previous next

Chapter 12:

The armed neutrality.


The immunity of neutral flags is unknown to bar-
Chap. XII.}
barous powers. The usages of the middle ages condemned as lawful booty the property of an enemy, though under the flag of a friend; but spared the property of a friend, though under the flag of an enemy. Ships, except they belonged to the enemy, were never confiscated. When the Dutch republic took its place among the powers of the earth, crowned with the honors of martyrdom in the fight against superstition, this daughter of the sea, whose carrying trade exceeded that of any other nation, became the champion of the more humane maritime code, which protected the neutral flag everywhere on the great deep. In the year 1646, these principles were embodied in a commercial treaty between the republic and France. When Cromwell was protector, when Milton was Latin secretary, the rights of neutrals found their just place in the treaties of England, in [256] 1654 with Portugal, in 1655 with France, in 1656
Chap. XII.}
with Sweden. After the return of the Stuarts, they were recognised in 1674 in their fullest extent by the commercial convention between England and the Netherlands.

In 1689, after the stadholder of the United Provinces had been elected king of England, his overpowering influence drew the Netherlands into an acquiescence in a declaration that all ships going to or coming from a French port were good prizes; but it was recalled upon the remonstrance of neutral states. The rights of neutral flags were confirmed by France and England in the peace of Utrecht. The benefits of the agreement extended to Denmark, as entitled to all favors granted to other powers. Between 1604 and 1713, the principle had been accepted in nearly twenty treaties. When, in 1745, Prussian ships, laden with wood and corn, were captured on the high seas and condemned in English courts, Frederic, without a navy and even without one deep harbor, without a treaty, resting only on the law of nations, exacted full indemnity from England. The neutral flag found protection in the commercial treaty negotiated in 1766 by the Rockingham ministry with Russia, whose interests as the chief producer of hemp required the strictest definition of contraband. Of thirty-seven European treaties made between 1745 and 1780, but two have been found which contain conditions contravening neutral rights.

In 1778, after France became connected with the United States, England looked to Russia for aid, the United States to the Dutch republic for goodwill. [257] The former, though aware of the disinclination

Chap. XII.} 1778.
of Russia and of Frederic, was so anxious to counterbalance the family compact of the Bourbons,1 that it risked the proposal of an offensive and defensive alliance with them both. Count Panin, the only statesman much listened to by the empress in the discussion of foreign affairs, ‘was beyond the reach of corruption, and in all transactions where he moved alone, acted with integrity and honor.’ To the renewed overture of Harris, he frankly replied that Russia never would stipulate advantages to Great Britain in its contest with its colonies, and ‘never would guarantee its American dominions.’2

After the avowal by France of its treaties with the colonies, the British minister at Petersburg asked an audience of the empress; his request was refused, and all his complaints of the ‘court of Versailles drew from her only civil words and lukewarm expressions of friendship.’ But when in the summer, the ‘General Mifflin,’ an American privateer, hovered off the North Cape, and took seven or more British vessels bound for Archangel, Panin informed Harris ministerially, that although the vessels which were taken were foreign, yet it was the Russian trade which was molested; that so long as the British treated the Americans as rebels, the court of Petersburg would look upon them as a people not yet entitled to recognition. For the next year the empress proposed the equipment of a line of cruisers to ply between Revel and Archangel, for the protection [258] of all ships of foreign nations coming to trade

Chap. XII.} 1778.
in her dominions.

Long years of peace had enriched the Netherlands by prosperous manufactures and commerce, so that they became the bankers of all nations. Their own funds, bearing but two and a half per cent interest, rose from six to ten per cent above par; but of their importance the words of Lord North were: ‘When the Dutch say, “we maritime powers,” it reminds me of the cobbler who lived next door to the Lord Mayor and used to say, “my neighbor and I. ” ’3

In the American war the Dutch republic was the leading neutral power; but the honor of its flag was endangered by the defects in its constitution. Its forms of procedure made legislation dilatory, and tended to anarchy. Each of the seven provinces was represented in the states-general, which had jurisdiction over questions relating to the union; but the limit of their powers was not clearly defined. The provinces voted by states, but before the vote any state might insist on referring the subject of discussion to the several provinces, which again might consult the towns. When these delays were overcome, there still remained a doubt in what cases absolute unanimity of the states was required. The presidency changed every week, passing by turns through the several provinces. The ancient subordination of the stadholder to the king of Spain became in the republic a subordination to the states-general, on whose acts he had a veto. In the council of state, he was the first member with the right of voting, but not the president; his authority was [259] chiefly executive, and was greatest in the army and

Chap. XII.} 1778.

