A Dutch Island's Role in the Birth of a Nation

The Declaration of Independence is an important document, but if America had lost the revolution it would have become a mere historical curiosity. And if no other government had recognized the Declaration – the American colonies would be friendless in the Western world. This didn’t happen, but less well known is the role of a tiny Dutch Caribbean island in the American Revolution – from 1776 to victory in 1781. And the island’s enemy: a British admiral who was related to Caesar Rodney!

UnknownThat island is Saint Eustatius (nickname: Statia) of the Netherlands Antilles. It’s a tiny chunk of volcanic rock eight miles northwest of the British island of Saint Kitts. Statia’s port is nestled in the valley between two mountainous areas. The Dutch declared a free port in 1756: traders could deposit goods in a Statia warehouse to be picked up by other traders and shipped out, with no import or export duties charged.

This set Statia apart economically; soon it was a vital trading link for North and South America and Europe. Its harbor was lined with warehouses; many were owned by Jewish people (thanks to the Dutch tolerance in religious matters).

According to the late historian Barbara Tuchman’s book The First Salute, on October 23, 1776, a Continental naval ship set sail from New Jersey for Statia, with orders for military supplies and to deliver a copy of the Declaration to the island’s governor, Johannes de Graff. http://www.nh.gov/nhdhr/publications/legport1/degraff.html

The Continental ship made its journey to Statia in just over three weeks. De Graff was already aware of the ship’s precious cargo.

The ship entered Statia’s harbor on November 16, flying the Continental Congress’ red-and-white striped flag (the stars and stripes had yet to be invented). Tuchman says the ship’s captain drew up to Statia’s Fort Orange and dipped his flag, as was customary. Fort Orange responded in kind, and the captain fired the usual entering salute.

De Graff’s clerk was unsure about what to do next. He checked with his boss, who ordered a return volley of two guns less than a national salute.

I think de Graff engaged in a brilliant bureaucratic move. Technically, he could claim he failed to give the ship a full salute, while simultaneously announcing his island’s support for the new nation to his British neighbors on St. Kitts. It worked: three British sailors on a sloop witnessed the scene, and St. Kitts’ subjects could hear the volleys from the shore.

Back on Statia, de Graff was busy throwing a party for the American captain.

And 163 years later, when President Roosevelt visited Statia in 1939, he presented Fort Orange with a plaque bearing his name http://www.statiarealtor.com/amazingfacts.htm, stating: “Here the sovereignty of the United States of America was first formally acknowledged to a national vessel by a foreign official.”

But Statia’s story in the American Revolution doesn’t end in 1776.

Unknown-1The island was a critical element in a lifeline to General Washington. Although its mother country, Holland, was officially neutral, Statia’s traders were active in providing America with military materiel.

One method Great Britain used to control its American colonies was to restrict manufactures. The colonies produced raw materials, but the final products were made in the U.K. This resulted in the colonies lacking the ability to make gunpowder, cannon, shot, etc. These items (some made in France, Holland – and even Great Britain!) were shipped to Statia to be purchased and sent to America.

Holland’s looking the other way while Statia was supplying arms to America added insult to injury as far as Great Britain was concerned. Not only did the U.K. have to deal with rebellious colonies, its ‘neutral’ neighbor was engaged in assisting those colonies (while making a healthy profit too).

Thus Statia became a British target. Destroy Statia, and Washington’s lifeline would disappear. That job was assigned to Admiral George Brydges Rodney.

By a curious circumstance of genealogy, I discovered that Admiral Rodney and Delaware’s famous patriot Caesar Rodney http://www.dsdi1776.com/signers-by-state/caesar-rodney/ were of the same noble family of Stoke Rodney, Somerset, England https://archive.org/stream/visitationofcoun00byustge#page/n107/mode/2up .

Admiral Rodney http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitLarge/mw05400/George-Bridges-Rodney-1st-Baron-Rodney?LinkID=mp03838&search=sas&sText=rodney&OConly=true&role=sit&rNo=0 being a younger son of a nobleman, entered the British Navy.

If you’ve seen the 2003 Russell Crowe film, Master and Commander https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_and_Commander:_The_Far_Side_of_the_World , or have read Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey novels https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aubrey–Maturin_series (the basis of the film), you’ll know that being a naval captain could be lucrative.

While Admiral Rodney’s eldest brother would inherit the family estates via entail, the Admiral could build his own estate from prize monies gained by capturing ships.

Meanwhile, British antagonism against Holland and Statia were growing to a fever pitch, and according to Tuchman, Admiral Rodney was given orders in January 1781 to immediately capture Statia and Martinique (a French Caribbean island). Although Martinique had a strategic harbor, Statia had the loot. Guess which one the Admiral put on the top of his list.

Sailing from Barbados, he conquered Statia on February 3, 1781. Statia had put up no resistance. At the time, Holland had a great trading fleet but it lacked an equally great naval fleet, as well as land defenses in the Caribbean.

Rodney had hit the jackpot monetarily and psychologically. Not only did he get the contents of Statia’s warehouses, but (per Tuchman) there was a bonus: 130 merchant ships just off Statia’s shore. This included two American ships, one named de Graff, the other Lady de Graff.

Recalling the Aubrey stories, taking prizes was unremarkable for a British admiral. But Admiral Rodney had his dark side too.

While he shipped the de Graff family to England in a comfortably quartered ship, and allowed French nationals to return to French islands (sans property, naturally), his treatment of the Jews was extreme, exposing his anti-Semitic streak.

Rodney expelled Jewish men from the island on one day’s notice, and forbade them to communicate with their families or enter their homes. Further, he ordered the men stripped, so their clothing could be examined for hidden gems, coins, etc.

The Admiral’s actions caught the outraged attention of Edmund Burke. In his May 1781 speech to the House of Commons, he spoke of Statia’s Jews as:

Having no fixed settlement in any part of the world, no kingdom nor country in which they have a government, a community, and a system of laws, they are thrown upon the benevolence of nations, and claim protection and civility from their weakness, as well as from their utility.

Burke, of course, had no idea he was articulating the reason for the existence of state of Israel.

Although Rodney was reveling in his prize money, he had to return to England for an operation (Tuchman surmises it was prostate trouble). This action kept him, his leadership, and his ships out of the end game of the Revolution.

While the remains of the British navy in North America were confused and misdirected, General Washington (on the advice of the French General Rochambeau) marched south. Rochambeau’s naval compatriot, the Comte de Grasse, had amassed a substantial fleet and was sailing up the Chesapeake. They met at Yorktown.

British General Cornwallis was also in the Chesapeake area, expecting naval backup, but (per Tuchman) he could not know that part of the fleet was in New York, providing entertainment for visiting royalty.

Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781.

The Comte de Grasse, with not a moment to lose, turned his fleet around, captured Statia a month later – and returned it to the Dutch shortly thereafter. Although Admiral Rodney eventually became Lord Rodney for his naval service, he was plagued by lawsuits brought by traders over his capture of Statia’s goods.

In Arlington, Virginia (next to the U.S. Marine Memorial) stands the Netherlands Carillon with its fifty bells. A small bell was a gift from the people of the Netherlands Antilles, including Saint Eustatius. On July 4 this little bell will join its voice with its larger companions to celebrate America’s freedom.

Sing out, little Statia, sing out!

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About the Contributor

Joanne Butler

Joanne Butler

Joanne Butler of Wilmington is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former professional staff member of the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.