Michiel de Ruyter: A Captain’s Story

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1555

In the early 17th century, shortly after the Dutch people gained the freedom to practice religion as they saw fit, their golden age began. With the release from a rigid form of Spanish Catholicism came a flourishing of trade, commerce, theology, art, music, science, sailing, and architecture unparalleled in human history. It was the age that birthed the painters Rembrandt and Vermeer, the architects Jacob van Campen and Pieter Post, and the maritime genius Michiel de Ruyter.  

Early Life (1607-1636)

Not well known to many Americans, Michiel de Ruyter was born in 1607 into a contentious age. Europe was on the verge of the thirty years war—a conflict which would visit tremendous devastation on the continent and end with France and Spain locked into a follow-on war—but it was also a conflict that temporarily ensured the Netherlands was given the space she needed to become a nation of explorers and sea traders. It’s unsurprising then that the young, poor, and obscure Michiel de Ruyter’s first job took him out to sea and that his life was spent defending his people. At 11 de Ruyter began working as a sailor aboard a merchant ship, and at 15 he began using a sword and pistol to defend cargo from pirates. At the age of 24, de Ruyter married Maayke Velders, but she died giving birth to their daughter (who did not long outlive her mother) and so he returned to the sea, this time as a navigation officer aboard whaling ships. At 30 de Ruyter married the wealthy Neeltje Engels (who bore him four children, three of whom survived) and his fortunes improved substantially.

The Merchant Years (1637-1651)

A Barbary pirate, Pier Francesco Mola 1650

Combining his newfound wealth with his sailing experience, de Ruyter became a merchant captain who made money trading in the West Indies. But life was much more dangerous for a merchant than a whaler, as the Algerian Pirates in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Pirates off the coasts of northern Africa, and the Dunkirk Pirates in the channel were constant threats to the Dutch. As a consequence, de Ruyter had to acquire the command skills needed to protect his crew, and in this, he was exceedingly successful. De Ruyter had a natural ability to maneuver out of conflict if possible, and an impressive innovation streak when peace was impossible. In one notable instance de Ruyter coated the deck of his ship with rancid butter and gave his sailors special footwear before the attack; the unsuspecting pirate boarders didn’t stand a chance.

During these years de Ruyter also proved himself to be generous with his wealth and quick to do good to those around him, with the result that he was well loved by his crews, associates, and acquaintances. When the opportunity presented itself he would buy freedom for slaves—something he did as a matter of practice. His merchant years were prosperous ones, and when his wife suddenly died, a 45-year-old de Ruyter decided it was time to remarry and retire.

The First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654)

Action between ships in the en:First Dutch War, 1652–1654

Alas, it was not to be. In 1652 the English government instructed all privateers to raid Dutch ships wherever they were found. The Dutch responded by declaring war, and nine months into his retirement de Ruyter found himself using 23 poorly equipped ships to protect a convoy headed for America against 47 English warships determined to sink them. Through skillful maneuvering, bold tactics, and excellent use of chain shot to disable the enemy mast, de Ruyter won a victory so decisive that the English commander was cashiered for incompetence and de Ruyter was given the title “lion of the sea.” For himself however he was content to simply give the credit to God, writing in his journal,

“Praised be God who has blessed us in that our enemy fled by himself, though 45 sails strong and of great force.”1“Battle of Plymouth” Ronald Teuthof, Dutch Golden Age http://thedutchgoldenage.nl/index.html

Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp

Thanks to English innovation however de Ruyter’s victory would be the only clear win for the Dutch. Previously naval battles had been fought with merchant ships outfitted for war, with sailors attempting to capture each other’s vessels, but the English realized they needed to make substantial changes to win against the Dutch. They began building ships dedicated to war—not trade—with double the number of guns, higher decks, and larger hulls. Their tactics likewise changed: instead of training sailors to also be soldiers, they’d instead pull broadside and simply sink the enemy ship with cannon fire. As a result, the Dutch lost a major battle Kentish Knock (October 1652) and suffered a huge defeat at the Gabbard (June 1653) when Admiral Maartin Tromp was killed.

Recognizing his genius for mobility and tactics (the only antidote to the new English strategy), de Ruyter was asked to command the fleet in place of Tromp, but de Ruyter declined, worrying that such a large promotion would ruin the morale of those above him. Fortunately, however, the English were too exhausted to press the war further, and the two nations signed a peace treaty to end the conflict.

The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667)

The respite didn’t last long. Less than a year later the English attacked the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in America (capturing it and renaming it to New York), and war came again. De Ruyter immediately struck at English holdings in the Caribbean, then realizing their need to have him lead the fleet, returned home. With the help of the French the Dutch won an initial victory over a damaged and outnumbered English at the Four Day’s Battle, but the English rallied at the battle of St. James Day and went on to sink over a hundred Dutch vessels, despite de Ruyter’s unusually good command performance commanding the center fleet.

