The small colonial sailing vessel sailed up the roadstead towards anchorage in the harbor and readied her ceremonial cannons to fire a salute:
White puffs of gun smoke over a turquoise sea followed by the boom of cannon rose from an unassuming fort on the diminutive Dutch island of St. Eustatius in the West Indies on November 16, 1776.
The fort was returning the salute of the Andrew Doria, a Continental Navy brigantine built in 1775, and, according to historian/novelist Barbara Tuchman, it was at that instant that the sovereignty of the United States of America was first acknowledged.
St. Eustatius is a tiny West Indies island that is today a special municipality (officially public body) of the Netherlands. Its residents call the island Statia. In 1776, Statia was a Dutch free trading port that was instrumental in aiding the colonies in the Revolutionary War against Great Britain. The story is briefly recounted on the web site of the island’s archeological society (St Eustatius Center for Archaeological Research):
The sovereignty of the United States was first recognised here when on November 16, 1776 a salute was fired from Fort Oranje [Fort Orange] in reply to a salute by the brigantine Andrew Doria. The merchants on St. Eustatius provided much of the arms, gunpowder and ammunition used by the rebels in the American Revolution and as a result experienced the full wrath of the English Navy and Marines under Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney in 1781.
It is never easy being a trading partner of the United States; Admiral Rodney attacked St Eustatius and quickly defeated the minimal resistance of the Dutch governor. Rodney proceeded to take prisoners and plunder the warehouses of the local merchants whatever their nationality. He amassed plunder sufficient to fill 34 merchant vessels and soon, as told by Tuchman, “a very rich convoy was sailing for England escorted by four ships of war.”
It is one of the superb ironies of the Revolutionary War that superior French warships intercepted the convoy before it could reach England and safety. The French ended up with most of the booty from St Eustatius and when France joined the Americans against England this wealth was used against the British.
As for Admiral Rodney, instead of enjoying his brutally gained wealth from the raid, he was besieged by lawsuits from British merchants who lost goods when Rodney’s men looted St Eustatius. In the end, his government did not support him and he lost most of his wealth. It’s hard for me to feel any real sympathy for him—his actions were extreme and uncalled for even by the rules of war of those days.
Barbara Tuchman presents an interesting and easy to read analysis of the American Revolution and of the crucial role played by a tiny Caribbean island in her aptly named novel: The First Salute. Good reading for an Independence Day.
Wishing you a happy 4th of July, America.
Day 58: The First Salute, Barbara Tuchman (1988).