We last looked in on European affairs in Episode 252, when the summer of 1780 saw several riots in London and Dublin thanks to difficulties caused by the American Revolution.
|British-Dutch Naval Battle, 1781
Despite the forces allied against it, by late 1780, Britain decided it was time to add a third enemy combatant to the war, the Dutch Republic.
I should say at the outset that the Dutch Republic was not really a republic as we use that word today. The people were not electing their leaders or anything crazy like that. Seven small nation-states had united in a confederation to provide mutual defense protection against outside enemies, primarily France at the time, but also Austria. The Dutch government met in the Hague, where representatives from each state could debate and vote on important issues. As a confederation, the individual states largely ruled themselves for internal matters, coming together for issues involving foreign policy and military defense. By this time, however, states sovereignty had been reduced as the states were effectively controlled by the monarch who led the powerful House of Orange.
For most of the prior century, Britain and the Dutch Republic had largely been allies. Both countries were protestant, which naturally, created some common interest against the Catholic powers of Europe that wanted to destroy them.
British and Dutch leaders had gone to war three times between 1652 and 1674. The Dutch had developed a formidable navy and trading fleet that was a challenge to British colonization and international trade.
After England restored its monarchy with Charles II, the two countries went to war again in the 1660s, largely to limit the growing power of the Dutch East India Company. It was during this war that the British took the New Netherlands colonies from the Dutch and renamed them New York. That said, the Dutch mostly got the better of the fighting in this war. In the Raid on Medway against Britain, the Dutch fleet destroyed or captured more than a dozen British ships of the line, forcing King Charles to sue for peace.
The Third Anglo-Dutch War only five years later in the 1670’s saw an unusual alliance of England and France against the Dutch. King Charles II of Britain cut a deal with the King of France, who was trying to capture the Spanish Netherlands, an area that today is part of Northern France and Belgium. King Louis paid off King Charles to provide some support to France. The British king went along because the money gave him some independence from Parliament.
Unsurprisingly, Parliament opposed the war, in part because it was giving the King more political leverage over them, and also because Protestant Parliament did not want to fight a war alongside Catholic France and against the Protestant Dutch Republic. Parliament cut off other funds for the war and stopped repaying the King’s debts, leading to a domestic financial crisis.
The Dutch did surprisingly well against the combined forces of France and Britain, using privateers to capture several thousand British and French merchant ships. When Parliament cut off the King’s funds, he had to sue for peace and the war ended rather quickly.
For the next century though, Britain and the Netherlands got along pretty well. There were the occasional trade disputes, but nothing that led to an all-out war. Things got much better about a decade after the third Anglo-Dutch War. The Dutch Prince William of Orange married Princess Mary of Britain, the niece of King Charles II of Britain. After Charles died, his brother, Mary’s father, became King James II. The Parliament then got rid of James II for being too Catholic, resulting in the Glorious Revolution of 1689. So, despite the fact that William had been leading a war against Britain less than two decades earlier, now Parliament invited the Dutch Prince William and his wife Mary to become the new King and Queen of Britain. Royal intrigue can be funny that way.
Anyway, after the British-Dutch alliance brought about by the Glorious Revolution, the Dutch Republic became much weaker as the British East India Company dominated world trade and the British Navy dominated the seas. The Dutch mostly tried to stay out of wars and had remained neutral in the Seven Years War.
When the American Revolution began, William the V ruled the Dutch Republic. William’s title as stadtholder, rather than king. That said, the position was largely the same as a king. The stadtholder served as the head of government and as commander-in-chief of the army. It was also an inherited position. But it wasn’t always filled. Before and after William III, the position was empty for decades. The Prince of Orange in the Netherlands tended to be the most powerful man in the Dutch Republic, but he did not always have the title of stadtholder.
Prince of Orange
When William IV died of a stroke a few years later in 1751, he was only 40 years old. His son, William V inherited his titles and positions. The problem was that William V was only three years old at the time. The practical requirements of leadership during his youth were handled by his mother and grandmother until their deaths. Another man, Duke Louis Ernest, ended up serving as the military commander and eventually as co-regent after William’s mother died. The Duke was from the German State of Brunswick, but had family ties to both Prussian and Austrian leaders. William IV (William V's father) had appointed him a field marshal in the Dutch Army.
