October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
When American colonists sorely needed friends, a Dutch island governor risked political ruin by saluting the rebels’ flag
Summer was on the wane in wartime Philadelphia, 1776, and the city which had startled the world with the Declaration of Independence was alive with purposeful activity. To John Trottman, age seventeen and on vacation from the college at Princeton, its bustle and excitement were in welcome contrast to the quiet atmosphere of his home in Barbados.
During his stay in America, Trottman’s guardians were theoretically the Messrs. James & Dunker, Philadelphia merchants; but these gentlemen were too deeply engrossed in more pressing affairs to pay much attention to their ward. Or perhaps they were just indulgent where he was concerned. In any case, he was allowed to roam the city of Philadelphia in the company of his friend George West of Carolina.
One late September afternoon, the boys were exploring the water front, their attention absorbed by vessels discharging their varied cargoes or by shipyards such as that of Wharton & Humphreys, where the first warships of the infant American Navy had been converted from merchantmen less than a year earlier. Whatever the attraction, they lingered until dark in a locale which held considerable danger lor able-bodied young men.
Before they were aware of what was happening, a group of rough characters materialized out of the gloom, barring their way. A few abrupt questions and the lads were suddenly seized and forcibly propelled in the direction of an empty wharf. There they were tumbled into a ship’s longboat, where a hard fist or belaying pin could discourage any outcry they might make. After an hour of steady rowing, a vessel loomed dark at anchor in the river, and waiting hands hauled them aboard.
Thus, somewhat unceremoniously, John Trottman and George West entered the service of the Continental Navy aboard the brigantine Andrew Daria , Captain Isaiah Robinson commanding. Then lying at Gloucester, New Jersey, awaiting orders from the Marine Committee of Congress, the vessel on which Trottman and West found themselves had some claim to distinction. Supposedly named for the great admiral of the Genoese republic, Andrea Doria, she kVas nevertheless referred to—in diplomatic and intelligence reports and by those who served aboard her—as Andrew Doria . She was one of several assorted craft purchased the preceding year as a nucleus of the new Navy, and in the conversion to a ship of war her sides and bulwarks had been reinforced, with the latter pierced for fourteen guns. The crew consisted of 130 officers and men, including 30 marines. Details of the ship’s construction are lacking, but it was reportedly similar to that of the Cabot , another of the converted vessels, which was 75 feet long on deck, 25 feet abeam.
Captain Nicholas Riddle had been the Andrew Doria ’s first commander, and he had taken her on the raid on Nassau in March, 1776, as part of Commodore Esek Hopkins’ small fleet. The ship had suffered minor damage in an indecisive engagement with the frigate Glasgow off Block Island in April; then had made three short cruises, capturing ten prizes, of which two were transports loaded with British troops. Returning to the Delaware from his last cruise, Captain Biddle anchored off Chester, Pennsylvania, on September 17, 1776, and shortly thereafter placed the brigantinc in a shipyard lor refitting. Here Biddle left the Andrew Doria to assume command of the frigate Randolph , which was nearing completion.
Captain Isaiah Robinson was thus newly in command, busily engaged in organizing and manning the brigantine, fresh from overhaul. Under the circumstances he was probably glad to have as his first lieutenant Joshua Barney, who had received his commission in the Navy at the hand of Robert Morris. Barney had served with Robinson aboard the Sachem , and at seventeen he was already an experienced ship’s officer and a veteran of sea warfare.
The skipper of the Doria was, however, having trouble completing his crew. It was almost impossible to induce experienced seamen to serve aboard warships of the Continental Navy, where discipline was more severe, the term of enlistment longer, and the prospect for prize money appreciably less than aboard privateers. It should not be assumed, however, that Ca2Jtain Robinson had sent out a press gang to fill his urgent need. This form of recruiting was in the hands of water-front gangs who deemed it their patriotic duty to supply the Continental Navy with needed hands. There was grim humor in waylaying known or suspected Tories and delivering them aboard Navy ships to serve, perforce, the cause they opposed. It could be profitable, too, for it would be naive to imagine that the victims arrived aboard ship with anything left in their pockets.
