The Jews of St. Eustatius and the American Revolutionary War


Admiral Rodney and the Jews of St. Eustatius


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Admiral Rodney and the Jews of St. Eustatius

By Louis Arthur Norton

The spectacle was incongruous. A scorching Caribbean sun shone upon a stone quay, as tall slim palms seemed to wave a mournful farewell while providing a much-needed cooling sea breeze. A crowd of bearded darkly dressed Jewish men, their faces hidden in the shadows of broad-brimmed dark hats, huddled on the pier. They were surrounded; prisoners of the "lobster backs," eighteenth century British Royal Marines whose menacing bayonets gleamed in the late morning light. On the nearby shore modestly dressed women, their heads covered in shawls, wailed and screamed out the names of their beloved fathers, husbands and sons. Children, confused and full of dread, added their refrain to the cacophony of the weeping chorus. This was the scene of a little-known anti-Semitic incident that originated from a series of noteworthy events in the maritime history of America, Great Britain and Holland related to the War for Independence. Ultimately it foreshadowed the need for a homeland for the Jewish people. Repercussions of this episode echoed for over a century in the British Parliament and, in retrospect, it was became prophetic.

In order to put these events in historical context it is essential to briefly trace part of the immigration history of the Jews in Europe and to the new world. There is documentary evidence that Jews had settled in Holland during the twelfth century. In the latter part of the sixteenth century this population increased with an influx of Sephardic Jews who were conversos, Jews from Spain and Portugal who were forced to convert to Christianity, but practiced their Jewish religion clandestinely. They introduced the language and customs of the Iberian Peninsula. Shortly thereafter Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Poland with their own traditions immigrated to Holland, but the two cultures did not integrate well, thus they maintained separate synagogues and traditions.

The Dutch were reasonably broadminded about their Jewish neighbors, but acceptance was the result of civil legislation and tolerance varied from municipality to municipality.[i] The Jews did well economically in spite of a multitude of restrictions that varied from town to town, but all Jews did not prosper equally. The members of the Sephardic community generally flourished in commerce, rising to prominence in the mercantile trades, banking, the stock exchange and even as suppliers of goods to the royal court. The Ashkenazi population labored at more menial tasks. They were not well regarded by the Sephardim or the Christians and, with a few exceptions they occupied a low rung of the social and economic ladder. This meant that mostly Dutch Sephardic Jews were chosen to immigrate on the desirable colonies first those in Brazil and then, when Brazil became totally a Portuguese colony, to the West Indies.

Jews trickled into Colonial America from 1654 through the American Revolutionary War in small numbers, fewer than two thousand. They represented less than one tenth of one percent of a total American population that exceeded 2.2 million including over a half a million slaves. The vast majority of the early Jewish American immigrants were Sephardic. They largely populated Rhode Island, South Carolina, Georgia, and New York, but smatterings of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews found their way into Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Ashkenazi Jews outnumbered Sephardic Jews by 1720.

In these colonies they were still subjected to the historic European anti-Semitic patterns of physical segregation, but economic and religious discrimination noticeably lessened. Anti-Semitism existed in some quarters, but it did not thrive possibly because there were so few Jews in number and a critical mass of inhabitants was needed for survival of the whole. The American colonies needed population, particularly a population that was educated and skilled. Jews in Colonial America gradually won rights that were unimaginable in Europe, such as equal economic opportunity, ownership of land, admission to higher secular education, service in the armed militias, the right to vote and in some colonies membership in legislative bodies.

In 1753 the British Parliament passed a Jewish Naturalization Bill to promote economic development in Great Britain and its colonies. Foreign-born Jews who were awarded British citizenship were granted limited rights, including land ownership. Unfortunately Parliament was forced to repeal The Naturalization Bill in 1760 because of thinly veiled anti-Semitism in England that was occasionally expressed in violence. Thus on the eve of the American Revolution, Jews were considered second-class citizens by the general populous in Britain. The provisions of the original act were mostly upheld in Colonial America in spite of the bill's repeal in Britain, but were dependent upon the domestic laws each colonial legislature. In general Jews were free to participate in colonial life, engage in the commerce of their choice and practice their faith.