From the vast superiority of Holland in wealth and numbers, the first minister of that province, called the Grand Pensionary, had access to the statesgen-eral, as well as to the states of Holland, and was the first minister of the republic, transacting its affairs with all envoys resident at the Hague. It was very common for him to bring business in the first instance before the states of Holland, by whom it might be recommended to the states-general. To this latter body the Dutch envoys abroad addressed their despatches.

One party in the republic looked upon the states-general as embodying the sovereignty of the United Provinces; others attributed sovereignty to each state, and even to the several cities and communes.

The republic was further distracted by foreign influence. Some of its public men still lingeringly leaned on England; others longed to recover the independence of the nation by friendship with France. It would have been a happiness for the United Provinces if its stadholder had been true to them. But William the Fifth, of the house of Orange, a young, weak, and incompetent prince, without self-reliance and without nobleness of nature, was haunted by the belief that his own position was obtained and could be preserved only by the influence of Great Britain; and from dynastic selfishness he followed the counsels of that power. Nor was his sense of honor so nice as to save him from asking and accepting pecuniary aid to quiet internal discontent. [260]

The chief personal counsellor of the stadholder

Chap. XII.} 1778.
was his former guardian, Prince Louis of Brunswick. No man could be less influenced by motives of morality or fidelity to the land in whose army he served, and he was always at the beck of the British ambassador at the Hague. The secretary Fagel was, like his ancestors, devoted to England. The grand pensionary, van Bleiswijck, had been the selection of Prince Louis. He was a weak politician, and inclined to England, but never meant to betray his country.

Thus all the principal executive officers were attached to Great Britain; Prince Louis and the secretary Fagel as obsequious vassals.

France had a controlling influence in no one of the provinces; but in the city of Amsterdam, van Berckel, its pensionary, was her ‘friend.’ In January, 1778,

before her rupture with England, the French ambassador at the Hague was instructed to suggest a convention between the states-general, France, and Spain, for liberty of navigation. As the proposal was put aside by the grand pensionary, Vergennes asked no more than that the Netherlands in the coming contest would announce to the court of London their neutrality, and support it without concessions. The treaties of alliance with England promised it no support in an aggressive war, and no guarantee of its colonies in America. Besides, ‘the Dutch,’ as Vergennes observed, ‘will find in their own history an apology for the French treaty with America.’ The interior condition of the Netherlands, their excessive taxes, their weakness on sea and land, the decay of their military spirit, the precarious condition of their possessions in the two [261] Indies, imposed upon them the most perfect neu-
Chap. XII.} 1778.
trality. But neutrality to be respected needs to be strong. As England did not disguise her aggressive intentions, the city of Amsterdam and van Berckel sought to strengthen the Dutch navy, but were thwarted by Prince Louis, Fagel, and the stadholder. The English party favored an increase of the army; and, to the great discontent of the stadholder, they were defeated by the deputies of Amsterdam, Haarlem, Dort, and Delft. The Dutch were still brave, provident, and capable of acts of magnanimity; but they were betrayed by their selfish executive and the consequent want of unity of action.

In April, 1778, the American commissioners at

April 28
Paris,—Franklin, Arthur Lee, and John Adams,—in a letter to the grand pensionary, van Bleiswijck, proposed a good understanding and commerce between the two nations, and promised to communicate to the states-general their commercial treaty with France. The Dutch government through all its organs met this only overture of the Americans by silence and total neglect. It was neither put in deliberation nor answered. The British secretary of state could find no ground for complaint whatever.4

Still the merchants of Amsterdam saw in the independence of the United States a virtual repeal of the British navigation acts; and the most pleasing historical recollections of the Dutch people were revived by the rise of the new republic.

In July, the king of France published a declaration protecting neutral ships, though bound to or from hostile ports, and though carrying contraband goods, [262] unless the contraband exceeded in value three-

Chap. XII.} 1778.
fourths of the cargo. But the right was reserved to Revoke these orders, if Great Britain should not within six months grant reciprocity.

The commercial treaty between France and the United States was, about the same time, delivered to the grand pensionary and to the pensionary of Amsterdam. The former took no notice of it whatever. Van Berckel, in the name of the regency of Amsterdam, wrote to an American correspondent at the Hague: ‘With the new republic, clearly raised up by the help of Providence, we desire leagues of amity and commerce, which shall last to the end of time.’ Yet he acknowledged that these wishes were the wishes of a single city which could not bind even the province to which it belonged. Not one province, nor one city; not Holland, nor Amsterdam; no, not even one single man, whether in authority or in humble life,—appears to have expected, planned, or wished a breach with England; and they always to the last rejected the idea of a war with that power as an impossibility. The American commissioners at Paris, being indirectly invited by van Berckel to renew the offer of a treaty of commerce between the two republics, declined to do so; for, as the grand pensionary had not replied to their letter written some months before, ‘they apprehended that any further motion of that kind on their part would not at present be agreeable.’