On October 17 the Marine Committee wrote Robinson, informing him that he was to make a voyage under orders from the Secret Committee of Congress. On this mission he was to collect and transmit useful intelligence; take good care of the Andrew Doria , her supplies, and equipment; maintain good discipline among his crew, while using them well; treat any prisoners he might take with “tenderness and humanity”; and upon his return deposit a copy of his log and journal with the Marine Committee. Orders from the Secret Committee reached him soon afterwards. They are not in the records, but other references and the course of events reveal their substance.
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.
Such was the local situation when the Andrew Doria made her landfall three weeks after leaving the Delaware. Pausing long enough to snap up a couple of pri/es in the vicinity, the vessel swept past the Quill into the roadstead before Oranjestad, the Grand Union ensign waving proudly at her gaff. Captain Robinson was determined that his arrival should be observed, and he selected an anchorage directly before Fort Oranje. Rounding into the wind, topsails aback, the brigantine slowed to a stop and then began to gather sternway. At this moment her anchor was let go, lier saiIs clewed up and lulled, and up to her main truck went a Dutch standard. Another Grand Union was run up at the lore, and a stall bearing a navy jack was raised on her bowsprit cap. Then, all being in readiness, the first shot of a thirteen-gun national salute resounded through the anchorage.
As the American warship came to anchor, Abraham Ravené, commandant of Fort Oranje, caused the Dutch flag to be dipped, as was customary. The Andrew Doria ’s gun salute, however, created a problem he was not prepared to cope with. He realized that a return salute would signify oiRcial recognition of the sovereignty of the nation whose Hag was thus honored, and since the Hag in this case was that of Great Britain’s rebellious colonies, an answering salute would connote Dutch recognition of their independence. British ships were present in the roads, and news of the a Hair Avon Id speedily reach British officialdom.
Foreseeing serious consequences, Kavene prudently sought out Governor de Graaff to obtain instructions. The Governor was evidently aware of the arrival of the American vessel and of her salute, which would have been visible Trom his estate at Concordia. And he promptly replied, “Fire a return salute with two guns less than lor a national salute.” Hastening back to the lort, Ravené put this order into execution, rehoisted the Dutch Hag, and fired eleven “honor shots” in reply to the American thirteen.
Governor de Graaff could not have been ignorant of the Declaration of Independence. Samuel Curzon, local agent lor the Continental Congress, would have kept him informed of developments in Philadelphia. Possibly De Graaif suspected the formality of the Andrew Doria ’s arrival and, realizing that the official presentation of the Declaration would place him in an unequivocal position, arrived at a quick compromise. Beauthorizing a return with two guns less than the national salute, he made certain that an honor would lie rendered, thus pleasing the .Americans. On the other hand, should he be called to account lor his bold action, the nature of his return salute would allow him to call it a courtesy, not signifying recognition of American independence.
The exchange of salutes created an immediate and understandable stir in Oranjestad and aboard the ships in the roadstead, where the implications of the all air were well understood. Everywhere it was agreed that the British would soon hear of it and react emphatically. As chance had it, the vessel to starboard of the Andrew Doria was a sloop from the nearby British island of St. Christopher, or St. Kitts. .Aboard her were a gentleman named (âmes Fraser and two British captains, John Dean and John Spicer. The trio had been on deck preparing to go ashore as the Doria rounded the Quill. Catching sight of her, Fraser exclaimed, “There comes the tender of a man-o-war,” meaning a small vessel that frequently cruised in company with a frigate or larger ship. “No, by G—d!” Dean replied, “She’s an American privateer,—for do you not see the Hag of the Continental Congress with thirteen stripes?” They continued to watch as the Doria anchored and fired her salute, and immediately afterward they entered their boat and pulled for shore. They had not reached the landing place when the return salute was fired by the fort. Ashore, they louncl the exchange of salutes the main topic’ of conversation in the inns and grog shops and noted an air of elation among the Americans and their friends. When they completed the business that had brought them to Statia, Fraser and his two companions returned to their sloop and set sail for St. Kitts, where they related the saluting incident to the authorities.
It is quite possible that they were not the first to arrive with the news. This distinction may belong to young John Trottman, who reached St. Kitts at seven o’clock in the morning on November 17. On the evening of the preceding day, Captain Robinson, back aboard his brigantine after paying his official call on the Governor, had himself rowed to an American pilot boat anchored in the roads. Going aboard, he directed the crew of his gig to return to the Doria . The boat crew consisted of four men, of whom Trottman was one.