The American Revolution did not start out as a war of independence from Great Britain. The Colonists regarded themselves as British Americans with the rights of any British citizen to inform Parliament about their requirements, influence Parliament's laws, control the economy within their border lines and, most of all, have a say about their taxation. When the war between Britain and her Colonies finally erupted the American population was nearly split into three equal factions; a third in support of the war, another third neutral and one third pro British or Tory. The Jewish American population was also divided, but disproportionably in support of the American Revolution and pledged their hearts and wealth for the possibility of even greater freedom and opportunity in an America that had thus far treated them fairly.

Shortly after the Declaration of Independence had been approved in Philadelphia, a copy was sent to Amsterdam, but the British intercepted the ship carrying the Declaration. A letter accompanied the copy of the historic document and both were sent to London. It was assumed that the letter was seditious, because it appeared to be written in some secret code. The letter that needed to be deciphered was a written in the Hebrew script — American Jews were simply communicating with their Dutch brethren.[ii]

Some American Jewish merchants owned small fleets of merchant vessels. Now that the United Colonies were at war, a few of these merchant traders converted their ships into privateers to harass the British at sea. Others Jewish merchant vessel owners engaged in the arms smuggling trade transporting weapons and powder from the West Indies, especially from the Dutch colonies. This dangerous venture was made easier because of ancestral and cultural ties between the Sephardic Jews of Dutch island colonies and those of the American colonies. The Revolutionary War might have failed except for risks taken and the financial capital given by Sephardic Jews in support of the rebel cause.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the West Indies became a center of European trade with the British, French, Spanish and Dutch claiming groups of islands in this region. St. Eustatius (also known as Sint Eustatius, Statius and Statia), an important Dutch possession, lies at the northern end of the gently curving chain of Leeward Islands about half way between Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe. This three by six mile island of St. Eustatius, discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, was claimed by many nations over the next 150 years. In 1636 the chamber of Zeeland of the Dutch West India Company colonized the island for sugar cultivation. It also became one of the first Jewish settlements in the New World. During the eighteenth century the island flourished and at its peak St. Eustatius may have had a population of over 20,000.

Although the Dutch had historically participated in a number of European wars, their navy had been in decline. It became obvious that great profit lay in neutrality. The Dutch set up free ports where all nations were welcome and St. Eustatius became the main North American conduit for trade with the nations of Continental Europe, principally France, and the New England maritime colonies. In one year 3182 vessels cleared this tiny port.[iii] Other countries that were forbidden by law from dealing directly with each other shipped their products to the neutral Dutch colonies of St. Eustatius.

In time many manifests appeared listing St. Eustatius as an intermediate port for goods produced elsewhere. In just one example, in 1770 this Dutch colony produced approximately six hundred thousand pounds of sugar. Records for that year indicate that it exported twenty million pounds. At the time of the American Revolution the population of the island was an amalgam of about eight thousand Dutch, English and Jewish merchants. (Today the population is approximately two thousand.) St. Eustatius became the preferred port of call for American vessels where arms, although was officially prohibited, could be purchased and smuggled into the Northern climes of America. The several Dutch firms that engaged in this clandestine traffic made St. Eustatius the cheapest source of European goods in the West Indies. Thus this beautiful and seemingly peaceful tropical island evolved into both a serious economic and political threat to Britain.

