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American Revolutionary War Battles

The Battle of St. Eustatius

February 3, 1781 at St. Eustatius, West Indes

Battle Summary

The Capture of Saint Eustatius took place during the 4th Anglo-Dutch War when British army and naval forces under General John Vaughan and Admiral George Rodney seized the Dutch-owned Caribbean island of Saint Eustatius. The capture was controversial in Britain, as it was alleged that Vaughan and Rodney had used the opportunity to enrich themselves and had neglected more important military duties.

The island was subsequently taken by Dutch-allied French forces in late 1781, ending the British occupation.

Facts about the Battle of St. Eustatius

  • Armies - Dutch Forces was commanded by Governour Summons and consisted of about 60 Sailors. British Forces was commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood and consisted of about 3,000 Soldiers.
  • Casualties - Dutch casualties were 60 captured. British casualties were unknown.
  • Outcome - The result of the battle was a British victory. The battle part of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War.
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Prelude

St. Eustatius, a Dutch-controlled island in the West Indies, was an entrepot that operated as a major trading centre despite its relatively small size. During the Revolutionary War, it assumed increased importance, because a British blockade made it difficult to transport supplies directly across the Atlantic Ocean to American ports.

St. Eustatius became a crucial source of supplies, and its harbor was filled with American trading ships. Its importance increased further following France's entry into the war in 1778 as it was used to help supply the French West Indian islands.

It is estimated that one half of all the Revolutionary military supplies were trans-shipped through St. Eustatius. Its merchant networks - Dutch, but also British via St. Kitts and especially Bermuda and also Jewish, many of whom were St. Eustatius residents - were key to the military supplies and goods being shipped to the revolutionary forces. US-European communications were directed through St. Eustatius.

In 1776, St. Eustatius, hence the Dutch, were the first to recognize the American Revolutionary government when the US brig, USS Andrew Doria, fired 13 guns announcing their arrival. The Andrew Doria was saluted with an eleven gun response from Fort Orange.

The Andrew Doria arrived to purchase military supplies on St. Eustatius and to present to the Dutch governor a copy of the Declaration of Independence. An earlier copy of the Declaration had been captured by a British naval ship. The British were confused by the papers wrapped around the declaration, which they thought were a secret cypher. The papers were written in Yiddish for a merchant in Holland.

St. Eustatius's role in supplying Britain's enemies provoked anger amongst British leaders. Rodney alleged that goods brought out on British convoys had then been sold, through St. Eustatius, to the rebels. It seems to have fuelled a hatred for this island especially with Rodney who vowed to "bring this Nest of Villains to condign Punishment: they deserve scourging and they shall be scourged."

He had alreading singled out several individuals on St. Eustatius who were instrumental in aiding the enemy, such as "... Mr Smith in the House of Jones - they cannot be too soon taken care of - they are notorious in the cause of America and France ..." Following the outbreak of war between the Dutch Republic and Britain in December 1780, orders were sent from London to seize the island. The British were assisted by the fact that the news of the war's outbreak had not yet reached St. Eustatius.

Battle Begins

Throughout the Revolutionary War, St. Eustatius continued its illegal trade. In an attempt to avoid notice, gunpowder was often transported in barrels marked tea, rice, molasses and the like. While there may have been some sympathy for the cause, the trade was also quite profitable, for the Dutch made as much as a 120% profit on gunpowder.

The tension caused by such breeches of the offical Dutch stance on neutrality, and the reality of it, finally came to a head on December 20, 1780. Britain declared war on Holland, and yet another major European power entered the world-wide war.

The fact that Statia supplied so much of the needed material to troops under George Washington, lead to it being chosen as the first Dutch target of the British Caribbean fleet. Admiral Rodney sent Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood's squadron of seven ships to encircle the island.

Statia had not yet even learned of its entrance into war. The British banked on this fact, and on Saturday, the 3rd of February 1781, the fleet anchored around 3 p.m. The British had, along with around 15 ships of the line, about 3,000 troops ready to invade the island. Statia, on the other hand, had about 60 regular garrison troops stationed there, along with some all but useless civilian militia. There were, however, a large number of American merchant seamen on the island, some say as many as 2,000, but they were not equipped or trained for battle.

In addition to the small number of military troops, there were 82 mounted artillery pieces on Statia at the time of the British arrival. The largest British ship alone, the Barfleur, carried 90 guns. All told, the British mounted over 300 cannon on thier warships.

Realizing their vastly superior strength, Rodney wrote in a letter, that he and Vaughan, the army commander on the expedition, decided that "in order to save the Effusion of human Blood, thought it necessary to send the Dutch Governour [a] Summons", via Lieutenant-Colonel James Cockburn of the 35th Regiment and one other officer, to which the Dutch quickly surrendered the island.

The number of American ships that traded at the port was readily apparrent. Within a very short time, the British had captured more than 150 ships who unknowingly sailed into port. On the beach, Rodney found warehouses packed full.

He wrote back to England that "All the Magazines and Storehouses are filled, and even the Beach covered with Tobacco and Sugar". The magazines he found to be "filled with Provisions, Naval and other Store, intended for the use of his Majesty's Enemies and Rebel Subjects".

Many of the supplies, Rodney was furious to learn, were actually being sold to the Americans by British merchants on nearby St. Kitts , where the British maintained a large fortification called Brimstone Hill. These warehouses, Rodeny declared, had "been more detrimental to England than all the forces of her enemies".

Aftermath

All the stores and warehouses on the island were immediately closed, and soldiers were stationed everywhere. Rodney continued on his Caribbean campaign, and left Statia under the capable hands of Vaughan.

Vaughn, however, died soon after, and is now buried on the island.