We last looked at the situation in Europe back in Episode 275, when Britain declared war on the Dutch Republic in December of 1780.
|Battle of Dogger Bank
When the war began, the Dutch Navy consisted of only 20 ships of the line. Although they had begun a massive ship building effort before the war began, most of those ships were not yet ready to sail. Things actually got worse when the British attacked a small Dutch convoy in the West Indies in February 1781. Dutch Admiral Willem Krull was killed in the action while trying to buy time for the merchant fleet to escape the British.
Even for the ships they had, the Dutch had trouble obtaining crews for them. Most able seamen worked on better paying merchant ships, or had taken work on one of the many privateer vessels operating in the area. Since the government did not forcibly impress sailors like Britain did, it had great trouble recruiting enough men to sail their ships. The result of all this was that most of the small Dutch Navy remained in port, ceding control of the North Sea to Britain.
Battle of Dogger Bank
The Dutch hoped for a quick negotiated peace with the backing of the League of Armed Neutrality. They got some talk, but little else. By August, 1781, the Dutch economy was near collapse with the end of all trade. Out of desperation, the government attempted to sail a merchant fleet out of Texel. Seventy merchant ships set sail, protected by seven Dutch ships of the line, and six smaller frigates. Admiral John Zoutman led the fleet.
For several days, the fleet escaped notice. Then, in the early dawn hours of August 5th, Admiral Hyde Parker spotted the Dutch ships. Parker had been escorting a British merchant fleet from the Baltic Sea back to England at the time. The ships were passing through a shallow area of the North Sea known as Dogger Bank.
The 67 year old Parker had spent most of his adult life at sea, in the British Navy. During the Seven Years War, he had served under then-Commodore Lord Howe in raids against the French coast. In the most recent war, he had led fleets in both Europe and the Americas. He was a highly experienced officer.
Admiral Parker quickly ordered his merchant ships to sail for the coast, and prepared to attack the Dutch fleet. The British navy ships were not in the best condition. They had been at sea for some time and were due for repairs. Even so, this was the best opportunity the Dutch fleet had provided in the North Sea since the war began. Parker could not pass up the chance to attack.
At the same time, Admiral Zoutman also saw the enemy and knew he would have to do battle with the British Navy. He also ordered his merchant fleet back to Texel as he prepared to do battle with the British line.
By 8:00 AM, both navies had formed lines of battle. The two lines fired as they passed by each other, then turned around and went for another round. Both sides took heavy casualties. The attack continued for about three hours before the Dutch fleet turned and retreated back toward Texel.
Zoutman had given his merchant vessels enough time to withdraw and had also inflicted enough damage on the British fleet that it did not attempt to pursue. The British fleet reported 104 sailors killed and 339 wounded. The Dutch reported 142 killed and 403 wounded. However, some unofficial reports state that Dutch casualties were over 1000. Although all of the ships sailed away from the battle, one of the Dutch ships sank before it could return to Texel.
Both sides claimed victory from the battle. It was generally considered a draw, although it meant that Dutch trade continued to be halted for the foreseeable future. Britain continued to control the North Sea.
Upon his return to Britain, Admiral Parker openly criticized the ministry for its failure to provide ships in good fighting condition, and blamed the failure to capture the Dutch fleet on that fact. He was openly critical of Lord Sandwich and made no secret of the fact that he hated the Prime Minister, Lord North.
In an attempt to smooth over his hard feelings, King George offered Parker a knighthood and personally visited his fleet. On that visit, Parker was rather abrupt with the king, telling him “I wish your Majesty better ships and younger officers. As for myself, I am now too old for the service.”
The 67 year old officer did not take another posting until after the government fell the following year. A few months later, his older brother died, leaving a baronetcy to the admiral. Parker should have stayed at home. When the new government offered him a posting as commander-in-chief of the East Indies, he returned to sea in 1782. His ship, the Cato was last seen in Rio de Janeiro in December. After leaving port, it was never seen again. The presumption was that it wrecked at sea and sank with all hands aboard.
British Leadership Remains Firm
Among the British leadership in London, support for the war was increasingly divided, but a majority still remained opposed to considering granting independence to the colonies in America. George III widely articulated this view, and saw it as his role to stand firm against any talk of allowing his empire to crumble.
The elections in 1780 had seen gains for the Rockinghamites, who increasingly supported American independence as a necessity so that Britain could focus on its wars with France, Spain, and now the Dutch Republic. But Lord North’s Tories still held a majority in both houses, and continued to support prosecution of the war.
While the war continued to drain British resources, there was some reason for hope that it would not continue forever. If Britain struggled with its finances, it was nothing compared to the struggles faced in France and in America. The enemy seemed to be surviving financially on next to nothing, which could not continue much longer. Further, General Clinton’s capture of Charleston in 1780 gave hope that the southern colonies would come back under control, even if some fighting continued there. The defection of Benedict Arnold that fall further proved to many that the rebel coalition was on the verge of collapse.