As they made their way back in the gathering darkness, Trottman perceived an opportunity to escape from his enforced service. Resting on his oar, he proposed that they head for St. Kitts, looming dimly eight miles away to the southeast. Persuaded by promises of reward or disenchanted with life in the Continental Navy, his companions agreed, and the boat was headed toward the British island. It took them all night to make it, but shortly after sunrise they landed at Sandy Point and were soon recounting their experiences aboard the Andrew Doria . the purpose of her visit to St. Eustatius, and the events of the preceding day.
While Christer Greathead, president of St. Christopher and Nevis, was digesting the inlonnation that Trottman, Fraser, Dean, Spicer, et al . had brought him, another event provided a second painful jolt to British sensibilities. Un November 21 the Baltimore Hero , an American privateer alleged to have been outfitted at St. Eustatius and owned, in part, by Maryland’s enterprising agent, Abraham van Bibber, sailed out of the anchorage at Statia and waylaid a British brigantine which had left St. Kitts shortly before. Attacking the Britisher within sight of both islands, but beyond range of the Dutch batteries and thus outside neutral waters, the Hero effected an easy capture. A prize crew was placed aboard her with orders to make for the Delaware, whereupon the privateer sailed in triumph back to her former anchorage, the Grand Union proudly spanking the breeze.
The victim of this affair was the May William Taylor master, and the vessel and her cargo were the property of one Fosta M. Connell, a British resident of Dominica. The latter promptly let out a howl that hit the sensitive ear of President Greathead more painlully because “the act of piracy” had taken place under his very nose.
After studying these two episodes as described for him by witnesses and victims, Greathead addressed an emphatic protest to the governor of the neighboring Dutch island. His letter, dated December 17, 1776, couched in the studied and dignified style of the period, is quite lengthy, beginning with a reminder of the prolonged friendship, based on treaties, that had hitherto existed between the British and Dutch, he expressed regret at the disagreeable duty of having, now, to protest the partiality and support afforded Great Britain’s rebellious American subjects by the inhabitants of St. Eustatius. Hc made broad charges regarding Dutch connivance in the traffic in military supplies and outfitting of privateers, quoting the Baltimore Hero as an example. Of the Andrew Doria he had this to say:
“Also, that an armed vessel called the Andrew Doria , commanded by a Captain Robinson, belonging to and in the service of the before-mentioned rebels, dropped anchor in the roads of St. Eustatius, and with hoisted Hag, known to be that of the rebels culled Continental Congress, did, about the middle of November last, salute with thirteen shots the fortress of her high and mighty the Dutch government, called the Orange fort; and that this salute was afterward answered by that fort with the same solemnity due to the flags of independent sovereign states; and to that ship it was then permitted to take aboard a cargo of gunpowder, other ammunition, and provisions, at St. Eustatius, for the use of the American army.”
After further expressions of indignation lie added a final presumptuous demand:
“I therefore exact from you, sir … a sufficient reason for the offense done to His Majesty’s fag by the honor rendered his rebellious subjects by Fort Orange; and I require, also, sir … you will not only use your authority to prevent a repetition of such violation of faith, but will employ at the same time immediate means to give complete restitution to the sufferers by the piracy committed by the sloop Baltimore Hero , and that the fellow-helpers and abettors in that act may be discovered, apprehended, and have the merited punishment that will be a terror to others.”
To insure prompt attention to his letter, Greathead directed his solicitor general, John Stanley, and a committee to lay the matter before the Dutch governor in person. No doubt President Greathead hoped that Stanley would return with De Graaff’s abject apologies and his assurance that the people of Statia would forthwith mend their ways. It so, he was to be sadly disappointed.
Governor de Graaff received Stanley and accepted the letter, but he flatly refused to discuss its contents with the delegation, instead, he composed a reply, dated December 2g, in which he dismissed with commendable brevity the allegations of aid to the American rebels and outfitting of privateers. He pointed out that he could not proceed against alleged offenders except upon “circumstantial proofs founded upon the most authentic information; and that the facts shall be set forth in good order, and ratified with witnesses.” Referring to the salute to the Dona he said, “I Hatter myself that, if my masters exact it, I shall be able to give such an account as will be satisfactory.” As to Grcathead’s presuming to take him to task, he announced that the President s request “seems to bear the appearance of exacting account of actions … that no one in the world is entitled to excepting my gentlemen and masters.”
