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How Statia helped win American Independence

Nowadays, St Eustatius, or
‘Statia’ sells itself as an island where you can get away from the
modern world. It’s tranquil, natural, undeveloped and authentic. In fact,
it’s almost impossible to imagine that this tiny island within the
Netherlands Antilles once changed the course of history.

Statia’s
moment of glory came on November 16, 1776, when the 190-tonne, 75-foot
Brigantine Andrew Doria
fired a 13-gun salute, as was the custom, on her approach to the Dutch free
port at Oranje
Bay. What happened next
was utterly unexpected – Fort
Oranje
replied, firing her guns 11 times.

Andrew Doria, Captained by Isaiah Robinson, was a warship, flying the 13 red and white stripes
of the newly formed US Continental Congress. On board, she carried a fresh copy
of the recently drafted Declaration of Independence. Under the command of
Governor Johannes de Graaff, St
Eustatius had just become the first sovereign nation to recognise an American-flagged vessel in a foreign port.

History is built out of symbolic
gestures: Kennedy’s ‘Ich Bin ein Berliner’, Nelson Mandela wearing a Springbok
rugby shirt, Jane Fonda posing in Hanoi.
With those 11 shots, Statia had its own snapshot, as it shook hands with the
rebel colonies and welcomed American Independence.

The British, who considered the 13
stripes a pirate flag, were incensed, calling it a ‘Flagrant insult to
his majesty’s colours’. They immediately petitioned the Dutch, who
recalled De Graaff from his post. That they should be
so outraged is equally surprising.

For years, Statia had been the louche hub of trade between Europe and the US Colonies,
partly due to its position among international shipping lanes, and also for the
anchorage off Oranje
Bay. The warehouses
lining the bay were stacked with gunpowder, ammunition and other supplies
largely destined for Washington’s
rebel armies and hundreds of tall ships loaded up here. Some 90% of US
Gunpowder came by sea and throughout the American War of Independence,
the Dutch colonies supplied the Americans.

Statia was an 18th
century Peshawar.
Although the trade in arms was illegal, you could get anything here, and the
Dutch were fully aware of it. What kept the islands in Dutch hands, despite
numerous sackings, was that they remained strictly neutral – in relation to whom was allowed to buy what they shouldn’t be.

Being the first nation to
recognise American Independence cost St Eustatius
dear. On December 20, 1780 the British declared war on the Dutch. Admiral
Rodney sent 15 ships and 3,000 troops to ransack the Caribbean’s
most thriving trading post. Arriving on 3rd February, 1781, the
British immediately forced a Dutch surrender. Cunningly, for the next three
months, they left the Dutch flag flying, luring one trading ship after another
into the port. Within a short time, their ‘Statian sting’ had
captured almost 150 ships.

Plundering the warehouses, Rodney
was livid to discover that most of the ammunition had been supplied by British
merchants in St Kitts. In three months he sold as much as possible at auction,
leaving the island crippled economically.

As the War of Independence drew to
a close, the French – in a rare display of opportunism – set out to
reclaim as much of the Caribbean as possible.
On November 25, 1781, 1,200 troops in 8 ships under the command of Admiral de Girardin anchored off Jenkin’s
Bay. The plan was to land the men in longboats and storm the British garrison.
The reality was that many men drowned in the surf and the boats broke up
against the rocks. Welcome to Statia. With just 400 men on the beaches, and no
boats to implement a retreat, Girardin had no choice
but to attack. This he did. The British, preoccupied with defending
Jamaica, had left St
Eustatius under-defended and the French overwhelmed them.

Statia’s
fortunes declined considerably during the next two centuries. The island never
regained its strategic importance. But nothing can change its role in history.
Today, at Fort Oranje, a copper plaque commemorates the
salute that recognised the United
States. It was laid on December 12, 1939 by
no less than President Roosevelt.

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