Monday, November 24, 2008

Michiel Adriaansz de Ruyter

The final entry in our group writing project, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, is from Wavedancer...

I would really like to have Michiel Adriaenszoon de Ruyter over for dinner. Why him? When I was a kid in the Netherlands, and long long before I knew anything about the sport of sailing, de Ruyter became one of my heroes. No, he never won any Laser races, and didn't go to the Olympics, but he was one smart sailor. Especially with guns on his ship. No 720s or protest committees for him.

So what would we be talking about while having dinner? I would ask him to tell me about the most fun he ever had on the water. Was it chasing the Spaniards, the English or the French? Privateering when he was younger? Or reaching the West Indies after a rough transatlantic crossing?

I imagine dinner time would pass quickly, perhaps energized by a 17th century microbrew. But just in case our conversation would stall, I might ask him to expand on one of his major victories, the Raid on the Medway (1667). Some background for those who aren't Dutch or naval historians. Around the middle of the 17th century, the Dutch had freed themselves from Spanish occupation, and the economy was going strong. Trading was a mainstay, and the Dutch Republic was trying to establish maritime footholds around the world. However, the English aspired to be the dominant power on the seas as well. The two countries are separated by the North Sea and several naval wars resulted.

It was in the second such war that de Ruyter gained his best known victory. He had retired from sailing a few years before, after rising from first mate to commander, but was asked to start a second career as vice-admiral of the Dutch Navy. Early in the summer of 1667, the Dutch obtained intelligence that a significant number of English Navy ships were docked along the River Medway, a tributary of the River Thames. de Ruyter got instructions to cross the North Sea and enter the Thames estuary with the ships under his command. At the last minute the English put a chain across the river, but that proved to be futile. de Ruyter's fire ships destroyed a number of warships at the dockyards and took the flagship Royal Charles in tow as their major bounty. Peace ensued; a feat that my guest was justifiably proud of.

By now dinner is over and it's time to open up that bottle of 300+-year old brandy, and bring out a toast to victory. After emptying our snifters, the vice-admiral reminds me that it has gotten late. Therefore, I will call for his carriage to take him back to his residence.


Tillerman said...

Likely story. When I was a schoolboy in England, all the sea battles in our history books were won by the English. This supposed Dutch raid was never taught in our history lessons, so it can't be true.

Pat said...

Not only did Tromp or de Ruyter never get any respect from the British... of course, there were never fleet-wide mutinies at Spithead and the Nore during the Napoleonic Era; Captain Bligh was a kind leader and sensitive judge of human character; the Japanese didn't sink any ships at Pearl Harbor or off Singapore; the Bataan Death March and the Holocaust were imaginary figments; no one was ever sent to the Gulag in the Stalionist Soviet Union; the Argentinian Exocets didn't hit anything during the Falklands war; nothing exciting ever happened in Tienamen Square; and US troops were universally welcomed with flowers as liberators of Iraq.

Ah, how convenient if we could write our own histories and sweep all the inconvenient bits into the dustbin. Frighteningly, that's what some people do. History, science, and empirical truth are always under attack.

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