Meantime, one Jan de Neufville, an Amsterdam merchant, who wished his house recommended to good American merchants, and who had promised more about an American loan than he could make [263] good, had come in some way to know William Lee,

Chap. XII.} 1778.
an alderman of London as well as an American commissioner to Vienna and Berlin, and with the leave of the burgomasters of Amsterdam met him at Aixla-Chapelle, and concerted terms for a commercial convention, proper in due time to be entered into between the two republics. When Lee communicated to the commissioners at Paris this project of a convention, they reminded him that the authority for treating with their High Mightinesses belonged exclusively to themselves, and they looked upon his act as a nullity. The American congress likewise took no notice of his intermeddling, and in the following June dismissed him from its service. Amsterdam disclaimed ‘the absurd design of concluding a convention independent of their High Mightinesses.’ ‘The burgomasters only promised their influence in favor of a treaty of amity between the two powers, when the independence of the United States of America should be recognised by the English.’5

To get rid of everything of which England could

complain, the offer made in April by Franklin, Arthur Lee, and John Adams, to negotiate a treaty of commerce between America and the Netherlands, together with a copy of the commercial treaty between the United States and France, was, near the end of October, communicated to the states-general. They
promptly consigned the whole matter to rest in the manner which the stadholder had concerted, and which met exactly the ‘hope’ of the British secretary of state.6 [264]

During the summer of 1778, British cruisers and

Chap. XII.} 1778.
privateers, swept on by the greed which masters the mind of those whose only object is spoil, scoured the seas in quest of booty. Other nations suffered, but none like the Netherlands. To the complaints of the Dutch that the clearest language of treaties was disregarded, the Earl of Suffolk answered that the British ambassador at the Hague should have instructions to negotiate with the republic new stipulations for the future;7 but for the present, treaty or no treaty, England would not suffer materials for ship-building to be taken by the Dutch to any French port; and its cruisers and its admiralty were instructed accordingly. Had the stadholder been of an heroic nature, the nation might have shown once more their greatness of soul as of old; but, to complete the tribulations of the Dutch, he brought all his
Dec. 30.
influence to the side of England. On the thirtieth of December, 1778, the states-general asserted their right to the commercial freedom guaranteed by the law of nations and by treaties; and yet of their own choice voted to withhold convoys where the use of them would involve a conflict with Great Britain.

During the summer the flag of Denmark, of Sweden, of Prussia, had been disregarded by British privateers, and they severally demanded of England explanations. Vergennes seized the opportunity to fix the attention of Count Panin.8 ‘The empress,’ so he wrote towards the end of the year to the French minister in Russia, ‘will give a great proof [265] of her dignity and equity, if she will make common

Chap. XII.} 1778.
cause with Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and the king of Prussia.’ ‘She would render to Europe a great service if she would bring the king of England to juster principles on the freedom of navigation of neutral ships. Holland arms its vessels to convoy its merchant fleet; Denmark announces that in the spring it will send out a squadron for the same object; Sweden will be obliged to take the like resolution. So many arrangements can easily give rise to troublesome incidents, and kindle a general maritime war. It would be easy for the empress to secure the prosperity of the commerce of Russia by supporting with energetic representations those of other neutral nations.’

In an interview with Panin, the Swedish envoy invited the Russian court to join that of Stockholm in forming a combined fleet to protect the trade of the north. Denmark, he said, would no doubt subscribe to the plan, and the commerce of the three countries, now so interrupted, would no longer be molested. The summons was heard willingly by Panin, who, on one of the last days of December, spoke to the British minister very plainly: ‘Denmark, Sweden, and Holland have respectively solicited the empress to join with them in a representation to you on this subject; and she cannot see with indifference the commerce of the north so much molested by your privateers. The vague and uncertain definition given by you to naval and warlike stores exposes almost all the productions of these parts to be sequestered. It becomes the empress as a leading power on this side Europe to expostulate with you, [266] and express her desire of some alteration in your

Chap. XII.} 1778.
regulations, and that you would put more circumspection in your mode of proceeding against the ships of neutral states.’ The British minister defended the British definition of ‘naval stores.’ Count Panin answered with a smile: ‘Accustomed to command at sea, your language on maritime subjects is always too positive.’ Harris deprecated any formal remonstrance against the British treatment of neutral powers as an appearance of disunion between the two courts. Panin replied: ‘I am sorry to hear you say what you do, as I have the orders of the empress to prepare a representation.’