Diplomatic relations had long been strained between Holland and Great Britain, but the Dutch were members of the League of Armed Neutrality, an organization of neutral nations formed by Catherine the Great of Russia. The British honored the League's neutrality treaty and prohibited Royal Navy vessels from search and seizure of the ships of non-belligerent nations. The Dutch took advantage of their neutrality status and stockpiled arms on St. Eustatius for sale to any country with the funds to buy them, without regard to which nation was at war with whom. This enterprise was an especially lucrative enterprise for the colonial Governor of the colonial island, Johannes de Graaff, who was sympathetic to the rebel cause and profited from island companies in which he had an interest. Among the merchants, bankers, artisans and mid-level-bureaucrats that populated St. Eustatius were Sephardic Dutch-Jewish families of who had been relatively prosperous in the Dutch society.

In a move to appease Great Britain the Dutch government made a public show of condemning the newly signed Declaration of Independence and expressed sympathy with Britain's efforts to extinguish the insurrection. In addition, on 20 March 1775 the Dutch parliament, the States General (Den Stadhouder), at the behest of the British, issued a proclamation that prohibited the export of munitions from all Dutch harbors, European and colonial, to any vessel that flew the English flag unless they had a special government issued license. This act was intended to prevent American ships, which were still technically British and thus allowed to fly the British flag, from purchasing arms for their rebellion. The six-month embargo was designed to cut America's supply of arms and to mollify the British. Dutch traders however were opportunists as well as astute businessmen. Most merchants interpreted the law as a small easily negotiated obstacle rather than a roadblock.

Continental Navy vessels were frequently asked to escort American merchant ships to and from St. Eustatius. These naval escorts were not effective against large enemy warships, but could act as a buffer against ever-present privateers and could occupy small warships long enough to affords an escape for merchantmen. Occasionally American warships were used to carry secret communications or special cargo to or from the West Indies.

On 23 October 1776 the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress of the United Colonies ordered the Continental Navy brig Andrea Doria to the Dutch colony of St. Eustatius with a dispatch to be forwarded to William Bingham at Martinico. In June 1776 Bingham had agreed to serve the Continental Congress in Martinique by gathering information about British naval and troop movements, arranging for shipments of weapons to be smuggled to the Continental Army, and recruiting privateers to prey on British shipping. This voyage of the Andrea Doria would prove to be historic.

Flying the flag of Grand Union on its stern flagstaff the Andrea Doria entered the harbor of St. Eustatius on 16 November 1776. As the Andrea Doria backed its topsails to slow its headway in preparation for dropping anchor, Captain Isaac Robinson the vessel's commander decided to make a conspicuous entry into port. Robinson ordered the striped Grand Union of the Republic flag, the recently adopted American banner, dipped and a cannon salute fired from the vessel's deck. According to maritime custom, a returned salute was the appropriate response of their host state.

Abraham Raven, the commander of the Orange fort, assumed that the unfamiliar flag might be that of a rebel American warship and realized that returning a salute would offend the British. Raven sent a message for instructions to Johannes de Graaff, the island's governor and was ordered to answer the salute. After some minutes passed, nine puffs of gun gray-white smoke arose from the walls of the fort followed by a salute of muffled thumps in cadence.[iv] An historic moment transpired; the American colors had been publicly recognized by a European power.[v] These brief cannon reports also turned out to be an expression of diplomatic indiscretion. This seemingly minor form of acknowledgment was contrary to the foreign policy of the Dutch government.

When news of the incident reached the neighboring island of St. Christopher (St. Kitts), its British governor, Craister Greathead, sent a vehement protest to Governor de Graaff saying that "this Port always made and still makes distinction between Merchant or Private Vessells and the Ships of War belonging to Sovereign States: the latter receive constantly, when they honor its Fortress with a salute Gun for Gun, as a distinc mark of Independancy."[vi] An eleven-gun salute was fired from the Andrea Doria and the Dutch responded with a nine-shot volley that commonly used to recognize foreign merchant vessels. The customary response to a foreign warship was gun for gun. Therefore the salute was technically incorrect and likely based upon misinformation concerning the military status of the American brig.