On receipt of this, President Greathcad undertook a second letter to De Graalf, dated December 26, and couched in considerably milder terms:
“The impartial world will judge between us, whether these honor shots, answered on purpose by a Dutch fort to a rebellious brigantine called the Andrew Doria , with a flag known to the commander of that fort as the Hag of His Majesty’s rebelling subjects, is or is not a partiality in favor of these rebels, and a public offense donc to His Majesty’s flag. Whether the rebel brigantine fired thirteen or eleven honor shots, and whether they arc answered with an equal or inferior number, will not alter, I think, the real ground of my complaint in this regard; nor do I mid anything in your letter that contains any denial or disavowal of that fact.
Having done his duty under the circumstances, and perceiving that any further exchange was quite unlikely to produce satisfaction from Governor de Giaalf, Greathead assembled copies of the correspondence, carefully enclosed sworn affidavits by all the witnesses, and forwarded them to London lor such action as His Majesty’s ministers might see fit to take.
While the exchange of letters between governors was going on, the Andrew Doria remained at Statia taking on her cargo. At last her hold was full, and early in the spring of 1777 Captain Robinson bade farewell to his friends and set sail for the Delaware. The British had maintained a close watch on the American warship and, aware of her impending departure, sent the sloop Racehorce , twelve guns, Lieutenant James Tones commander, to lie in wait along her probable course. The Doria had reached a point oit the western end of Puerto Rico, when the Rosehorse was sighted. Captain Robinson cleared for action. In the running fight that followed, the British sloop proved no match for the smartly served, doublereinforced four-pounders of the Continental brigantine, and after two hours of battering, with her commander mortally wounded and a large number of her crew also casualties, the Rosehorse struck her colors. A prize crew was put aboard and she was successfully brought into the Delaware, where she was soon joined by her captor, which had paused long enough en route to gather in a merchant snow [a square-rigged vessel similar to a brig]. The Doria made port without her first lieutenant, however. Barney had volunteered as prize master of the captured snow and sailed away to a series of adventures that rival fiction. Hc was never to set loot aboard the Andrew Doria again.
The British government, on receipt of President Greathcad s report, issued a menacing note to The Hague. After an exchange, the States General found it diplomatically expedient to recall De Graaff to Holland to give a firsthand account of affairs at Statia. A full year elapsed before he put in his appearance, but when he did so he defended himself and his administration so ably as to be cleared of all censure. Reinstated in his post at St. Eustatius, he served until February g, 1^81, when retribution finally appeared in the person of Admiral Sir George Rodney with a British fleet. England had finally gone to war with Holland, but Sir George came too late. Statia’s role as a vital supply point during the early, critical years of the Revolution had already passed. France had by now come to the aid of the rebels and had tipped the scales of war.
Governor Johannes de Graaff, firm friend of the United States when friends were scarce and sorely needed, is unknown to most Americans and virtually forgotten. Xo biographer has yet been moved to describe his life. But the tourist who visits Fort Oranjc and from its terraced rampart, still lined with ancient cannon, surveys the roadstead where several hundred vessels once rode at anchor, will find a bronze plague affixed to the wall of the old fort. It reads:
IN COMMEMORATION OF THE SALUTE TO THE FLAG OF THE UNITED STATES FIRED IN IHIS FORT ON 160 NOVEMBER 1776 BY ORDER OF JOHANNES DE GRAAFF GOVERNOR or ST. EUSTATIUS IN REPLY TO A NATIONAL GUN-SALUTE FIRED BY THE UNITED STATES BRIG-OF-WAR, ANDREW DORIA UNDER CAPTAIN ISAIAH ROBINSON OF THE CONTINENTAL NAVY HERE THE SOVEREIGNTY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA WAS FIRST FORMALLY ACKNOWLEDGED TO A NATIONAL VESSEL BY A FOREIGN OFFICIAL PRESENTED BY FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA