- Historic Sites
Eleven Guns For The Grand Union
When American colonists sorely needed friends, a Dutch island governor risked political ruin by saluting the rebels’ flag
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
On October 23 Captain Robinson hove anchor and dropped down the Delaware. Alter clearing the capes without incident, and with no enemy topsails in sight, the Doria ’s skipper went below to consult his secret orders. He discovered that he was to proceed to St. Eustatius in the West Indies and there take aboard a cargo of supplies lor the Continental Army. He was also to perform the diplomatic mission of delivering a copy of the Declaration of Independence to the governor of this Dutch possession. The destination and purpose of his voyage now clear, Robinson set a course for the Leeward Islands.
The quality of the service rendered by those reluctant seamen Trottman and West during the voyage south is not recorded. We have a clue, however, in an affidavit subsequently made by Trottman, in which he said that “he was treated by everyone as well as he could expect, under the circumstances, except by the boatsman [sic], a foreigner, who beat him several times.” This would be normal in those days, and one may sympathize with a seasoned bosun exasperated by a “college young gentleman” unaccustomed to jump at the word of command. The experience probably did Trottman little harm, but it certainly failed to inspire him with enthusiasm for the Revolutionary cause, for a naval career, or for the Andrew Doria .
The island of St. Eustatius, then better known as Statia, is a small spot on the chart about 125 nautical miles southeast of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Roughly triangular, about nine square miles in area, it has as a principal feature the Quill, an extinct crater that rises abruptly to 1,950 feet at its extreme eastern end. There is no harbor, but along its southern shore is a splendid roadstead in which as many as 200 vessels may lie sheltered from the easterly trades. The town of Oranjestad is at the foot of the Quill, between it and a bluff 80 to 100 feet high that overlooks a long, narrow beach fronting the roadstead. At the edge of the bluff before the town stands Fort Oranje. Dclore the American Revolution the population of the island did not exceed igo white persons and 1,200 Negroes, most of them engaged in raising sugar.
The outbreak of war brought a startling change to Statia. With the British blockading the North American coast, the bulk of Europe’s trade with the American colonies was diverted to the West Indies. There cargoes were either transferred to American vessels to run the blockade or stored pending the outcome of the war, since rising prices would assure profits. Xo other place in that part of the world atlordcd such advantages of location and spacious anchorage; and of even greater importance was the fact that the Dutch States General had proclaimed it a free port where all were we’come regardless of nationality. As a result, Statia became the preferred sanctuary whither foreign cargoes might be brought and traded under the protection of Dutch neutrality.
An already active commerce received additional impetus when France entered the war, making ports in the British and French possessions liable to attack. Leading merchants of both these nationalities removed their activities to St. Eustatius, which became the principal trading center in the West Indies. Here goods might be assembled and stored, secure from seizure or destruction by the enemy. Here a merchant might deal with American agents, and not a few Kritish citicizens succumbed to the temptation of this profitable sub rosa trade with their country’s foes.
To accommodate the tremendous volume of trade, a double row of warehouses was constructed along the beach below the fort, extending for nearly a mile and a hall. The population of the island expanded proportionately, and by iySo it is reported to have exceeded 30,000 persons—more than Boston could claim at the time.
Statia soon became the major source of European goods and manufactures for the rebellious colonies, as well as a channel through which they obtained gunpowder, ammunition, and other military supplies. The traffic in munitions had to be disguised, of course, in view of Dutch neutrality, but the importance of Statia to the American cause cannot be overemphasized.
It is hardly surprising that the Dutch traders were partial toward the authors of their increasing prosperity. They had a natural sympathy lor a struggle for independence such as the Dutch Republic already enjoyed, and the governor of St. Eustatius had shown such a marked favoritism for American interests that the Dritish government made a formal protest. In consequence, the governor had been recalled to Holland in July of 1776, and his secretary, Johannes dc Graalf, was appointed in his stead.
A man of marked administrative ability and business acumen, Dc Graaff was also a skillful lawyer. He quickly attained a dominant position, not only because of his official status, but also by reason of personal wealth, for he owned several plantations, held mortgages on others, and is said to have owned or held an interest in sixteen vessels trading between Statia and Europe.