Still once in port the Dutch readily sold munitions to the warship. Greathead angrily continued with minor misinformation stating that the Andrea Doria came "to an anchor in the Road of St Eustatius and with Colours flying known to be those of the Rebels called the Continental Congress Saluted with Thirteen Guns Their High Mightinesses Fort called Fort Orange & which Salute was afterwards with solemnity due to the Flags of Independent Sovereign States returned to the said Vessel by the said Fort, which Vessel was afterwards permitted to take in a Loading of Gunpowder & other necessities of war & Provisions at St Eustatius for the use of the American Rebel Army."[vii]

Greathead went on to officially report the incident to the British Foreign Office writing: "The Impartial World will Judge between us, whether a salute deliberately returned by a Dutch fort to the Rebel brigantine Andrew Doria, under Colours known to the Commandant of that Fort to be those of His Majesty's rebellious Subjects, be, or be not, a Partiality in Favor of those Rebels and a flagrant Indignity offered to his Majesty's Flag."[viii] This complaint went from the British Foreign Office to the States General of the Netherlands.

The Americans of the United Colonies viewed the incident with amusement. Baltimore's Maryland Journal for Wednesday, 22 January 1777, commented that Governor de Graaff and the people of St. Eustatius had displayed their "partiality for the American States, now engaged in the Cause of all Mankind."[ix] In what for the day was short order, Britain's Parliament sent a formal complaint to The Hague. On 21 February 1777 they demanded that the Dutch government disavow the salute, dismiss Governor de Graaff, and enforce the West Indies munitions embargo. If satisfaction was not received in a timely fashion, the British Parliament threatened to recall its ambassador to Holland.

The Dutch government called de Graaff home to answer the charges at a formal inquiry. In his defense, de Graaff claimed that, he was unaware of the newly adopted American colors and had ordered the Andrea Doria's salute returned out of normal courtesy. He stated that did not make the treaty laws between Great Britain and the Netherlands, but enforced the laws on the colonial island, as he understood them.[x] As a result the governor was neither dismissed nor punished. The governor was temporarily recalled to den Hague to answer the charge. The Dutch government did however reaffirm their earlier embargo order in the West Indies against the export of military stores to the Americans and formally disclaimed acts of their officials that might be interpreted as recognizing American independence. De Graaff was mildly admonished, essentially exonerated and returned to his post at St. Eustatius in 1779.[xi]

During the next few years St. Eustatius became more of a thorn in the side of King George III as additional arms found their way into the hands of the beleaguered Americans. Ships running contraband for the rebels became an ever more profitable business for Dutch merchants. The British increased their patrols of the North American shipping lanes and by chance captured the American patriot and diplomat Henry Laurens at sea. A dispatch from the Continental Congress requesting a loan to help finance the Revolutionary War together with a proposal for a treaty of commerce with the Dutch was found in Laurens's possession. The evidence of the subterfuge found in these seized documents became part of a pretext for the British to discontinue honoring Dutch neutrality. They would help themselves to the Dutch ships and cargo in the West Indies estimated at the time to worth about five million pounds sterling. An Anglo-Dutch War was declared.

As a result Royal Navy Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney was ordered by Lord Sandwich (Sir John Montagu) to interdict the supply of arms coming to the Americans through the Dutch colonies in the West Indies. Rodney and his fleet of fifteen heavily armed ships of the line arrived at St. Eustatius on 3 February 1781. Only three small Dutch warships and the few cannons in the fort defended the island's harbor and the main population center, the town of Oranjestad. The harbor of St. Eustatius sheltered more than a hundred merchant vessels that flew the flags of many western countries. Apparently word of the new British policy of belligerency had not reached de Graaff, but it was clear that they were militarily overmatched. The Colonial Dutch Government, the inhabitants of St. Eustatius and the officers and crews of ships anchored in the harbor surrendered to prevent unnecessary bloodshed. Once on shore Rodney's men systematically looted and pillaged the well-stocked warehouses.