Realizing they were outclassed and needing a new strategy to win, the Dutch drew up a plan to have de Ruyter sail up the Thames and attack the English ships as they were being re-supplied. The operation was an astonishing success—de Ruyter caught the entire navy at the port, burned a large number of ships, destroyed their supplies, ruined the docks, and towed the enemy flagship home. As Rudyard Kipling wrote of de Ruyter’s victory in “the Dutch in the Medway” 2“The Dutch in the Medway,” Rudyard Kipling, A School History of England, Sussex Edition, vol., 34, 1911:

“Our ships in every harbor,
be neither whole nor sound,
and when we seek to mend a leak,
no oakum can be found.
Or if it is the caulkers,
and carpenters also,
for lack of pay have gone away
And this the Dutchmen know….

For now de Ruyter’s topsails,
off naked Chatham show,
We dare not meet him with our fleet—
and this the Dutchmen know!

After tallying the losses from the raid the English sued for peace, bringing an end to the conflict.

The Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674)

Despite the official overture of peace, England had neither forgotten nor forgiven the Dutch for their loss. Over the next few years, they quietly invested in new warships, strengthened their economy, and drew up plans to blockade the Netherlands and eliminate their ability to sail. They would do to the Netherlands what the de Ruyter had done to them at Medway.

But although the Dutch were outnumbered (and not as well equipped as the English), they had de Ruyter, and therefore the advantage. At the first battle of the war, de Ruyter sailed into an unexpected and advantageous position, attacked the blockade, drove off the French, and then isolated and pummeled the English flagships with cannon fire. Because of his bold attack, the English retreated, lifting the blockade.

Realizing the Dutch couldn’t be beaten at sea, the English made plans to march an army into Holland from the North and draw the Dutch army to them. Then, once their cities were defenseless, the French would attack from the South, the Dutch would be destroyed and the nation would fall. The English set out with 98 ships to capture Schoonveldt and put the plan into motion, but de Ruyter was waiting for them there, and despite being outnumbered almost two-to-one he fought them to a stalemate. Unable to pass and exhausted by their lack of progress, the English withdrew to try again at another location, but the third and final battle of the war went much the same as the first two. Through innovative tactics and aggressive mobility, de Ruyter pressed the numerically superior English ships at Texel until their moral broke and they capitulated. Tired of paying for costly, indecisive battles that gained them nothing, the English agreed to a lasting peace. The third Anglo-Dutch was de Ruyter’s finest campaign, and the third war his finest battle.

Michiel de Ruyter in c. 1654

His Greatest Accomplishment (1676)

De Ruyter is counted by many among the greatest Admirals in history, for without his genius it’s very possible the Netherlands would be a different place than it is today. But whether he’s considered among the greatest strategists or not, there’s no denying de Ruyter’s lifetime accomplishments were numerous and impressive. He fought Corsairs off the Barbary Coast, the French at Biscay, the Pirates in the Caribbean, the Portuguese, the Spanish at Cape St. Vincent, and the English to save his homeland. His most impactful contribution to military history was his 1659 victory against the Swedish navy where he invented the concept of “marines” —a group of soldiers carried by ships that make landfall against enemy targets. But when asked what the greatest achievement of his career was de Ruyter replied it was the time he rescued 26 Hungarian ministers from slavery.

To an impartial observer, there was nothing extraordinary about the rescue, nothing exciting or noteworthy. Having negotiated their release ahead of time, de Ruyter docked in the bay of Naples and sent a message stating the slaves were now to be freed, then departed. When the captors refused to comply de Ruyter sailed back into port, marched his soldiers into the prison, and escorted the Hungarian ministers out personally. Despite the initial tension no shots were fired, no one was injured, no disturbance made, and yet de Ruyter, [pull quote] who had often spent his own money buying Christians from slavery in situations exactly like this one, pointed to this as his greatest accomplishment in life. For further reading, see Imre Revesz’s Leben article3“A Decade of Mourning”, Imre Revesz, Leben Magazine, https://leben.us/the-decade-of-mourning/ , October 2006 in the October 2006 issue. It’s also fitting that his greatest accomplishment was one of his last, as de Ruyter died in 1677 fighting the French near Sicily.

References & Further Reading

  • “Commanders”, R.G. Grant, DK Publishing, 2010
  • “Admirals of the World”, William Stewart, McFarland press, 2009
  • “The Great Admirals”, Jack Swetman, Naal institute press, 1997
  • Uitgeverij Verloren, 2006“Who’s who in Naval History: From 1550 to the Present”, Alastair Wilson & Joseph F. Callo Routledge Press 2004
  • “The First Anglo-Dutch War, military overview” David Plant, BCW Project, April 2013
  • “Second anglo-Dutch war (1665-1667) Reaison d’etat, mercantilism and maritime strife” Gijs Rommelse,

 

Endnotes

Endnotes
1 “Battle of Plymouth” Ronald Teuthof, Dutch Golden Age http://thedutchgoldenage.nl/index.html
2 “The Dutch in the Medway,” Rudyard Kipling, A School History of England, Sussex Edition, vol., 34, 1911
3 “A Decade of Mourning”, Imre Revesz, Leben Magazine, https://leben.us/the-decade-of-mourning/ , October 2006