The First Salute
by Barbara W. Tuchman
Knopf, 347 pp., $22.95
For more than thirty years, Barbara Tuchman has shown just how popular history can be made to be. She chooses interesting subjects, ranging from the follies of the Vietnam War to the plagues of the fourteenth century, and evokes their drama and importance; she is candid about her own prejudices, and she has an exceptional gift for telling a story. In The First Salute Tuchman has brought her special talents to “an unfamiliar field,” the War for American Independence. She has not written another comprehensive history of the war, nor has she analyzed closely any one part of that war. Instead, she presents three loosely connected narratives inspired by an event that took place on the small Dutch West Indian island of St. Eustatius. There, in November 1776, four months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Dutch garrison, on orders from the Governor, fired a salute to mark the arrival of a warship of the United States. This was the first official recognition of the independence of the United States by a foreign nation. It marked the beginning of events that brought the Dutch into the American War, changed the strategy of the British navy, and led at last to the decisive cooperation of French and American forces at Yorktown in 1781.
By ordering that an American ship be officially recognized, Johannes de Graaff, the Dutch governor of St. Eustatius, sought mainly to encourage trade with the United States, to let the merchants under his jurisdiction know that they might sell arms and ammunition to the rebellious colonies. He and some of his countrymen may have been sympathetic with the republican revolution in North America; but their main concern was, and would remain thoughout the war, the success of Dutch commerce. The British protested de Graaff’s action and called upon the Dutch government to help them put down the American rebellion, but they received little satisfaction. The Dutch Estates General sustained their governor, allowing European merchants in St. Eustatius to continue trading arms with the United States.
Similarly, after France entered the war against Britain, the Dutch persisted in shipping naval stores to France, in trading with the United States, and in harboring the American naval hero John Paul Jones. The outraged British sent warships to intercept Dutch merchant vessels carrying contraband through the Channel. The Dutch replied by using convoys and joining Russia, Sweden, and Denmark in a league of armed neutrality. This stubborn pursuit of commerce—the insistence on trading with France and America—finally carried the Dutch into war with Britain. In December 1780 the British government ordered the commander of its fleet in the Leeward Islands to attack St. Eustatius. By then, the enterprising merchants of St. Eustatius had been selling supplies to the American rebels for more than five years.
Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney, commanding in the Leeward Islands, had no trouble capturing St. Eustatius and ending its trade with the United States. But neither Rodney nor the Royal Navy …