William V turned 18 in 1766 and took over his duties as stadtholder, but kept on the Duke as a counselor. The Duke helped to arrange William’s marriage to Princess Wilhelmina of Prussia. She was a niece of Frederick the Great of Prussia and a cousin of George III of Britain.
While William was the titular leader of the Dutch Republic, he was not a particularly powerful leader. It seems that Duke Ernest and William’s wife Princess Wilhelmina vied for most of the behind the scenes power. William seemed happiest focusing on his art collection. He opened an art gallery in the Hague in 1774. When the war began in America the following year, he was still only 27 years old.
The Dutch in the American Revolution
The goal behind all the strategic marriages among European royalty was that they were supposed to help maintain good international relations. After all, you wouldn’t want to go to war with a country where your daughter was Queen and where your grandson would someday rule.
This often meant, though, that leaders had allegiances and interests that were quite different from those of the people over whom they ruled. The Dutch Republic, also sometimes called the United Provinces, had other state leaders with influence. There were also very wealthy and influential merchants who ran Dutch trade worldwide and who had their own sets of interests.
When the British colonies rebelled in 1775, the Dutch leader, William V, tended to be pro-British and was open to supporting Britain. He was the cousin of George III. It also made good sense to maintain good diplomatic ties with Britain since Britain was crucial in keeping Catholic countries like France and Austria from encroaching on Dutch territory.
Initially, Britain hoped the Dutch would be an ally. George III even tried to rent some Dutch troops to fight in America, as he did with several German states. While William was open to this alliance, other interests in the Dutch Republic quashed that idea rather quickly.
Dutch merchants, particularly powerful in Amsterdam, were opposed to any alliance that empowered Britain. The merchants were long frustrated by Britain’s dominance of the seas, and its willingness to use that dominance to limit Dutch trade.
All Dutch factions knew that joining a war on either side would prove costly. As such, they attempted to remain neutral in this fight, even while different factions pursued their own interests. British diplomats attempted to invoke several treaties to gain Dutch support. However, as they had in the Seven Years War, the Dutch refused to get involved in the war and remained neutral.
Amsterdam merchants saw opportunity in trade with the British colonies. This was made possible by the rebellion. In return for guns and munitions, the Dutch merchants got rich importing tobacco and indigo from America, primarily through its Caribbean colony at St. Eustatius. As the war began, these merchants made a fortune in this trade.
Dutch merchants made even more money after France went to war with Britain in 1778. The British Navy blocked imports into France. Dutch merchants could sell military goods to France at huge profits. Based on treaties signed after the second and third Anglo-Dutch Wars, Dutch traders were guaranteed free trade to Britain’s enemies of all but a few narrowly-defined military items. Dutch merchants were making a fortune selling ship’s supplies to France, most of which were being used to build or repair French Navy vessels that were being used against Britain.
Britain decided that, whatever the treaties said, it was going to seize and Dutch vessels trading anything with France that might advance France’s war efforts. The Dutch merchants continued to risk the wrath of the British given the profits they were making. When John Paul Jones sought harbor in the Dutch port of Texel aboard a captured British naval vessel, Dutch officials had to force him to leave, but allowed Jones time to repair his ship and to escape the British ships trying to catch him.
Fielding & Bylandt Affair
About the same time Jones slipped away from the British fleet near Texel, in late December 1779, British and Dutch officials clashed over another incident. A Dutch merchant fleet of 17 ships also left Texel, supported by 5 Dutch Navy ships.
The British caught up with the Dutch fleet near the Isle of White in the English Channel. British commodore Charles Fielding demanded a physical search of the ships for contraband.
The Dutch fleet opened fire, despite being heavily outnumbered. The British returned fire, at which time the Dutch struck their colors and surrendered. The British then seized the merchant fleet and took them to Portsmouth as prizes. They allowed the Dutch warships to remain at sea, as long as they fired a salute to the British flagship. The Dutch navy followed its captured merchantmen to Portsmouth, where they filed a complaint with the Dutch Ambassador.
Back in Holland, Dutch leaders were outraged by this seizure of neutral vessels, not carrying contraband. Up until that time, the Dutch had been bending over backwards to try to comply with most of the British demands about what their ships could or couldn’t carry. After this incident, the Dutch, removed these restrictions.
