The Capture of Sint Eustatius took place in February 1781 during the American War of Independence when British army and naval forces under General John Vaughan and Admiral George Rodney seized the Dutch-owned Caribbean island of Sint 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.
St. Eustatius, a Dutch island in the West Indies, was an entrepot that operated as a major trading centre despite its relatively small size. During the American War of Independence 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 harbour 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.
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 enemy. 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.
A British expedition of 3,000 troops sailed from Saint Lucia on 30 January 1780. Rodney left behind ships to monitor the French on Martinique. He also sent Samuel Hood ahead to stop any merchant ships escaping from the harbour. The main force arrived off St. Eustatius on 3 February. Rodney's ships took up position to neutralise any shore batteries. Two or three shots were fired from the only Dutch warship on the roadstead, the frigate Mars under captain Count Van Bijland. Instead of disembarking the troops and launching an immediate assault, Rodney sent a message to Governor Johannes de Graaff suggesting that he surrender to avoid bloodshed. De Graaff agreed to the proposal and surrendered. By the following day the nearby islands of Saint Martin and Saba had also surrendered.
There was a brief exchange of fire when two of the British ships shot at the Mars and Van Bijland answered with his cannons. Rodney reprimanded the captains responsible for this lack of discipline.
The only true battle occurred near Sombrero. When Rodney found out that a convoy of thirty richly loaded Dutch merchant ships had just sailed off for the motherland less than two days before his arrival, protected only by a single man-of-war, he sent three warships after them. They quickly caught up with the convoy. The lone Dutch man-of-war was no match for the three British ships and after a fierce 30 minute pounding the mortally wounded commander, Rear-Admiral Willem Krul, while dying ordered his captain to lower the flag. Eight of the Dutch crew were killed. Krul was taken back to St. Eustatius where he was buried with full honours.
The wealth Rodney and Vaughan discovered on St. Eustatius exceeded their expectations. There were 130 merchantmen in the bay as well as the Dutch frigate and five smaller American warships. In total the value of goods seized, including the convoy captured off Sombrero, was estimated to be around £3 million. On 5 February 1781 Rodney and Vaughan signed an agreement stating that all goods taken belonged to the Crown. Instead of delegating the task of sorting through and estimating the value of the confiscated property Rodney and Vaughan oversaw this themselves. The time spent doing this led to allegations that they had neglected their military duties. In particular, Samuel Hood suggested that Rodney should have sailed to intercept a French fleet under Admiral de Grasse, traveling to Martinique.
After returning home both officers defended themselves in the House of Commons. As Rodney was a supporter of the government led by Lord North it approved of his conduct, and he returned to the West Indies for the 1782 campaigning season. When the North Government fell and was replaced in 1782, the new government sent orders recalling Rodney. However, before they arrived he led his fleet to victory at the Battle of the Saintes – ending a Franco-Spanish plan to invade Jamaica – and returned home to be rewarded with a peerage.
At the time, St. Eustatius was home to a Jewish settlement, mainly merchants and plantation owners. Within two days of the island being surrendered to the British, part of the Jewish community – all the men – together with governor de Graaff, were forcibly deported, being given only 24 hours notice.
British control of St. Eustatius only lasted ten months, and Rodney's work to manage the prizes was in vain. Many of the goods he seized were captured on their way to Britain by a French squadron under Toussaint-Guillaume Picquet de la Motte. The island was captured by French forces in November 1781 who returned it to the Dutch in 1784. The Jews and other expelled merchants returned, commerce and trade resumed and the island's population reached its all-time highest peak in 1790.
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