STRAINING for action, a privateer named the Baltimore Hero, not part of the Continental Navy but bearing a commission from the Council of Safety of Maryland, had not waited for formal authorization. On November 21, 1776, with more audacity than armament (between 6 and 14 guns), she captured a British-owned cargo ship, the May, three miles off the coast of St. Eustatius. The May, sailing out of St. Kitts, was taken within sight of both that island and St. Eustatius. A prize crew was put on board with orders to take her back to the Delaware in America. The owner, a British resident of Dominica, southernmost of the Leeward Islands, protested loudly through the Governor of Dominica to the ranking Imperial official in the area, the President of St. Kitts, who bore, with appropriate aplomb, the name of Craister Greathead.
A storm of diplomatic missives descended upon The Hague transmitting President Greathead’s accusations that the inhabitants of St. Eustatius had “daily and openly” furnished supplies to the Americans, had “assisted them in their treason and had become the protectors of their buccaneering”; that the action by the Baltimore Hero had taken place within range of St. Eustatius’ guns. That the American ship had been allowed to return afterward, so Greathead claimed, to the port of St. Eustatius, “apparently enjoying every protection,” was attributable to the unneutral permissiveness if not active connivance of St. Eustatius’ Governor de Graaff. Summoning de Graaff for an explanation, he demanded restitution to the owners of the May and insisted that the “abettors” be found, apprehended and suffer “condign punishment” as a “terror to others.” Going back to the prior outrage of the Andrew Doria, Greathead claimed without offering any evidence that the identity of the rebel flag was known to de Graaff when he saluted it. On the issue of the salute, he was even more indignant, calling for “exemplary atonement for the indignity offered to His Majesty’s colours by the honours paid by Fort Orange to His Rebel Subjects.”
In a wordy polemic he went on at length to deplore the “flagrant violation” of the many compacts existing between “our two courts” and the infringement of the law of nations in “extending assistance and avowed countenance to proscribed Rebels of Great Britain.… In no other light can these deluded people be lawfully considered … and the law of Nations recognizes no such right as that of Lawful War waged by subjects against their sovereign state and consequently these captures under the authority of their usurped powers can be but piratical depredations.… To the scandal of all Publick Faith and national honour it has remained for a Dutch Settlement to be the avowed abettor of their treasons and promotors of their piracies and for their High Mightinesses [the title used in diplomacy for the States General] to be the first publick recognizers of a flag hitherto unknown in the catalogue of national ensigns.” His magisterial rhythms and copious rhetoric flowed on. (It must always be an amazement how 18th century letter writers—even, and especially, officials—had the time and capacity to produce their sculptured sentences and perfection of grammar and mots justes, while 20th century successors can only envy the past and leave their readers painfully to pick their way through thickets of academic and the mud of bureaucratic jargon.)
The further accusation that the buccaneer was in fact co-owned by Van Bibber, the Maryland agent, and that he had promised shares in its prizes to a relative on the island, was emphatically denied by Mr. Van Bibber and a Mr. Aull, the alleged sharer in his piracy.
In final bitter reproach, Craister Greathead added that when given a chance to explain himself to the Governor of St. Kitts, de Graaff had refused to talk to him. For added effect, Governor Greathead arranged that his letter be delivered by the “respectable conveyance” of a member of His Majesty’s Council, no less than His Majesty’s Solicitor General. De Graaff was unimpressed. In a haughty letter of reply, he refused to respond to the summons or discuss the matter with President Greathead or anyone else from St. Kitts.
In answer to increasingly menacing protests of His Majesty George III, the States General claimed that neutrality required treating the Colonies the same as the Crown, and on that ground kept the Netherlands’ ports open to American ships. By implication this meant that the Netherlands recognized the American party in the struggle as an equal belligerent, not merely as rebels. Nevertheless, the Dutch Republic, divided between the pro-American party of Amsterdam, loyal to trade and its profits, and the pro-British party, loyal to the Prince of Orange, was unprepared to meet the threat of war, and ordered the recall of de Graaff for a hearing and the posting of its own cruisers off St. Eustatius to search Dutch ships for arms and ammunition and other contraband.
Pleading reasons of health and family responsibilities, and the burden of official duties and, strangely for a Dutch subject, a “fear and aversion for the sea,” being subject “to sea-sickness to an amazing degree” so that the whole voyage he would not be able to hold his head up to eat or drink, de Graaff tried to avoid going home. He was not excused. Seasickness, as a contemporary observed, “is a disease which receives no pity, though it richly deserves it.” Though managing to postpone the voyage for more than a year, he had to go. Surviving seasickness, he returned in 1778 to Amsterdam, where he was examined by a committee of the West India Company on three main charges: the smuggling of contraband, the permitted capture of an English ship and the salute of the rebels’ flag. In response to the third charge, he maintained that the salute to the Andrew Doria was a regulation courtesy to passing vessels with no regard for nationality and that it did not imply recognition.