By April of 1780 the British responded by abrogating a 100 year old treaty that respected Dutch commerce. These incidents helped encourage Russia’s creation of the League of Armed Neutrals, where neutral European countries agreed they would support each other militarily against searches and seizures of their ships on the open sea. The Dutch south to join the league in December of 1780.
Declaration of War
The Dutch Republic’s decision to join the League of Armed Neutrals created a greater diplomatic headache for the British. Future searches of Dutch vessels could result in Russia and other countries in the League going to war against Britain as well.
To avoid this, Britain declared war on the Dutch Republic, citing a number of other issues. In doing this, they hoped to keep the rest of the League members, especially Russia, from joining the war against Britain. The Dutch only had about 20 ships of the line, so if the fight could be limited to them alone, the risk to Britain was not that great. The important thing was keeping Russia and the rest of the League of Armed Neutrals from combining with the Dutch against Britain.
Russia had no desire to go to war with Britain, and seemed willing to cut loose the Dutch if they had diplomatic cover to do so. Britain made every effort to provide that cover by arguing that the Dutch Republic was not acting as a neutral.
One issue the British raised was the Dutch granting safe harbor to John Paul Jones aboard the captured British Navy ship Serapis a year earlier. For more details go back and listen to Episode 233. The main issue, however, fell into British hands a few months earlier in September 1780.
Recall that the Continental Congress had sent its former President, Henry Laurens, to the Dutch Republic in order to establish diplomatic relations and secure more loans from Dutch merchants for the American war effort. Although Congress made the appointment in October of 1779, a series of delays prevented Laurens from crossing the Atlantic until August of 1780.
The British navy intercepted Laurens’ ship, the Mercury, and took Laurens prisoner. Laurens had attempted to throw overboard any documents he did not want captured. The British managed to pull at least one of Laurens’ chests out of the water. It contained a draft treaty of commerce, worked out by William Lee and an Amsterdam Banker named Jean de Neufville.
The treaty was just a draft, not written by any Dutch government officials and with no legal basis. It was simply a document with some ideas that the two men in Europe had discussed as something the Americans hoped would be a basis for negotiating a future treaty. The document had been carried to America, where Laurens received it in Congress. He took it with him in hopes that he could use it as a reference point to start negotiations with the Dutch.
The British, however, presented the document as proof that the Dutch were already in the process of negotiating a treaty with the Americans, and therefore were not neutral. As a result, the League of Armed Neutrals should not support the Dutch Republic as part of its league.
Britain’s declaration of war caught the Dutch by surprise. The British managed to capture several Dutch warships in the West Indies, before the Dutch officers knew that the two countries were at war. Britain also seized hundreds of Dutch merchant ships and prevented hundreds more from being able to leave port and engage in any trade. Much of the Dutch Navy remained anchored at Texel, unable to challenge the blockading British fleet. Over the next few months, Britain would capture several Dutch colonies, including Saint Eustatius and Saint Martin. Britain also captured all the Dutch colonies on the Indian subcontinent. Britain attempted to capture South Africa, but failed in that effort.
Because they were so heavily outgunned, the Dutch first turned to Catherine the Great of Russia to negotiate a resolution to the conflict. Russia agreed to mediate. Both sides participated in the mediation, but neither was really willing to compromise and so the mediation came to nothing.
In frustration, the Dutch Republic eventually reached an understanding with France that the two countries would act in concert against Britain. The two countries never signed a formal treaty though.
Given the poor state of its Navy, the Dutch Republic could do little to impact the outcome of the war. The British strategy of declaring war on the Dutch to prevent the League of Armed Neutrals from going to war with Britain had paid off well.
Britain’s need to maintain a blockade against the Dutch coast helped to weaken its naval forces elsewhere and may have contributed to some naval losses against France and Spain. A third European enemy in this war was the last thing Britain needed.
After Henry Laurens got thrown into the Tower of London, John Adams took up his role with the Dutch Republic. Adams traveled from France to negotiate with the Dutch. Adams eventually secured more loans, and by 1782 concluded a treaty of amity and commerce between the US and the Dutch Republic.
Next Week: we are back in America, where General Washington welcomes the new year of 1781 with the mutinies of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Lines in the Continental Army.
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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, 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, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2639757
(from archive.org unless noted)
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 Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Jacob, Margaret C. The Dutch Republic in the Eighteenth Century: Decline, Enlightenment, and Revolution, Cornell Univ. Press, 1992.
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.