colonies must receive no “aid and nourishment” from any friendly power grew in anger, conveyed in the arrogant language of the British minister, predecessor of Sir James Harris, the “high and mighty” Sir Joseph Yorke—as John Adams described him. Sir Joseph, son of the Lord Chancellor (Philip, first Earl Hardwicke), was an imposing personage in the diplomatic society of The Hague. He kept a “splendid and hospitable” table, according to Sir William Wraxall, an English visitor, with effect more overbearing than cordial, for his deportment was “formal and ceremonious” of a kind that evidently appealed to the Prince of Orange, the Stadtholder, who, says Wraxall, felt for him “a sort of filial regard.” The ambassadorial manner had less effect on the merchant-shippers, who cared more for business than for diplomatic niceties.
Cadwallader Colden, British Lieutenant-Governor of New York, had warned London in November, 1774, that “contraband between this place and Holland prevails to an enormous degree. . . . Action must be taken against the smugglers but it would not be easy because the vessels from Holland or St. Eustatia do not come into this port, but in the numerous bays and creeks that our coast and rivers furnish, from whence the contraband goods are sent up in small boats.”
How the system of contraband delivery worked was revealed in the reports of Yorke’s network of agents. A particularly active shipper was shown to be a certain Isaac Van Dam, a Dutch resident of St. Eustatius serving as middleman for the Americans, who was sending quantities of goods and money to France for the purchase of gunpowder to be delivered to St. Eustatius for transshipment to America. For Britain’s envoy to see the contraband go forth under his nose was particularly painful. “All our boasted empire of the sea is of no consequence,” lamented Sir Joseph Yorke. “We may seize the shells but our neighbors will get the oysters.”
Exasperated by the traffic, Britain in 1774 declared the export of “warlike stores” to the Colonies to be contraband and therefore subject to search and seizure under her rights as a belligerent. Threats to the Dutch government followed, demanding prohibition of the military shipments by Dutch subjects. These were no longer the days of a century before when, in the series of struggles between the Dutch and English for maritime supremacy, Holland’s Admiral de Ruyter, according to legend, had sailed up the Thames to the very gates of the enemy capital with a broom nailed to his masthead in token of his intent to sweep the English from the Channel. Failing that happy result, he burned English ships and towed away the Royal Charles, one of the principal ships of the Royal Navy, an ill event that brought anguish to Samuel Pepys, a secretary of the Admiralty. “My mind is so sad,” he recorded in his diary for June 12, 1667, “and head full of this ill news . . . for the Dutch have broke the chain and burned our ships, particularly the Royal Charles, and the truth is I fear so much that the whole kingdom is undone.” The blaze of the ships burning in the river was seen in London. The Anglo-Dutch wars, however, merely continued indecisively through the 17th century until both countries concluded that contest for supremacy was costing more than any profit supremacy could bring, and since both were strained in their resistance to the aggressions of Louis XIV, King of France, they found a joint interest in combining against him instead of fighting each other. In 1678, England and Holland had entered into defensive alliance pinned to several treaties requiring each to assist the other with the loan of troops or other aid in the event of aggression by a third power. After nearly a hundred years of this relationship, England took it very ill that Holland, instead of lending her 6,000 troops upon request under the terms of the old treaty, was instead saving the American enemy from empty arsenals and enabling the Revolution to continue.