The North Ministry still felt it had a secure working majority. When Parliament opened in the fall of 1780, North attempted to replace the Speaker of the House of Commons with a much stronger supporter of the North ministry. North’s choice, Charles Cornwall, won the election decisively, defeating the former speaker, Sir Fletcher Norton.
In early 1781, the ministry won votes supporting the war against the Dutch, as well as continued funding for the overall war effort.
Many opposition members even stopped attending Parliament, since there was little hope of any change. In March, Lord Hillsborough wrote to William Eaden saying “The opposition is at present if not dead at least asleep: since I have been in parliament, I do not recollect a session half so quiet.” Even an effort to conduct an investigation into loans raised for the war effort failed to pass a floor vote.
At the end of May, as some news of setbacks in the south began to arrive, the opposition used it as an opportunity to grant the crown powers to negotiate a peace with the provinces in North America. A majority considered this an unnecessary display of weakness and voted down the motion. In June, as news of the British victory at Guilford Courthouse arrived, along with the news of the devastating casualties that greatly weakened Cornwallis’ army, opposition leader Charles Fox tried again. As before, the motion failed.
Even if Parliament remained on board, in order to continue the war, Britain had to do what it could to keep even more European powers from lining up against it. France and Spain were traditional enemies of Britain at this time, but in earlier wars, Britain usually had an alliance with other countries who took some pressure off Britain itself. Prussia and Russia were among these. Prussia was part of the Holy Roman Empire, which included almost all of the German-speaking states. Its powerful armies had been a key partner with Britain in the Seven Years war. In this war, however, most of Europe was sitting out the war. If Britain could convince some of these other powers to go to war with France and Spain, those countries would be unable to focus on Britain.
Unfortunately, Britain could not get a fight started, and even had to worry about its traditional allies lining up against it if it could not respect their neutrality. Maria Theresa, former Empress of the Holy Roman Empire was focused on keeping Europe from plunging into a new war. Her title as Empress vanished when her husband died in 1765, and her son Joseph II became the new emperor. Maria Theresa, however, remained a respected power on her own. I mentioned in an earlier episode how she had managed to thwart a war in 1779 when her son Emperor Joseph and Federick the Great of Prussia almost went to war over control of Bavaria.
Had there been a war at that time, France would have been treaty-obligated to go to war with Prussia again. This would have been to Britain’s great benefit. But Maria Theresa kept the peace, and France could continue its focus on Britain.
Maria Theresa also hoped to broker a peace to end Britain’s war with France and Spain. Although she offered to mediate, none of the powers were willing to take her up on the offer. She sent diplomats to London, Paris, and Madrid, trying to convince ministers to end the war. She even lobbied her daughter, Marie Antonnette to use her influence in Versailles to encourage negotiations. None of these powers wanted to insult such a powerful leader, but they also did not see a negotiated peace in their self interest.
When the empress died in 1780, the danger of war in central Europe once again became more likely. Other leaders also sent out proposals for a negotiated peace, offers came from Catherine the Great of Russia, and King Ferndinand of Naples-Sicily.
Maria Theresa had not been a fan of the Revolution in America, nor of revolutions generally. It was hard enough to keep the royal houses of Europe from going to war with one another. It was so much worse when the people rose up against their own leaders to start a war.
After her death, her son, Emperor Joseph, seemed to have a little more sympathy for the Americans. For starters, he referred to them as “Americans” in his correspondence, at a time when most other heads of state were referring to them simply as “rebels”. In a letter to Catherine the Great of Russia, Joseph seemed to sympathize with the poor treatment of the American colonies by Britain and said that thought a British victory was impossible.
In 1777 Joseph had traveled to Paris to visit his sister, Queen Marie Antonette, and attempted to set up an unofficial meeting with Benjamin Franklin while there. British intelligence managed to prevent the meeting. Even so, rumors of the meeting trickled through the courts of Europe.
Although he continued to remain neutral, Joseph regularly commented in private correspondence that he thought the Americans would win and that the continuing war in America was proving disastrous for Britain.
Thinking that Joseph might be amenable to some sort of involvement, the Americans sent William Lee to Vienna in 1778. At that time though, Maria Theresa prevented any officials from meeting with the would-be ambassador. Recognition of Mr. Lee would have been tacit recognition of American independence, and would have enraged Britain.
Joseph was not simply a disinterested observer though. The capital of the Holy Roman Empire was Vienna, in Austria. Joseph inherited the Crown as King of Austria from his mother, Maria Theresa, on her death in 1780. Austria today is a landlocked country, but in 1780, it held a coastal presence in what is today Belgium. At that time, it was called the Austrian Netherlands.
The port at Ostend in the Austrian Netherlands became the main neutral port along the west coast of Europe, once France, Spain, and the Dutch were at war with Britain. The result was a booming trade for Austria. All sorts of merchant ships wanted to fly a neutral flag that would protect them from enemy navies and privateers. Between 1778 and 1780, Ostend saw a 700% increase in shipping. Profiteering in merchant goods as well as war supplies greatly enriched Austrian trade.
Seizure of Den Earston
This new transatlantic trade under the Habsburg flag inevitably led to a controversy. On August 20, 1781, a Massachusetts privateer called The Hope, seized Den Eersten, a merchant ship that had left Ostend under the Habsburg flag, headed for the West Indies.