Thus far had Russia moved for the protection of neutral commerce before the end of 1778. But her plan for 1779 did not equal the grandeur of her con-

ceptions; for it aimed at no more than an agreement with Denmark and Sweden to exclude privateers from the North Sea near their coasts and from the Baltic, and jointly to keep up a chain of cruisers for the safety of ships bound to their ports. As the Russian trade was for the most part in the hands of the English, this action of Catharine would in practice be little more than a safeguard of English commerce. The cabinet of France was dissatisfied, and feared that the consolidated group of northern states might be drawn into connection with England. At this stage Frederic, who, through the mediation of Russia and France, was just emerging from his Austrian war, intervened. Russia had acted precipitately without intending to offend France and without proper concert with the courts of Stockholm [267] and Copenhagen.9 Through the explanations of the
Chap. XII.} 1779
king of Prussia, every displeasure was removed from the mind of Vergennes, and his answer to the Russian note drew from Count Panin the remark to the French minister at Petersburg: ‘Once more I give you my word that we have no engagement with England whatever.’10

The oppressed maritime powers continued to lay their complaints before the empress of Russia; so that the study of neutral rights occupied her mind till she came to consider herself singled out to take the lead in their defence, and could with difficulty be withheld from sending to England very disagreeable remonstrances on the subject. The extraordinary prosperity of the Russians confirmed them in their notions of their own greatness and power.

When, in the middle of July, Harris presented the Spanish declaration of war against England to Count Panin, he replied ministerially: ‘Great Britain has by its own haughty conduct brought down all its misfortunes on itself; they are now at their height; you must consent to any concessions to obtain peace; and you can expect neither assistance from your friends nor forbearance from your enemies.’ In subsequent conversations Panin ever held the same language and advanced the same opinions.

Count Panin,’ wrote Harris, ‘receives every idea from his Prussian Majesty and adopts it without reflection;’ and the indefatigable envoy, giving up all hope of reclaiming him, undertook to circumvent him through the influence of Prince Potemkin, [268] who had passed through the love of the empress

Chap. XII.} 1779.
to a position of undefined and almost unlimited influence with the army, the Greek church, and the nobility. Possessing uncommon talents and address, he would, with a better education, have held a high position in any country. By descent and character, he was the truest representative of Russian nationality. Leaving the two chief maritime powers of western Europe, both of whom wished to preserve the Ottoman empire in its integrity, to wear out each other, Potemkin, who was no dreamer, used the moment of the American war to annex the Crimea.

Harris professed to believe that for eighty thousand pounds he could purchase the influence of this extraordinary man. But Potemkin could not be reached. He almost never appeared at court or in company. It was his habit to lie in bed till near noon, and on his rising his anterooms were thronged with clients of all sorts. No foreign minister could see him except by asking specially for an interview; no one of them was ever admitted to his domestic society or his confidence. Those who knew him best agree that he was too proud to take money from a foreign power, and he never deviated from his Russian policy; so that the enormous bribes which were designed to gain him were squandered on his chief mistress and his intimates. At the same time he was aware how much he would gain by lulling the British government into acquiescence in his oriental schemes of aggrandizement.

Without loss of time Harris proposed to Potemkin that the empress should make a strong declaration at Versailles and Madrid, and second it by arming all [269] her naval force. To this Potemkin objected that

Chap. XII.} 1779.
both the Russian ministers who would be concerned in executing the project would oppose it. Harris next gained leave to plead his cause in person before Catharine herself. On Monday, the second of August, the favorite of the time conducted him by a back way into her private dressing-room and immediately retired. The empress discomposed him by asking if he was acting under instructions. He had none; and yet he renewed his request for her armed mediation. She excused herself from plunging her empire into fresh troubles; then discoursed on the American war, and hinted that England could in a moment restore peace by renouncing its colonies.

The question was referred to the council of state; and that body, after deliberation, unanimously refused to change its foreign policy. To the Count of Goertz, the new and very able envoy of Frederic at Petersburg, Panin unfolded his innermost thoughts. ‘The British minister,’ said he, ‘as he makes no impression on me by sounding the tocsin, applies to others less well informed; but be not disquieted; in spite of the brilliant appearances of others, I answer for my ability to sustain my system. The powers ought not to suffer England to be crushed; but she is very far from that; and there would be no harm in her meeting with some loss.’11 Such was the opinion of Frederic, who had just written: ‘The balance of power in Europe will not be disturbed by England's losing possessions here and there in other parts of the world.’12 [270]

