On the morning of September 25, 1779 from the deck of his new prize, the British frigate Serapis, John Paul Jones watched his former ship, Bonhomme Richard slide beneath the waves off Flamborough Head on Britain’s east coast. It had been a brutal fight before the Americans prevailed over a well-handled, better-armed British vessel and became one of the most famous sea-duels in American history. A floating wreck, Serapis’ condition made it unfit to continue with Jones’ original plan of taking the war to England by cruising for prizes. Moreover, he was due in the Texel, a roadstead near Amsterdam where ships gathered for safer transit over waters regularly patrolled by the British fleet. The French had a convoy gathering there and wanted an armed escort. After spending days repairing Serapis, Jones, his small naval squadron (Alliance, Pallas, Vengeance), and his prizes (Serapis, Countess of Scarborough), reached Dutch shores on October 3.
Trexel wasn’t Jones’ first choice for repairing Serapis. Dunkirk was preferable for refitting a man of war, but the frigate’s condition made that unrealistic and the pending French convoy still needed an escort. Unfortunately, Jones’ extended presence in the area caused a diplomatic crisis between London and Amsterdam.
Britain and the Netherlands spent much of the 17th century fighting until the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which brought William III of Orange and his wife Mary to the English throne. As a Prince of Orange and Stadtholder, William was by the far the most potent political power in the United Provinces. Adding King of England, Scotland, and Ireland to his titles cemented a new British-Dutch Alliance. By 1779, however, the relationship was well on its way to unraveling. Several trends contributed to the breakdown: the pro-British House of Orange lost political sway in the Netherlands. The merchant classes in both states were commercial competitors with concomitant political consequences. Financially exhausted by decades of warfare, Amsterdam had also let its military capabilities decay, meaning it had to less to offer as a military ally. Finally, the War of American Independence exacerbated latent tensions. Dutch smugglers had long helped Americans evade British trade controls, particularly through the Dutch Caribbean colony St. Eustatius. Britain, in an effort to strangle the American economy, routinely stopped neutral ships at sea and seized cargo it believed constituted war materiel. During the war, the list of things Britain considered contraband grew, much to the frustration and anger of the Dutch and other neutral states.
Jones was already a minor celebrity on the world stage for his 1778 raids along the English coast. So, word of his victory over the Serapis spread far and wide and the British caricature of Jones as a pirate intensified. When Jones received a hero’s welcome on the streets of Amsterdam, it only magnified British outrage. He remained in the Netherlands for weeks, soaking in adulations while trying to arrange prisoner exchanges for the Serapis’ captured crew. Children sang songs and one brewer even named a beer after him.
While Jones’ extended presence was a propaganda coup for the Americans, it put the Dutch government in an awkward position. Rather than something that could be done quietly, repairing and revictualing the American ships at Trexel became an exercise in publicly humiliating the British. Britain’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Sir Joseph Yorke, demanded that Dutch authorities arrest Jones as a pirate, release his prisoners, and turn the prizes over to the British government. He was straightforward, wasting no time in writing the States-General on October 9:
High and Mighty Lords
The undersigned ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the King of Great Britain, has the honour to communicate to your high mightinesses that two of his majesty’s ships, the Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough arrived some days ago in the Texel, having been attacked and taken by force by a certain Paul Jones a subject of the King, who according to all treaties and the laws of war can only be considered as a rebel and a pirate. The undersigned is therefore duty bound to recur to your high mightinesses and demand their immediate orders that those ships with their officers and crews may be stopped and especially recommends to your humanity to permit the wounded to be brought on shore that proper attention may be paid to them at the expense of the King his master.
The States-General sought Admiralty advice on the proper response. It replied on October 12 that they could not surrender the British prizes, but encouraged landing the British prisoners to be cared for. That left them as Jones’ responsibility, even ashore. Maintaining a determination to remain neutral, the Dutch opted to resupply Jones from Dutch ships then in the roadstead. On October 21, the Dutch replied to Yorke that they could not legally return the prizes, but would encourage Jones to depart the Trexel quickly. It was a polite brush-off.
Still, as popular as Jones might be with the Dutch public, political leaders still had to wrestle with the substantive dilemma he presented. Despite British interference with their trade, war was good for business and St. Eustatius was a popular smuggling port. Should the British continue escalating their pressure into open hostilities, the Netherlands had much to lose. Yorke obliged with a second missive. He made a legal argument that Jones, as a rebel, was not entitled to the protections of international law. More importantly, he threatened, “The quality of Paul Jones and all circumstances of the affair are too notorious for your high mightinesses to be ignorant of them. The eyes of all Europe are fixed upon your resolution; your high mightinesses know too well the value of good faith not to give an example of it in this essential rencontre. The smallest deviation from so sacred a rule by weakening the principle of neighbors may produce serious results.” Yorke’s threat started to tip the balance of Dutch domestic politics against Jones. The local Dutch captain who had supported Jones on the Trexel was relieved and replaced with Vice Admiral Reynst, who was associated with a pro-British faction.
Things began to come to a head. The French, eager to preserve Dutch neutrality and value as a trans-shipment point for America-bound war goods and unwilling to see Jones’ entire squadron fall victim to a superior British squadron, appropriated the Serapis, Pallas, Vengeance, and Countess of Scarborough, placing them under French flags. Jones was effectively reduced to the American frigate Alliance at the drop of a hat. Meanwhile, the Dutch assembled a squadron under Vice Admiral Reynst to “encourage” Jones to depart the Trexel. By mid-December, they had politely informed him he was no longer welcome in Dutch waters and pressed him harder to leave. Reynst sent Jones an ultimatum of sorts on December 17. Either hoist a French flag, which would solve the legal argument Yorke had made, or depart:
I made a request of you yesterday, that you would take the trouble to come on board my vessel, from which you excused yourself. And again this morning. I also make a request by this present that you will have the goodness to inform me how I ought to consider the Alliance. In the first case I expect you to show me the commission of his majesty and that you will hoist the French flag and pendant, confirming it with a salute from your guns, and in the second case I expect you will not neglect any opportunity to depart according to the orders of their high mightinesses.
Rather than face a British squadron awaiting him just outside the roadstead, Jones replied he would leave when the winds were suitable, even as he assured both the French and the Dutch it was intention to leave at the first opportunity. He absolutely refused to hoist a French flag; Jones fought for the United States until ordered otherwise. Fortunately, a fresh Christmas gale blew a British squadron cruising for Jones off station and he used the occasion to leave the roads and race through the channel, reaching a Spanish port by January 16, 1780. Thus, a random storm spared the Dutch a further escalation in tensions with Great Britain and defused a burgeoning conflict between the United States and the Netherlands.