Although he was the commander of the British fleet in the West Indies, Rodney was not a wealthy man. Unfortunately for him, the admiral had expensive tastes and a fondness for gambling. His debits had steadily risen and earlier he was forced to flee to France to escape his English creditors. The rich prizes of ships in the harbor and the value of the goods that were stored in the warehouse would likely ensure that he would be debit free for the rest of his life. Rodney attempted to maximize his prizes still further by leaving the Dutch flag flying over the fort and town. This pennant would lure unsuspecting ship captains to sail their vessels into his trap.

Rodney now had a problem in his the role of conqueror. He had to govern and oversee a major foreign colony rather then a handful of prize vessels. His captives were citizens of many powerful European countries and it became diplomatically prudent to treat his prisoners with deference to avoid international repercussions. Nevertheless Rodney's orders were clear. He had to subdue the island's commerce, an active trade that had harmed the British effort to repress the American rebellion. Rodney was determined to make a show of Great Britain's power by punishing some of the inhabitants as an example.

Accounts vary concerning the details of what occurred, but it appeared that after Admiral Rodney confiscated all the ships and goods stored in the island's warehouses, there was less cash and valuables than he expected. Rodney noticed that the Jews were having an unusual number of funerals. He ordered one of them to stop and had the coffin opened. It contained a cache of coins and jewelry. He then ordered his men to do some digging in the graveyard and found more valuables that had been stashed away.

Infuriated, Rodney ordered the Jewish population, approximately one hundred and ten men women and children, rounded up and brought before him. Many of the Sephardic Jews that worked on St. Eustatius had been openly supportive of the American Revolution.[xii] The admiral accused them of being the chief profiteers and suppliers to Britain's enemies, had them confined to quayside warehouses. He now had all of the Jews stripped of their garments so that their clothing could be searched for any additional valuables or contraband. The British confiscated anything of worth that the Jews had in their shops, offices, homes, and on their person plus cash valued at approximately eight thousands pounds sterling. Rodney ordered the burning of many of their homes.

In an act of unanticipated vindictiveness, he had their 1739 synagogue, Honen Dalim, [He who is charitable to the poor] burned. This was the only religious building that the British destroyed on the island. Rodney then had the Jewish men separated from their wives and children and notified them that they had one but one day to straighten their affairs as best they could. On 5 February 1781 the entire Jewish male population of St. Eustatius was loaded upon transport vessels without family or property and scattered into exile, some to the nearby Island of St. Christopher and others farther afield.[xiii]

Rodney elected to remain on the island to ostensibly protect it from assorted enemies, but more likely he wanted to assure that he found every pence that his conquest produced. He then auctioned off the personal valuables from all the inhabitants and seamen he had seized, thus netting Rodney and the British naval crew a small fortune. This was obviously unpopular with island's British subjects who lost property. They later brought suit against the admiral and questions about his behavior were asked in Parliament.

Rodney remained on St. Eustatius until the latter part of July 1781. During the intervening months he used part of his fleet to convey a substantial portion of the booty back to England. Ironically much of the spoils never reached there. A convoy laden with his treasures was intercepted in the English Channel by a French squadron and the valuables fell into French hands. It would have been profitable sojourn; the estimated value of the valuables and maritime prizes in the harbor amounted to more than three million pounds sterling.[xiv]

There has been speculation about Rodney's time that he spent enriching himself on St. Eustatius rather than sending his fleet under his second in command the able Admiral Samuel Hood in pursuit of French Admiral François Joseph Paul compte de Grasse. If he had done so perhaps the outcome of the Revolutionary War might have been changed.[xv] In September de Grasse sailed from the West Indies to arrive off Hampton Rhodes in early October 1781. The presence of de Grasse and his fleet of twenty-eight warships at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay prevented that British from giving any support to Lord Charles Cornwallis's troops at Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis was forced to surrender on 19 October 1781 and although this defeat did not the end of the Revolutionary War it was the turning point that led to the conclusion.[xvi]