Conscious of naval weakness relative to Britain, which now in the 1770s had 100 ships of the line (warships of over 60 guns), compared to eleven of the same size for the Netherlands, the government of the Netherlands felt compelled to comply with Britain’s demand to cease supply of war material to the Colonies. In March, 1775, Dutch rulers announced to their subjects a six months’ embargo of export to the Colonies of contraband (arms and ammunition) and naval stores (lumber for repairs, ropes for rigging and all materials needed to keep a ship afloat), even clothing, under penalty of confiscation of cargoes and heavy fines, and confiscation of ships in case of non-payment. In August the prohibition was extended from six months to a year, and again prolonged for each of the next two years. As an unbearable restraint on a lucrative trade, the order aroused wrathful resentment in the merchant class and was routinely disobeyed. The natural result was a great increase in smuggling, to such an extent that Sir Joseph Yorke was instructed to inform the States General, governing body of the Netherlands, that English warships were ordered henceforth to show “more vigilance and less reserve” in their attentions to St. Eustatius. Their guard became so close as to make it difficult for mariners to bring in provisions. Indignation at this treatment provoked in Holland a proposal to blockade the ambassadorial residence of Sir Joseph Yorke in retaliation, though the records show no evidence that this undiplomatic enterprise was carried out. In January of 1776, King George III ordered the Admiralty to put more warships on duty because “every intelligence confirms that principally St. Eustatius, but also all the other islands are to furnish the Americans with gunpowder this winter.” If Eustatian shippers had not been indefatigable in defying the embargo and evading their pursuers, continuance of the American rebellion at this stage might have been a close call. Militarily it was a hardpressed time. A crushing defeat in the Battle of Long Island in August, 1776, had left the British in control of access to New York and the New York coast. Washington had, at least, safely brought his forces out of Manhattan, where he could maintain the connection of New England to the South which it was the principal British strategic aim to disrupt. Soon the British had penetrated Pennsylvania and were threatening Philadelphia, the congressional capital. At Christmas time of 1776 the Continental Congress fled to Baltimore. In September, 1777, Sir William Howe with a large army and naval force sailed imposingly up Chesapeake Bay to the Delaware to enter and occupy Philadelphia, the largest city and busiest manufacturing and commercial center of the country. Occupation by the British meant the closing of America’s two major ports by the enemy, cutting off the delivery of cargoes. The Dutch, however, not disposed to abandon a lucrative trade, slipped into smaller ports and estuaries and managed to maintain the supply of guns and powder that kept the patriot fight for independence alive.
The cause, however, suffered another blow in the loss of Fort Washington, on Harlem Heights, opposite Fort Lee in New Jersey, thereby losing control of the Hudson and opening New Jersey across the river to invasion by the British. The new defeat called for heavy campaigning to save the territory. The bedraggled army, without proper clothing and short of medicine and hospitals and care for the wounded, and especially of fresh recruits, was further weakened by the constant drain of short enlistments. Washington could muster perhaps 2,500 men at the most against Howe’s 10,000. The imbalance was made up by his gift for miracle in a crisis. On the same Christmas when the Congressmen were running to save their skins, Washington with his worn-out force crossed back over the Delaware to inflict a smashing knockout on the Hessians at Trenton, gaining their surrender and 1,000 prisoners. For his own cause, the gift in energy and morale was incomparable.
A similar indomitable will had already carried the Dutch people through an eighty years’ war of rebellion to overthrow Spanish sovereignty and brought them by their seafaring enterprise to overseas empire and to a role in the 17th century equal to that of the great powers. Though now slipping into decline, they were not disposed to acquiesce readily in British dictation of what their ships could or could not carry or to submit to search and seizure on command.
Mutual hostility between Dutch and English was to mount to a climax in the five years following the salute to the Andrew Doria with definitive effect on America’s fortunes. In January, 1776, the hostility became overt. In strong language voiced by Abraham Heyliger, the temporary Governor, Eustatians vehemently protested that the British, in pursuing merchantmen into their harbor, committed “irregularities so flagrant that they must be considered as a total violation of the laws of all civilized nations.” The protest was—with more caution than the original version—addressed not directly to the British, but to the West India Company in Amsterdam, which governed the trade with America. Admiral James Young, commanding the British Leeward station, shot back at once a denunciation of “the very pernicious traffic carried on between his Britannic majesty’s rebellious subjects . . . and . . . St. Eustatias.” King George’s order to the Admiralty to show “more vigilance” followed in the same month.