During the whole of the year 1779, the Nether-

Chap. XII.} 1779.
lands continued to suffer from the conflicting aggressions of France and Great Britain. The former sought to influence the states-general by confining its concession of commercial advantages in French ports to the towns which voted for unlimited convoy. In the states of Holland it was carried for all merchant vessels destined to the ports of France by a great majority, Rotterdam and the other chief cities joining Amsterdam, and the nobles being equally divided; but the states-general, in which Zeeland took the lead, and was followed by Gelderland, Groningen, and Overyssel, from motives of prudence rejected the resolution. Notwithstanding this moderation, a memorial from the British ambassador announced that Dutch vessels, carrying timber to ports of France, as by treaty with England they had the right to do, would be seized even though escorted by ships of war. Indignation within the provinces at the want of patriotism in the prince of Orange menaced the prerogatives of the stadholder and even the union itself. On one occasion five towns went so far as to vote in the states of Holland for withholding the quota of their province.13

Great Britain next adopted another measure for which she had some better support. In July she demanded of the states-general the succor stipulated in the treaties of 1678 and the separate article of 1716, and argued that ‘the stipulations of a treaty founded on the interests of trade only must give way to those founded on the dearest interests of the two nations, on liberty and religion.’ But the [271] Dutch would not concede that the case provided for

Chap. XII.} 1779.
by treaty had arisen, and denied the right of England to disregard one treaty at will and then claim the benefit of others.

While the British were complaining that nine or ten American merchant vessels had entered the port of Amsterdam, a new cause of irritation arose. Near the end of July, Paul Jones, a Scot by birth in the service of the United States, sailed from l'orient as commander of a squadron consisting of the ‘Poor Richard’ of forty guns (many of them unserviceable), the ‘Alliance’ of thirty-six guns, both American ships of war; the ‘Pallas,’ a French frigate of thirty-two; and the ‘Vengeance,’ a French brig of twelve guns. They ranged the western coast of Ireland, turned Scotland, and, cruising off Flamborough Head, descried the British merchant fleet from the Baltic under the convoy of the ‘Serapis’ of forty-four guns, and the ‘Countess of Scarborough’ of twenty guns.

An hour after sunset, on the twenty-third of September, the ‘Serapis,’ having a vast superiority in

Sept. 23.
strength, engaged the ‘Poor Richard.’ With marvellous hardihood Paul Jones, after suffering exceedingly in a contest of an hour and a half within musket shot, bore down upon his adversary, whose anchor he hooked to his own quarter. The muzzles of their guns touched each other's sides. Jones could use only three nine-pounders and muskets from the round-tops, but combustible matters were thrown into every part of the ‘Serapis,’ which was on fire no less than ten or twelve times. There were moments when both ships were on fire together. After [272] a two hours conflict in the first watch of the night,
Chap. XII.} 1779.
the ‘Serapis’ struck its flag. Jones raised his pendant on the captured frigate, and the next day had but time to transfer to it his wounded men and his crew before the ‘Poor Richard’ went down. The French frigate engaged and captured the ‘Countess of Scarborough.’ The ‘Alliance,’ which from a distance had raked the ‘Serapis’ during the action, not without injuring the ‘Poor Richard’ as well, had not a man injured. On the fourth of October, the squadron entered the Texel with its
Oct. 4.

On hearing of their arrival, the British ambassador, of himself and again under instructions, reclaimed the captured British ships and their crews, ‘who had been taken by the pirate, Paul Jones, of Scotland, a rebel and a traitor.’ ‘They,’ he insisted, ‘are to be treated as pirates whose letters of marque have

not emanated from a sovereign power.’ The grand pensionary would not have the name of pirate applied to officers bearing the commissions of congress. In spite of the stadholder, the squadron enjoyed the protection of a neutral port. Under an antedated commission from the French king, the flag of France was raised over the two prizes and every ship but the ‘Alliance;’ and four days before the end of the year Paul Jones, with his Eng-
Dec. 27.
lish captures, left the Texel.

An American frigate, near the end of September, had entered the port of Bergen with two rich prizes.

Yielding to the British envoy at Copenhagen, Bernstorff, the Danish minister, seized the occasion to publish an ordinance forbidding the sale of prizes, [273] until they should have been condemned in a court
Chap. XII.} 1779.
of admiralty of the nation of the privateer; and he slipped into the ordinance the declaration, that, as the king of Denmark had recognised neither the independence nor the flag of America, its vessels could not be suffered to bring their prizes into Danish harbors. The two which had been brought into Bergen were set free; but, to avoid continual reclamations, two others, which in December were taken to Christiansand, were only forced to leave the harbor.14

Wrapt up in the belief that he had ‘brought the empress to the verge of standing forth as the professed friend of Great Britain,’ Harris thought he had only to meet her objection of his having acted without instructions; and, at his instance, George the Third, in November, by an autograph letter, entreated her armed mediation against the house of