By the end of November 1781, news of Rodney's act of singling out the Dutch Jews for the harshest punishment reached the British Parliament. Edmund Burke, a Member of Commons and eloquent sympathizer of the American cause, was known for uncharitable statements toward Jews. Yet he reproved Rodney for his mistreatment of the Jews of St. Eustatius. Burke said, "If Britons were so injured, Britons have armies and laws to fly to for the protection and justice. But the Jews have no such power and no such friend to depend upon. Humanity then must become their protector."[xvii] Burke was likely more concerned with Britain's image of ethical lapse as seen by Rodney's actions rather than the plight of the Jews. Still, in recognizing Jewish vulnerability, Burke implied that the plight of the Jews might be solved if they had a state of their own.

One hundred and thirty-six years after Burke's rebuke of his countryman, British Foreign Minister Lord Arthur James Balfour wrote the following note to Lord Lionel Walter Rothchild: "His Majesty's government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this objective, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which might prejudice the civil rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."[xviii]

This letter was passed on to the Zionist Federation and the sentiment was adopted in Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations on 28 June 1919. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, as it became known, emanated from the same government that had noted the vulnerability of the Jews of St. Eustatius in 1781. The government took about a century and a third to formally implement Burke's thought concerning the formation of a Jewish state. Another thirty-one years of waiting and the result of world's culpability concerning the holocaust resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel by way of a vote of the United Nations in 1948.

End Notes:

[i] This changed in 1796 when the Jews were granted equal civil rights.

[ii] The content of the letter, to whom it was intended or whether the letter was in Yiddish or Ladino is not clear.

[iii] Fowler, William F. Jr., Rebels Under Sail: The American Navy During the Revolution. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976) 94.

[iv] Norton, Louis Arthur, "The Continental Navy Brig Andrew (Andrea) Doria." The American Neptune, 61, #1, 2001,9-23.

[v] Tuchman, Barbara W. The First Salute (New York: Knopf, 1988).

[vi] Clark, William B. et al. eds. Naval Documents of the American Revolution. Washington, DC: Government printing Office, 1964 7:525.

[vii] Ibid., 508.

[viii] Ibid., 508. The British Anglicized the Italian ship's name Andrea to Andrew.

[ix] Clark, Naval Documents, 1018-19.

[x] Norton, Louis Arthur, Joshua Barney: Hero of the Revolution and 1812 (Annapolis, MD: The Naval Institute Press, 2000) 29.

[xi] On his return, de Graaff became somewhat of a hero of the American revolutionaries. Two American privateers were named for him and his wife, and a portrait of him hangs today in the New Hampshire Statehouse in gratitude for the salute he ordered and to honor the Dutch "armed neutrality" that gave one belligerent satisfaction and the other total discontent.

[xii] Rodger, Nicholas A. M., The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005) 349.

[xiii] Ten months later the French, allies of the Dutch in this war conquered the island. The Dutch regained command over the island in 1784.

[xiv] Clowes, William Laird, et al., Royal Navy, A History from the Earliest Times to the Present (London: Chatham Publishing, 1901) 3:480.

[xv] Bienkowski, Lee, Admirals in the Age of Nelson (Annapolis, MD: The Naval Institute Press, 2003) 63-7.

[xvi] Ironically Rodney went on to decimate the French fleet and capture de Grasse at the "Battle of the Saints" in the West Indies on 12 April 1782. This historic British naval victory occurred a little over a years after Rodney's seizure of St. Eustatius and perhaps allayed the British condemnation of Rodney.

[xvii] Records of Debate in the Parliament of Great Britain, 30 November 1781.

[xviii] Letter: Balfour to Rothchild, 2 November 1917. Originally this letter was written on 31 October 1917 and reprinted for publication on 2 November.


from the October 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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