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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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