12/7/12 - but for the dutch, the british might have won

In today's selection -- beginning in 1775, it was the Dutch and not the French that kept the American Revolutionary army supplied with arms and gunpowder, mainly through the Dutch port in the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius (also called Statia), near present day St. Kitts and Nevis. In fact, it is impossible to envision an American victory without the assistance of the Dutch -- for whom the profit motives were simply too great. The irony was that the Dutch were a long-standing ally of the British, and it was not until 1781, near what turned out to be the end of the war, that the British resolved to act to end the Dutch assistance. That action was undertaken by Admiral George Brydges Rodney, who attacked St. Eustatius in 1781 and put a decisive end to the activity as part of a newly declared war by the British on the Dutch. Rodney took into custody Dutch merchants and officials, a colony of Jewish merchants that had been invaluable to the American cause, and even English merchants who were acting against the interests of their king. However, Admiral Rodney did not act to damage the French fleet, and he easily could have as part of this same action, and thus prevented the French fleet's indispensable role in the epoch-making American victory at Yorktown later that same year. Why didn't he? The British simply did not envision that French assistance would or could make a difference:

"[Admiral] Rodney descended upon Statia with devastation and confiscations. ... The seizing offshore of 130 merchantmen of all kinds, with their cargoes valued at £500,000, was normal enough as a prize of war. There followed the plundering of private property, in shops and houses, of naval stores and goods in the warehouses, arms and ammunition in the arsenals, crates of sugar, tobacco and rice on the beaches. The total proceeds have been valued at £3 million, excluding the captured ships. Asking for a list of merchants and their inventories, Rodney singled out the Jews, who had a small well-established community on the island, and ordered them stripped for cash or precious stones or whatever might be supposed to be secreted in their clothing. Acting out a common antipathy with unnecessary zeal, he ordered the Jews expelled on one day's notice, without notice to their families or access to their homes. With more reason, French nationals as enemy citizens were all deported to neighboring French islands. With equal zeal Rodney pursued [Statia] Governor de Graaff with penalties deserved by the 'first man who insulted the British flag by taking up the salute of a pirate and a rebel, and who, during his whole administration has been remarkably inimical to Great Britain and a favourer of the American rebellion .... ' Two American ships named de Graaff of 26 guns and Lady de Graaff of 18 'prove how much the Americans thought themselves obliged to him. ... He has made an amazing fortune and, by all accounts, much by oppression. His plantation is seized for his Majesty' and de Graaff himself taken as an enemy prisoner to be sent with all his other household property to Great Britain. ...

"In the first month of the Dutch war as a whole, 200 of the Dutch merchant fleet, an objective as important as St. Eustatius, were taken by the English, paralyzing Dutch shipping in the process that accelerated the decline of the [Dutch] Republic. Occupied on land in collecting and disposing of the island's riches and arranging for their safe convoy to England, and in pursuing the iniquitous English merchants who had been trading with the enemy, Rodney was not at the head of his fleet patrolling the waters to intercept possible French intervention in America. While he has borne responsibility for this fateful omission, the fault did not in fact lie with him so much as in the casual management by his government and its war ministers, who did not foresee or consider French intervention as a serious concern. At no time did they issue any orders to Rodney that a primary mission of his fleet must be at all costs to prevent French reinforcements from reaching America to aid the rebels. If he or his government had been gifted with a talent for seeing into the future, and could have anticipated the fatal effect for Britain of future French presence at Yorktown, orders to the Admiral might have been more definitive in the Spartan tone of 'Come back with your shield or on it.' Rodney was given no such urgent advice because the English never seriously considered that the Americans could win the war or that French help could or would be decisive. Ministers did not act to prevent a siege of General Cornwallis' army at Yorktown because it was a contingency they never conceived of as happening.

"The objects of Rodney's sternest wrath were British merchants of both Statia and, particularly, St. Kitts who had been selling arms to the enemy for use against their own countrymen. He pounced upon their records in accountants' offices, which had not been destroyed owing to the speed and surprise of the English attack, and sent them back to England to the war ministry of Lord George Germain. Two American agents of the Continental Congress, by name Isaac Gouverneur and Samuel Curzon or Courson, who had handled the purchases were sent with the papers as prisoners, in the hope of seeing them tried as traitors."


Barbara W. Tuchman


The First Salute


Ballantine Books


Copyright 1988 by Barbara W. Tuchman


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