Sint Eustatius, known to locals as “Statia”, is a Caribbean island of 8.1 sq. miles in the northern Leeward Islands. Formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, the island lies southeast of the Virgin Islands, immediately to the northwest of Saint Kitts.
The island had close ties with North America throughout the 18th century, becoming wealthy from the trade in a variety of goods. Sugar, molasses, gin, rum and cotton were only a few of the goods shipped from, or through, Sint Eustatius. Colonial ports from Maine to Virginia shipped products to the island in return, including barrel staves, beans, flour, cod, horses, lumber and tobacco.
At its peak, the island was handling over 3,000 ships per year, making St. Eustatius the “Golden Rock” of the Caribbean.
Sint Eustatius was a Dutch Colony, and should have remained neutral during the American Revolution. The government in Holland warned Governor Johannes de Graaff to stay away from the rebels fighting for independence, but the Governor would have none of it. The trade in powder, ammunition and arms continued throughout the revolutionary period, with covert support smuggled from Spain, France and dissident interests in Holland. For a time, Sint Eustatius was the only link between Europe and the fledgling American colonies.
On the 16th of November, 1776, the Brig Andrew Doria sailed into Sint Eustatius’ principle anchorage in Oranje Bay. Flying the Continental Colors of the fledgling United States and commanded by Captain Isaiah Robinson, the Brig was there to obtain munitions and military supplies. Andrew Doria also carried a precious cargo, a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
It was the Americans’ second attempt to send the Declaration to their Dutch associates, the first having been captured on the way to Holland. Seemingly wrapped in papers containing some obscure espionage code, British investigators labored in vain to unlock this strange new cipher. They could have spared themselves the effort: they were personal notes in Yiddish, greetings to some of the Jewish merchants of Holland.
It was traditional in those days, that vessels approaching a foreign harbor would fire a gun salute upon entering. Captain Robinson fired a 13 gun volley on entering the bay, representing the 13 American colonies. The commander at Fort Oranje, overlooking the anchorage, wasn’t sure how to respond.
Tradition dictated the firing of a salute in return, typically two guns fewer than that fired by the incoming vessel. Such an act carried meaning. The firing of a return salute was the overt recognition that a sovereign state had entered the harbor. Such a salute amounted to formal recognition of the independence of the 13 American colonies.
Governor de Graaff ordered an 11-gun return salute fired from the guns of Fort Oranje, making Sint Eustatius the first nation in history to acknowledge the independence of the United States.
Playing the role of the tattle-tale younger sibling, nearby Saint Kitts immediately dispatched a vessel to England to inform the British government of the event. The British were furious, of course. The trade between St. Eustatius and the American Colonies became the principal cause of the fourth Anglo-Dutch war, begun on December 12, 1780.
Admiral George Bridges Rodney forced the surrender of Sint Eustatius in February of the following year, saying that “This rock, of only six miles in length and three in breadth, has done England more harm than all the arms of her most potent enemies, and alone supported the infamous rebellion. When I leave the island of St. Eustatius, it will be as barren a rock as the day it erupted from the sea. Instead of one of the greatest emporiums on earth, it will be a mere desert and known only by report.”
Rodney pretty much had his way. The census of 1790 shows 8,124 on the Dutch island nation. In 1950, the population stood at 790. It would take 150 years from Rodney’s departure, before tourism even began to restore the economic well-being of the tiny island.
Today, Sint Eustatius celebrates the 16th of November as “Statia America Day”, in recognition of that first salute.
An official coat of arms was designed by Walter Hellebrand, and adopted on this day in 2004. On the left is a Golden Rock, in memory of the trade which made the island rich. On the right is Fort Oranje, Sint Eustatius’ most important landmark. The angel fish of St. Eustatius is at the bottom, symbolizing the island’s future. Below that is the Latin motto, “SUPERBA ET CONFIDENS”. Proud and Confident.