The central question—whether de Graaff had known the identity of the flag he was saluting—was not cleared up. Greathead claimed, without specifics, that the flag “was already known as the flag of the American rebellion.” He probably drew this conclusion from a deposition of a young sailor from the Andrew Doria named John Trottman, who, on being examined by the Council of St. Kitts, testified that the Andrew Doria on arriving at St. Eustatius saluted Fort Orange with 13 guns and, after an interval, that salute was returned by the said fort by 9 or 11 guns, he did not remember which, and the ship during this time “having the Congressional colours then flying.” The testimony suggested that if seventeen-year-old Trottman knew the Congressional colors, so must others. In fact, Trottman had been shanghaied aboard the Andrew Doria at Philadelphia, the birthplace of the flag, where he might well have witnessed the raising; thus his knowledge of the identity proved nothing about de Graaff. The likelihood is that de Graaff did recognize the flag when he saluted it; otherwise why would he have insisted to the commandant of the fort on a salute to an unknown flag? De Graaff did not either affirm or deny having recognized it; he simply asked how his accusers could show that he had recognized it. Considering that it had been flying in combats on land and on sea for the previous ten months and could hardly have escaped the notice of a busy port like St. Eustatius, his reply was disingenuous.
On the whole, his document for the defense of 202 pages with 700 pages of appendices was not a resounding challenge but a careful—almost a lawyer’s—defense. Citing repeated British interferences with Dutch shipping, de Graaff reminded the Company that though he had a right to repel British searches and seizures by force, he felt that he had to “be cautious owing to want of sufficient means.” His realism picked out the central Dutch flaw—that with regard to the trade with American vessels, as he said, St. Eustatius depended on outside sources for all its supplies and he believed it was his duty to do nothing to disturb its commerce. Outgoing cargoes were examined as strictly as possible, but there were always men who would violate the rules. He denied the charge of equipping American vessels, except to let them take on provisions and water for a period of six weeks, and declared that to call the Dutch “avowed collaborators” of the Americans was “an insult of the most ungracious and shameful kind.” If that was protesting rather too much, he hurried on to demand witnesses of alleged wrongdoing and asserted that it would violate his commission as Governor to prosecute anyone without a plaintiff or condemn without evidence. With regard to relative insults, he felt himself to be the person insulted by being addressed as “Mynheer,” which in English, he claimed, was a way of ridiculing and deriding the Dutch nation. Proudly he insisted that “no one on earth but his superiors was entitled to call him into account for acts of his administration.”
As for the Baltimore Hero, he stated that its action had taken place outside the range of his guns and he could no more have prevented it than if it had taken place off the coast of Africa. He did not mention how, in a similar action a few months earlier when Captain Colpoys of the Seaford had attempted to seize an American ship off the shores of St. Eustatius, the commander of Fort Orange, Abraham Ravené, was indeed able to prevent it.
Taking the offensive, de Graaff charged that the Netherlands had more to complain of in British conduct than the other way around, and reminded the committee that two Dutch merchant ships had been seized for alleged contraband and should be released with their cargoes and indemnity paid for costs and damages.
Obviously pleased by this approach, the examining committee reported de Graaff’s defense to be perfectly satisfactory, and recommended to the States General that he be returned to St. Eustatius as Governor. With more courage than bureaucracies normally exhibit, the States General, refusing to bow to the British demands, accepted the Company’s verdict and sent de Graaff back to resume the governorship. Self-respect for Dutch sovereignty was no doubt one motive, and the knowledge that de Graaff would keep open the gainful trade with the Colonies to the satisfaction of the merchant class was certainly another.
De Graaff resumed his post at Statia in 1779. After his return as Governor, the trade of his island with the Americans manifestly increased. The affairs of the Andrew Doria and the Baltimore Hero seemed to have emboldened the Eustatians rather than otherwise. In thirteen months of 1778–79, according to the careful records of the Dutch admiral in command of convoys for merchant vessels, 3,182 vessels sailed from the island, amounting to the astonishing figure of seven or eight a day. One vessel, stopped and searched by the British, was found to be carrying 1,750 barrels of gunpowder and 750 stands of arms, complete with bayonets and cartridge cases in egregious violation of contraband. Supplies like these sustained the almost empty American war cupboards. In the same year, the Americans shipped to St. Eustatius 12,000 hogsheads of tobacco and 1.5 million ounces of indigo in exchange for naval supplies.
The increased presence of British watchdogs outside the port and their aggressive searches and seizures unquestionably cut back the number of American ships that ventured to run the gauntlet to pick up supplies. A difference exists among historians as to whether trade between St. Eustatius and America actually increased or decreased after the rise in British threats and protests. John Adams seems to have been in no doubt. “From the success of several enterprises by the way of St. Eustatia it seems that the trade between the two countries [United Provinces and United States] is likely to increase,” he wrote in August, 1779, to the President of the Congress.