Bourbon. ‘I admire,’ so he addressed her, ‘the grandeur of your talents, the nobleness of your sentiments, and the extent of your intelligence.’ ‘The employ, the mere show of naval force could break up the league formed against me, and maintain the balance of power which this league seeks to destroy.’15 The letter was accompanied by a writing from Harris, in which he was lavish of flattery; and he offered, unconditionally, an alliance with Great Britain, including even a guarantee against the Ottoman Porte.16

The answer was prepared by Panin without delay. [274] The empress loves peace, and therefore refuses an

Chap. XII.} 1779.
armed intervention, which could only prolong the war. She holds the time ill chosen for a defensive alliance, since England is engaged in a war not appertaining to possessions in Europe; but if the court of London will offer terms which can serve as a basis of reconciliation between the belligerent powers, she will eagerly employ her mediation.

In very bad humor, Harris rushed to Potemkin for consolation. ‘What can have operated so singular

a revolution?’ demanded he, with eagerness and anxiety. Potemkin replied: ‘You have chosen an unlucky moment. The new favorite lies dangerously sick. The empress is absorbed in this one passion. She repugns every exertion. Count Panin times his counsels with address; my influence is at an end.’ Harris fell ill. Everybody knew that Panin and Osterman of the foreign office, and the grand duke, afterwards Paul the Third, were discontented with his intrigues; and Catharine herself, meeting Goertz, asked playfully: ‘What can have given Sir James Harris the jaundice? Has anything happened to vex him? And is he so choleric?’17

Unremitted attention was all the while given to the defence of neutral rights; and the Russian

envoy at London, no less than the envoys of Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Prussia, delivered a memorial to the British government. To detach Russia from the number of the complainants, Harris, in January, 1780, gave a written
promise, ‘that the navigation of the subjects of the [275] empress should never be interrupted by vessels of
Chap. XII.} 1779.
Great Britain.’18

To the end of 1779 the spirit of moderation prevailed in the councils of the Netherlands. Even the province of Holland had unreservedly withdrawn its obnoxious demands. On the evening before the twenty-seventh of December, seventeen Dutch mer-

Dec. 27.
chant vessels, laden with hemp, iron, pitch, and tar, left the Texel under the escort of five ships of war commanded by the Count de Bylandt. In the English Channel, on the morning of the thirtieth, they
descried a British fleet, by which they were surrounded just before sunset. The Dutch admiral, refusing to permit his convoy to be visited, Fielding, the British commander, replied that it would then be done by force. During the parley night came on; and twelve of the seventeen ships, taking advantage of the darkness and a fair wind, escaped through the British lines to French ports. The English shallop which the next morning at nine would have visited the remaining five ships was fired upon. At this the
British flagship and two others fired on the Dutch flagship. The ship was hit, but no one was killed or wounded. ‘Let us go down,’ said the Dutch crews to one another, ‘rather than fall into a shameful captivity.’ But their admiral, considering that the British force was more than three times greater than his own, after returning the broadside, struck his flag.19 Fielding carried the five merchant ships as prizes into Portsmouth. [276]

This outrage on the Netherlands tended to rouse

Chap. XII.} 1779.
and unite all parties and all provinces. Everywhere in Europe, and especially in Petersburg, it was the subject of conversation; and the conduct of the Dutch was watched with the intensest curiosity.20 But another power beside England had disturbed neutral rights. Fearing that supplies might be carried to Gibraltar, Spain had given an order to bring into Cadiz all neutral ships bound with provisions for the Mediterranean, and to sell their cargoes to the highest bidder. In the last part of the year 1779, the order was applied to the ‘Concordia,’ a Russian vessel carrying wheat to Barcelona. Harris, who received the news in advance, hurried to Potemkin with a paper in which he proved from this example what terrible things might be expected from the house of Bourbon if they should acquire maritime superiority. On reading this paragraph, Potemkin
cried out with an oath: ‘You have got her now. The empress abhors the inquisition, and will never suffer its precepts to be exercised on the high seas.’ On the confirmation of the report, a strong memorial was drawn up under the inspection of the empress herself, and a reference to the just reproaches of the courts of Madrid and Versailles against Great Britain for troubling the liberty of commerce was added by her own express order.

Hardly had the Spanish representative at Petersburg forwarded the memorial by a courier to his government, when letters from the Russian consul at Cadiz announced that the ‘St. Nicholas,’ bearing the [277] Russian flag and bound with corn to Malaga, had

Chap. XII.} 1780.
been brought into Cadiz, its cargo disposed of to the best bidder, and its crew treated with inhumanity. The empress felt this second aggression as a deliberate outrage on her flag, and following the impulses of her own mind she seized the opportunity to adopt, seemingly on the urgency of Great Britain, a general measure for the protection of the commerce of Russia as a neutral power against all the belligerents and on every sea. She preceded the measure by signing an order for arming fifteen ships of the line and five frigates for service early in the spring.