Daniel Darby, the captain of The Hope, sailed both ships back to Boston for review by a prize court. The court met on September 6 to determine whether the seizure was a legal capture of an enemy vessel, or an illegal taking of a neutral ship.
Darby argued that the ship was clearly British and was carrying British made goods. The Captain of the captured Den Eersten, Peter Thompson, countered that there was no evidence that this neutral flagged ship was British, or that anything on it was British. This was all just made up by Darby to steal his ship and its contents.
The court determined that the ship was owned by an Ostend firm, but also found correspondence from English merchants that established this was just an effort to get around the French blockade. The case lingered until the end of November, when the court held that the ship was that of a neutral, but that its contents were English goods.
This split decision really did not satisfy anyone since it was not normal practice to separate a ship from its contents. If the ship really was from a neutral country, the privateer had no authority to take the ship in the first place and then its contents. The case was appealed to a US court in Philadelphia, which did not hear the appeal until 1782. The appeals court found that the ship’s cooperation with English merchants violated its status as a neutral and could therefore be seized.
This ruling essentially endangered all ships flying under the Habsburg flag. The British used the incident to get the neutrals on their side, arguing the Americans had proven themselves simply to be pirates. Benjamin Franklin tried to turn the decision in America’s favor by trying to convince Austrian officials to send a diplomat to America to deal with future disputes. This would have created at least an unofficial diplomatic relationship with America.
In the end, the Austrians did not do anything either way on the matter. They did not want to show a bias toward either party, hoping still to sit as a mediator of the war between Britain and America.
Congress of Vienna
Diplomats continued their efforts to negotiate an end to the war. France seemed to be the most opposed to this effort, thinking it had the advantage over Britain. But by the end of 1780, with its finances in ruins, and the Americans just begging for more of everything, France seemed more amenable to discussion. France also feared Spain might be getting cold feet after their efforts to retake Gibraltar had come to nothing.
Joseph’s diplomats proposed a Congress of Vienna, to take place in the summer of 1781. One of the biggest issues was how the Americans would be represented. Britain would not recognize any diplomat from the Continental Congress, which it argued was an illegal body. Negotiators suggested that each colony might send its own diplomat. That, however, was a nonstarter for the Americans, who did not want their divided interests to be exploited at a conference.
In May of 1781, diplomats sent out their proposal for a conference. The Americans would be invited to work out a separate peace between them and Britain. All parties would agree to a one-year armistice. British officials bristled at the idea of inviting the Americans. France disliked the idea of the armistice since it only gave Britain time to regroup and rebuild its forces. Spain refused to consider anything that would not put Gibraltar as a main point of negotiation.
In the end, everyone ended up rejecting the terms, and the conference altogether. Instead, all parties wanted to wait and see the 1781 fighting season results before making any more efforts at a negotiated peace. Of course, all those efforts would fade away after the events in Yorktown later that fall.
Next week: we return to Connecticut, as General Benedict Arnold makes one final trip to his home state to burn a town and slaughter some prisoners.
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Next Episode 295 New London (Available January 21, 2024)
Previous Episode 293 Isaac Hayne
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Battle of Dogger Bank: https://threedecks.org/index.php?display_type=show_battle&id=129
Battle of Dogger Bank, 1781: https://sailsofglory.org/showthread.php?5296-The-Battle-of-the-Dogger-Bank-1781
The Battle of the Doggersbank – 5 August 1781: https://morethannelson.com/battle-doggersbank-5-august-1781
The Netherlands and the American Revolution https://www.amrevmuseum.org/the-netherlands-and-the-american-revolution
Morgan, Kenneth. “Anglo-Dutch Economic Relations in the Atlantic World, 1688–1783.” Dutch Atlantic Connections, 1680-1800: Linking Empires, Bridging Borders, edited by Gert Oostindie and Jessica V. Roitman, Brill, 2014, pp. 119–38. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctt1w8h3c9.11
Scott, H. M. “Sir Joseph Yorke, Dutch Politics and the Origins of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War.” The Historical Journal, vol. 31, no. 3, 1988, pp. 571–89. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2639757
(from archive.org unless noted)
Christie, Ian R. The End of North's Ministry 1780-1782, Macmillan & Co. 1958 (borrow only).
Edler, Friedrich The Dutch Republic and the American Revolution, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1911.
Piggott, Francis Taylor & Omond, George W. T. Documentary history of the armed neutralities, 1780 and 1800, together with selected documents relating to the War of American Independence 1776-1783 and the Dutch War 1780-1784, London University Press, 1919.
Books Worth BuyingJones, J.R. The Anglo-Dutch Wars of the Seventeenth Century, Longman, 1996.
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
(borrow on Archive.org)
Namier, Lewis The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1754-1790, History of Parliament Trust, 1964 (borrow on archive.org).
Schama, Simon Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780-1813, Knopf, 1977.
(borrow on Archive.org)
Simms, Brendan Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, Basic Books, 2008.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.