By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
People compress the past. To some of our visitors, the French and Indian War (1754-1763) blurs with the War for Independence and vice versa. Maybe it’s the idea that the participants of both conflicts used muskets and wore tricorns and breeches. Perhaps it’s the use and re-use of some of the geography of the two conflicts that mixes people’s perceptions; Fort Ticonderoga being a prime example.
Of course, the “Old French War” had important effects upon events leading to the War for Independence. As many will recall, the victorious British Empire required quite a bit more ready cash to maintain itself than originally expected and resulted in a comprehensive economic package that only served to annoy the North American colonies. (Hopefully, you know the rest of the story.)
The British victory of 1763 embittered several of their long-time rivals, France and Spain. The former was utterly humiliated and lost all its North American holdings (save the islands St. Pierre and Miquelon, 20 miles off Newfoundland), slave-trading posts at Senegal and Gambia, most of its holdings in the Indian subcontinent. Spain lost Florida (including parts of what are now the states of Alabama and Mississippi), and had been the scene of fighting late in the war (c.f. the derring-do of our own John Burgoyne).
Other countries even those with which Britain had been aligned became quite fearful of Britain’s power. Some hoped to see Miss Hoity-toity Britannia taken down a notch or two, preferably by someone else, of course.
For her part, Britain had it in for other nations: France being Enemy Number One as the main rival for political and economic dominance. Spain was a perennial foe, especially in the Caribbean.
Surprisingly, one other nation was on Britain’s “little list”: the United Provinces, or the Netherlands.
At first blush this animosity would seem out of place. England had aligned itself with the Netherlands since the Dutch revolt against the Spanish in the 16th Century. In a gesture of Protestant solidarity, Queen Elizabeth had sent troops to fight in the Netherlands. Through much of the 17th Century, the “Low Countries” were considered by the British as the front lines against Catholic (synonymous to the English with absolutism) expansion: first Hapsburg Spain and later Bourbon France.
Oh, there were a series of wars against the Dutch over trade, but the British considered the Netherlands as a bulwark for its own protection. After all, France was uncomfortably close, and any additional coastline acquired by the French could mean more jumping off points for an invasion.
The Netherlands did not want to be swallowed by the Spanish or French, but unlike the British, they lacked the English Channel as an obstacle. As matter of fact, when the wars against Spain and France happened, it was often on United Provinces territory. Such happenings begin to wear thin. With such a powerful enemy just a hoot and holler away and any conflicts sure to cut into very profitable trade, the Netherlands were understandably chary of getting mixed up in every war that came along
Britain didn’t quite see it that way. The Dutch were key in their planning to keep the Catholic powers from England’s “green and pleasant land”, and from getting too uppity in Germany. That the Dutch were falling out of love with this notion really set British teeth on edge, and perhaps no more so than during the Seven Years War (The World Tour of the French and Indian War).
During that prolonged conflict the Netherlands followed a level of neutrality that annoyed the British no end. In a bit of political satire printed in 1761 in the London Magazine, among other publications, it was noted:
“[Pasquin]. How are the Dutch employed [in the war]?
[Marforio]. Like the inhabitants of inhospitable shores, busy in plundering the wreck of Europe…”.
Yes, indeed the whole of continental Europe was involved in killing each other off, ravaging the countryside and otherwise making survivors as miserable as possible. The Dutch were taking full advantage of the situation and trading with both sides: and let’s face it, war profiteers are never regarded kindly.
Dutch trade with hostile powers was not just fine Gouda cheese: they shipped military stores as well. The South Carolina Gazette (13 May 1761) noted a letter which “shews clearly, who supply our enemies with ammunition, &c. where and how they arm and fit out their vessels for privateers, and by what means many that were French property have escaped being carried into port, by our men of war and privateers, after having been in their custody….”
The letter noted “armaments” among a French ship’s cargo, but it would be “under Dutch colours”. And “may by this means be reclaimed with her cargo, if she should come to be taken by the English…” Such instances of double-dealing really bugged the British.
With the conclusion of the war, the British, of course had come out on top, no thanks to their erstwhile allies and neighbors. The actions and inactions of the Dutch would be a source of resentment for the British as the War for American Independence began.
The rebelling North American Colonies (later the United States of America) quickly realized that they needed help, and fast. The Continental Congress approached other powers that might be sources of aid, including the United Provinces. That the Dutch might in any way shape or form aid Britain’s naughty children was incredibly galling, but then began a “train of usurpations” that ticked off the British even more.
One of the earliest affronts by the United Provinces involved tolls for the passage of German Auxiliaries down the Rhine River. Every petty princedom along the route collected a toll for passengers and cargo, so travel could be quite expensive. As Britain had inspired a great deal of jealousy and fear among most European kingdoms, she wasn’t getting much of a break; even former allies like Frederich of Prussia expected payment. So Britain approached the Dutch about getting some reduction in cost.
Nope. The United Provinces demanded full price.
As the war heated up, British shipping became targets for American privateers and the nascent Continental Navy, both of which were regarded as pirates by the British. The most notorious, John Paul Jones was chased into the Dutch port of Texel by British warships. The usual procedure in such cases is for the neutral port to allow the fleeing vessel a short amount of time to water, victual and make their peace with their God before being sent out to their fate.
The Dutch allowed Jones open-ended safe haven.
Although technically neutral, France began its unofficial assistance to the American Rebels in 1776, and soon after commenced upgrading its warfleet. For Britain the nightmare of an invasion was becoming more of a reality. When France did finally declare war in 1778, Britain was looking at a world class fleet within spitting distance of its shores.
Making this upgrade possible was a stream of naval stores from the Baltic…carried in Dutch ships.
The Royal Navy was very busy trying to keep any war materials from the hands of the American Rebels. Britain declared the Americans “out of their protection” and proclaimed that their ports were off-limits to all. In theory, a neutral ship was safe at sea from the belligerents, so a bit of a compromise was figured out by the rascally Rebels. The small Caribbean island of St. Eustache, owned by the Dutch had always been an entrepôt, and now became a “drop” for war materials that American ships could pick up. Technically, St. Eustache was neutral, and the British could only try to catch American ships at sea; something easier said than done.
With friends like this, the British might have opined, who needs enemies?
For the British the last straw was in 1780 when the American diplomat, Henry Laurens was captured at sea. His diplomatic pouch, tossed overboard, was more buoyant than expected and contained a request by the Americans to the United Provinces for further loans. It also contained a proposal for Dutch entry into the war against Great Britain.
Laurens was duly arrested and imprisoned in the fabled Tower of London charged with High Treason. The Dutch were charged with being a bunch of two-faced, back-stabbing skunks. Naturally the official documents used different language, but the thought was there and Britain duly declared war on the United Provinces.
The Dutch found themselves in a war they really did not want, or expect although in hindsight it’s really hard to see how they imagined that they could have avoided it. In the course of this conflict, their war fleet was beaten up and various colonies around the world were captured. The United Provinces found that, events in the Seven Years’ War were blurred by the British, not unlike some of our park visitors.