The Governor who presided over all this activity is memorable for no act of heroism or heroic utterance, but rather for a steady unwavering purpose effectively pursued. The importance of what he did to promote and encourage the provisioning of the Revolution was recognized by contemporary Americans in the naming of two privateers, one for him and one, in happy ignorance of her shocking taste in table linen, for his wife, named the Lady de Graaff. In addition, a self-described “grateful American citizen” F. W. Cragin of New Hampshire, and resident of Surinam, commissioned de Graaff’s portrait “in honor of the first salute.” The portrait now hangs in the State House of New Hampshire, native state of the donor.
Still pursuing the affair of the flag, the British informed the States General in Sir Joseph Yorke’s most peremptory terms that it must formally disavow the salute to the rebels, punish the culprit and recall and dismiss the Governor of St. Eustatius. Further, until satisfaction was received, he warned that “His Majesty will not delay one instant to take such measures as he will think due to the interests and dignity of his crown.” In the long intimate and cranky relationship of Britain and Holland, this was overt hostility.
Yorke’s démarche was one that might be expected from this haughty envoy whose father, having been in April, 1754, raised in the peerage to an earldom—that step in the life of the English that went to their heads like wine—his son could now look down from heights that disdained the conventional, even advisable, courtesies of an ambassador. Adams said Yorke addressed the States General in the same tone the British had used to Boston.
His veiled threat was angrily met by the Duke of Brunswick, chief adviser to the Prince and unofficial premier, as “the most insolent and improper piece that I have ever seen sent from one sovereign to another.” When made public, it caused furious indignation, although another of the Prince’s advisers pointed out that it was “not easy to swallow, but vana sine viribus ira [wrath without power is in vain], and so we’ll be compelled to come down a peg or two.” And the needed power, the adviser pointed out, the Netherlands did not have.
To the British, de Graaff’s return to his post in St. Eustatius was seen as an insult rather than the satisfaction London had demanded, and they began to contemplate active reprisal. A warning hint appeared in murmurs about abrogating the century-old Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1674, which Britain had always disliked as affirming rights of neutrality on the basis of “free ships, free goods.” Holland was too disjointed politically to pay attention to the hint.
This was the time when wrathful citizens suggested blocking the delivery of supplies to the British embassy. Serenely unaware of how close had been his discomfort, Sir Joseph acknowledged with some satisfaction to his Minister in London that his memorial had “raised a violent fermentation through the country” and alarmed and frightened the people. On his part, the Duke of Brunswick replied to William V that the threat expressed by the Ambassador of the King of England was an insult as well as an injustice to the United Provinces. Worse, in his opinion, was Yorke’s oral statement that he would be recalled if satisfaction were not given within three weeks. Yorke well knew, as the Duke reminded him, that the necessity of obtaining agreement by all the consultative bodies in the Dutch system precluded any decision within three weeks. Honor and dignity required, Brunswick said, that satisfaction be denied until the accused could be heard. The States General were obliged to protect the country’s commerce and her ports. The Duke was clearly put out. The excess of Yorke’s language had only succeeded in antagonizing a strong partisan of Britain. Brunswick concluded that Yorke’s threat was a scare tactic to justify the searching and seizing of Dutch ships.
In this affair Yorke had accomplished the exact opposite of an ambassador’s function—maintenance of mutual amiability cloaking whatever displeasure might lie beneath. In this atmosphere, the deepest and most serious debate in Dutch politics and public opinion erupted, and turned against the British. At issue was a demand of the Amsterdam merchants to the States General for a vote in favor of unlimited convoy, meaning in effect resistance to search and seizure in full performance of the principle of “free ships, free goods.” From the beginning, Britain, in her assumption as dominant sea power of her right to make the rules on the high seas, had bitterly rejected the idea of a mare liberum or “freedom of the seas,” as the United States was later to call it. The Prince-Stadtholder, anxious to keep Britain’s good will, which he saw as his protector against French invasion and more especially against revolutionary overthrow by the pro-French Patriot party, was strongly opposed to unlimited convoy, and the Orangist party of his supporters was no less so. The advocates of convoy, representing the shipping magnates of Amsterdam, the province that paid the bills and exercised the greatest influence in the country, were determined to protect not only their own but the country’s seaborne trade, the stream of its livelihood and source of its prosperity. They foresaw its ruin in unchecked British interference. The debate split the country, although not in class division, for the middle class of farmers, artisans and shopkeepers supported the demand of the merchants, as did many of the proletariat, especially seamen, because they were dependent on seaborne trade and on import of raw materials for the manufacturers who gave them employment. Consequently, they shouted for convoy along with the rich.
The government did not want war for fear of its total interruption of trade. When, after a year’s stormy debate, Amsterdam carried the vote for unlimited convoy, the States General refused to confirm the provincial vote. While the Dutch in the West Indies tried to appease the situation, all men of substance, Adams wrote, “seemed to shudder with fear,” and while Yorke keeps up the commotion, “I shall certainly have no success at all in obtaining a loan.” He found himself avoided “like a pestilence by every man in government.”