Loving always to be seen leading in great and bold undertakings, she further signed letters prepared by her private secretary to her envoys in Sweden, Denmark, and the Hague, before she informed her minister for foreign affairs of what had been done. A Russian courier was expedited to Stockholm, and thence to Copenhagen, the Hague, Paris, and Madrid.21 On the twenty-second of February, Potemkin announced the measure to his protege, Harris, by the special command of the empress. ‘The ships,’ said the prince, ‘will be supposed to protect the Russian trade against every power, but they are meant to chastise the Spaniards, whose insolence the empress cannot brook.’ Harris ‘told him he was not so sanguine. In short, that it was no more than the system of giving protection to trade suggested last year by the three northern courts, now carried into execution.’22 Potemkin, professing to be ‘almost out of humor with his objections and with his backwardness [278] to admit the great advantage England would derive

Chap. XII.} 1780.
from the step,’ rejoined: ‘I am just come from the empress; it is her particular order that I tell it to you. She commanded me to lose no time in finding you out. She said she knew it would give you pleasure; and, besides myself, you are at this moment the only person acquainted with her design.’ He ended by expressing his impatience that the event should be known, and urging Harris to despatch his messenger immediately with the news. So Harris was made the instrument of communicating to his own government what the other powers received directly from Russia; and the measure, so opposite to the policy of England, was reported to that power by its own envoy as a friendly act performed at its own request.

But before the despatches of Harris were on the road, the conduct of the affair was intrusted to Panin, who, although suffering from the physical and moral depression consequent on the disease which was slowly but surely bringing him to the grave,23 took the subject in hand. The last deed of the dying statesman was his best. Cast down as he was by illness, before the end of February he thus unbosomed himself to the Prussian minister: ‘In truth the envoy of England has found means for a

miserable trifle to excite my sovereign to a step of éclat, yet always combined with the principle of neutrality. The court of Spain will probably yield to just representations; the measure which he has occasioned will turn against himself, and he will have himself to reproach for everything that he shall have [279] brought upon his court. I had thought Sir James
Chap. XII.} 1780.
Harris understood his business; but he acts like a boy.’

To Frederic, Goertz made his reports: ‘Everything will now depend on the reply of the court of Spain. At so important a moment your Majesty has the right to speak to it with frankness.’24 ‘There

will result from the intrigue a matter, the execution of which no power has thus far been able to permit itself to think of. All have believed it necessary to establish and to fix a public law for neutral powers in a maritime war; the moment has come for attaining that end.’25

These letters reached Frederic by express; and on the fourteenth of March, by the swiftest messenger, he instructed his minister at Paris as follows: ‘Immediately on receiving the present order, you will demand a particular audience of the ministry at Versailles, and you will say that in my opinion everything depends on procuring for Russia without the least loss of time the satisfaction she exacts, and which Spain can the less refuse, because it has plainly acted with too much precipitation. Make the ministry feel all the importance of this warning, and the absolute necessity of satisfying Russia without the slightest delay on an article where the honor of her flag is so greatly interested. In truth, it is necessary not to palter in a moment so pressing.’26

Vergennes read the letter of Frederic, and by a courier despatched a copy of it to the French ambassador [280] at Madrid, with the instruction: ‘I should

Chap. XII.} 1780. March.
wrong your penetration and the sagacity of the cabinet of Madrid, if I were to take pains to demonstrate the importance for the two crowns to spare nothing in order that the empress of Russia may not depart from the system of neutrality which she has embraced.’27 The letter of Frederic was communicated to Florida Blanca, and it was impossible to resist its advice.

The distance between Madrid and Petersburg prolonged the violent crisis; but before a letter could have reached even the nearest power, Count Panin, manifesting always perfect confidence in the minister of Frederic, presented to the empress his plan for deducing out of the passing negotiation a system of permanent protection to neutral flags in a maritime war. ‘Your Majesty,’ so he addressed her, ‘should present yourself to Europe in an impartial attitude as the defender of the rights of neutrals before all the world. You will thus gain a glorious name, as the lawgiver of the seas, imparting to commerce in time of war a security such as it has never yet enjoyed. Thus you will gather around you all civilized states, and be honored through coming centuries as the benefactress of the human race, entitled to the veneration of the nations and of coming ages.’28

The opinions of her minister coinciding exactly with her own, on the twenty-sixth of February, 1780, that is on the eighth of March, new style, Catharine and Panin set their names to the declaration [281] of which the fixed principles are: Neutral ships

Chap. XII.} 1780.
shall enjoy a free navigation even from port to port, and on the coasts of the belligerent powers:—Free ships free all goods except contraband:—Contraband are arms and ammunitions of war, and nothing else: —No port is blockaded, unless the enemy's ships, in adequate number, are near enough to make the entry dangerous:—These principles shall rule decisions on the legality of prizes. ‘Her Imperial Majesty,’ so ran the state paper, ‘in manifesting these principles before all Europe, is firmly resolved to maintain them. She has therefore given an order to fit out a considerable portion of her naval forces, to act as her honor, her interest, and necessity may require.’

Frederic received the news of the declaration in advance of others, and with all speed used his influence in its behalf at Versailles;29 so that, for the maritime code, which came upon Great Britain as a surprise, a welcome was prepared in France and Madrid.

The empress made haste to invite Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, and the Netherlands to unite with her in supporting the rules which she had proclaimed. The voice of the United States on the subject was uttered immediately by John Adams. He applauded the justice, the wisdom, and the humanity of an association of maritime powers against violences at sea, and added as his advice to Congress: ‘The abolition of the whole doctrine of contraband would be for the peace and happiness of mankind; and I doubt not, as human reason advances, and men come to be more sensible of the benefits of peace and less enthusiastic [282] for the savage glories of war, all neutral nations will

Chap. XII.} 1780.
be allowed, by universal consent, to carry what goods they please in their own ships, provided they are not bound to places actually invested by an enemy.’30

For the moment the attention of Europe was riveted on the Netherlands; but before we can follow further their connections with the war, we must relate its events in the south and in the north of the United States.

1 Suffolk to Harris, 9 Jan., 1778. This part of the despatch is not printed in the Malmesbury Papers.

2 Harris to Suffolk, 13 Feb., 1778. Not printed in Malmes bury Papers.

3 Garier to Vergennes, 26 July, 1776.

4 Suffolk to Yorke, 17 July, 1778.

5 Declaration of van Berckel, 23 Sept., 1778, in Dip. Cor., i. 457.

6 Private letter of the Prince of Orange to Yorke, 27 Oct., 1778; Secrete Resolutie van de Staten Generaal der Vereenigde Neder landen, 28 Oct., 1778; Yorke to Suffolk, 30 Oct., 1778.

7 Suffolk to Welderen, 19 Oct., 1778.

8 Vergennes to Corberon, 22 Nov., 1778, and 6 Dec., 1778.

9 Frederic to Goltz, 17 and 24 April, 1779.

10 Corberon to Vergennes, 28 May, 1779.

11 Goertz to Frederic, 24 Sept., 1779.

12 Frederic to Solms, 14 Aug., 1779.

13 Thulemeier to Frederic, 10 Aug., 1779.

14 Bismarck to Frederic, 6 and 23 Oct., 6 Nov., and 8 Dec., 1779.

15 Malmesbury, i. 228.

16 Goertz to Frederic, 14 Dec., 1779.

17 Goertz to Frederic, 7 Jan., 1780.

18 Malmesbury, i. 233.

19 Account of the Rencontre, le Sieur de Schonberg, lieutenant of marines on board the flagship by of Count de Bylandt.

20 Swart, minister at Petersburg, to the states-general, 1 and 4 Feb., 1780.

21 Goertz to Frederic, 7 March, 1780.

22 Malmesbury, i. 241.

23 Goertz to Frederic, 29 Feb., 1780.

24 Goertz to Frederic, 29 Feb., 1780.

25 Goertz to Frederic, 3 March, 1780.

26 Frederic to Goltz, 14 March, 1780.

27 Vergennes to Montmorin, 27 March, 1780.

28 Goertz to Frederic, 7 March, 1780.

29 Frederic to Goltz, 23 March, 1780.

30 Dip. Cor., IV. 497.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
James Harris (23)
Panin (18)
Vergennes (9)
Serapis (5)
Paul Jones (5)
Berckel (5)
I. Yorke (3)
Russian (3)
Malmesbury (3)
Goltz (3)
Fagel (3)
John Adams (3)
Scarborough (2)
William Lee (2)
Arthur Lee (2)
Fielding (2)
Bleiswijck (2)
Resolutie De Staten (1)
Paul (1)
Pallas (1)
Orange (1)
Jan Neufville (1)
Montmorin (1)
Milton (1)
Mifflin (1)
Madrid (1)
Indies (1)
Holland (1)
William Franklin (1)
England (1)
England Dutch (1)
Cromwell (1)
Concordia (1)
Chapelle (1)
Bylandt (1)
Bourbon (1)
Bismarck (1)
Bernstorff (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: