Diario Judío México - St Eustatius [In Dutch: Sint Eustatius, and now named simply Statia] is one of the Netherlands Antilles islands, along with St Maarten, Saba, Curaçao, and Bonaire.
The island earned a unique place in the annals of the history of the United States and in the hearts of Americans. The first shots in recognition of the United States as a sovereign power were fired in a congratulatory exchange between the island’s Fort Orange and the American Brigantine Andria Doria.
“White puffs of gun smoke over a turquoise sea followed by the boom of cannon rose from the unassuming port on the diminutive Dutch island of St. Eustatius in the West Indies on November 16th 1776. The guns of Fort Orange on St. Eustatius were returning the ritual salute on entering a foreign port of an American vessel, the Andrea Doria, as she came up the roadstead, flying at her mast the red-and-white-striped flag of the Continental Congress. In its responding salute, the small voice of St. Eustatius was the first to officially greet the largest event of the century – the entry into the society of nations of a new Atlantic state destined to change the direction of history.”
“Captain Isaiah Robinson fired a salute of 13 guns… A few minutes later the salute was returned by 9 (or 11) guns by order of the Dutch governor of the island. At the time, a 13 gun salute would have represented the 13 newly-formed United States; the customary salute rendered to a republic at that time was 9 guns. This has been called the “first salute” to the American flag.”
In 1939 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented a plaque to St. Eustatius. Mounted on the ruins of Fort Orange, it reads, “In commemoration of the salute of the flag of the United States fired in this fort November 16, 1776 by order of Johannes de Graff, Governor of St. Eustatius in reply to a national gun salute fired by the U.S. Brig-of-war Andria Doria.. Here the sovereignty of the United States was first formally acknowledged… to a national vessel by a foreign official.”
Acknowledgment of United States sovereignty was significant, but it was the smallest part of the service the island’s inhabitants rendered the United States. One of only four vessels in the Revolutionary navy, the small but swift brigantine Andrea Doria was dispatched on October 23rd, 1776 on a diplomatic mission to deliver a copy of the Declaration of Independence to the governor of St.
Eustatius and to return with a cargo of armaments. The ship proceeded to load munitions for delivery to the American rebels. “The Andrea Doria, loaded with armaments, successfully ran the British blockade and docked in her home port of Gloucester City, New Jersey, across the river from Philadelphia.” That shipment and the hundreds of shipments that followed it from St. Eustatius were major factors in the outcome of the American Revolution. The salutary exchange between the vessel and the port authorities was apt, for “during the American War of Independence, St. Eustatius served as a major arsenal for the revolution.”
In 1757 St Eustatius became the first of a series of free ports set up by the Dutch in the Caribbean. The island is placed strategically at the confluence of the Caribbean and the Atlantic. The island measured only four by eight kilometers (less than eight square miles), but during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this speck in the sea became famous in every European and American household for the goods that were exported to and imported from the 200 warehouses clustered on the shore of Oranjestad [Port Orange], its main city. Its “Long Beach” become so crowded that its bulging buildings had been built with Netherlands expertise on dyke-like jetties out into its Bay.
A Scottish traveler, Janet Schaw, arrived in St. Eustatius just before the outbreak of the revolution. She went on a shopping spree, noting with delight that she could obtain French gloves and English “thread-stockings” more cheaply in the island than she could at home. Rich embroideries, painted silks, flowered muslims, and a vast assortment of clothes and goods, “for in every store you can find every thing.”
St Eustatius, it seems, was the high seas precursor of the modern shopping mall! It was the eighteenth century equivalent of Hong Kong.
Until the American Revolution, merchants from the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Britain, Spain, the American colonies and the other Americas could all be found trading in that international free-trade emporium. The volume of international trade that funneled through that port can be judged by the fact that in 1779 well over 3000 ships from Europe, Africa and the Americas weighed anchor in Oranjestad’s bay to load and unload merchandise. As many as twenty ships might arrive on a single day and two hundred ships might be in port at any one time! In that year, for example, sugar production on the island totaled 500,000 pounds, but official port records show that shipments of sugar from the island totaled 25,000,000 pounds!
Among those vessels were those of Aaron Lopez, of Newport, Rhode Island. Lopez maintained Samson Mears as an agent on St Eustatius. As the British occupied Newport, Lopez fled the city and continued his commercial activities from Leicester, Connecticut. Lopez’ Sephardic fellow-countrymen on St Eustatius proved invaluable for obtaining war materials for the American rebels from Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, and even from England!
So lucrative was the commerce that the island was nick-named “The Golden Rock.” Every European power lusted for possession of the bustling trading post. It changed hands no less than 22 times over two centuries as the French, British, and Dutch wrested possession of the tiny island from each other. In 1816 the “Emporium of the Western World” became permanently Dutch
The island’s name has since been shortened to Statia. Despite its rich and meaningful history, Statia is today the least known of the Windward islets. It has one of the most distinctive profiles of the Caribbean islands. The hilly north end rises to almost a thousand feet from the central plain, and drops precipitously down to the sea. The southern area is dominated by a massive silhouette of the Quill, the crater of an extinct volcano. The lush green rain forest vegetation within the crater contrasts with the gray ancient lava flow on its exterior, wending its way down to a golden-sanded beach. The westward, Caribbean side is now thick with tall palms, breadfruit trees and banana groves. The arid southern side hosts a variety of xerophytic plants (plants needing little water). The rest of the island is covered with tough and thorny bushes and trees.
The Caribs called the island Alo, which means “cashew tree.” Christopher Columbus sighted the island in 1493, and named it after St. Anastasia.
The French and English both claimed sovereignty over the island in 1625, and the Dutch staked a claim in 1632. The island remained basically unsettled until the mid-seventeenth century, when the Dutch, based on Curaçao, consolidated their Caribbean empire by establish-ing a viable presence on it. Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese Jews were among the first settlers of St. Eustatius. Many of the Jewish settlers came in 1655, and physical evidence of their arrival can still be found in the sands of its beaches. In the seventeenth century Jewish glassmakers in Amsterdam were producing a particular kind of blue beads, most valuable for trading abroad. Travel brochures now note that “A big deal on the beaches is searching for Statia’s fabled blue-glass beads… found only on Statia.”
Other Jews soon followed. They became ship owners, planters of sugar cane, and producers of rum and molasses. They arrived from Recife (Brazil), Suriname, Barbados, Holland, and France. Jewish emigration to St. Eustatius burgeoned in the period 1757-1813, when the Dutch authorities, in order to bolster its holdings abroad, issued grants in Dutch guilders to Portuguese Sephardim for leaving Amsterdam to Dutch possessions abroad against the guarantee that they were not to return in less than 20 years. The grants varied according to the size of the family, averaging about 150 guilders.. Most grant recipients went to the Caribbean, and many ended up in St. Eustatius. Holland was wise in dispatching these Sephardim to open new avenues for trade, for they were no ordinary emigres, but hard-working, knowledgeable entrepreneurs who had helped make Spain and Portugal great powers. They came bolstered with commercial expertise and world-wide contacts, and they made Statia into the western world’s emporium
The Sephardim were joined on Statia by enterprising Ashkenazim from the American continent. Over a hundred Jewish families came to constitute the core of the mercantile establishment on the island
The Statia community “included a community of Jewish traders and merchants, a bubbling kettle of Sephardic Jews – Spanish and Portuguese refugees from the murderous Inquisition – and Ashkenazim, those Jews of German and East European descent… For trade or social purposes both groups could offer a range of European languages but among themselves the Sephardim spoke Ladino, the admixture of old Castilian and Hebrew, while the Ashkenazim made use of Yiddish.”
<BLOCKQUOTE> “…It is estimated that this community consisted of 101 [adult, male] men and their families. With the material and moral assistance of their brethren of Caraçao and Amsterdam, the Jews of Eustatius built a synagogue to which they gave the title Honen Dalim… The One who is merciful to the poor. The still impressive shell of that building is here… [as well as] their own goat-cropped burial place, with the great mound of the Quill for background; and, for those who pushed the bier along that sad road, a glimpse of the sea which brought them to this last haven.” <BLOCKQUOTE>
The synagogue and its archives and the records of other Judaic institutions and families were destroyed during the British occupation of Statia in 1781, as will be seen below. The British ransacked and razed the island during their occupation, leaving little but ashes. It can be assumed however, that the culture of the Statia Jews was similar to that of the Jews on the leeward islands. We can therefore construct a picture of that community from the surviving records of neighboring islands.
Traders and settlers from all of Europe and America came to profit from Statia’s bustling business, but the Jews, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, remained the largest and most effectual group of the island.
The Jews, like the other white residents of the Antilles islands, employed slaves. From the outset, however, the relationship of the Jews with the black slaves appear to have been qualitatively different, as the records of the Dutch Leeward Council and Assembly demonstrates. A difference between the Jewish and Christian relations with the slave population is evidenced in an act of August 31, 1694, passed by the Assembly. The act was specifically directed at the Jews and states that it is:
“‘An Act against Jews ingrossing Commodities imported in the Leeward islands, and trading with the slaves belonging to the inhabitants of the same.’ The important role the Jews played in the introduction of sugar planting and sugar trading in Nevis prompted the repeal of the same act on 10 December 1701, when the Leeward Islands Council met in Nevis, the reason given as the “many grievances sustained by reason from the said act.'”
The Jews continued to deal with slaves at the markets on a person-to-person level. This led the island’s Christian minister, Reverend Robinson, to disdainfully set his constituency apart from the Jews and from Christians who deigned to follow the example of the Jews. “…A description, by Nevis historian Karen Fog Olwig, of the market where slaves sold their products, explains that… “It is no longer acceptable for the white population to trade at the markets, perhaps because they were held primarily by slaves, and on Sundays, and Robertson noted that only Jews and lesser sort of Christians traded with slaves.'”
Military histories devote their attention to battles, personalities and political maneuvers. Little attention is paid to logistics, yet the ability to conduct war and to achieve military success hinges on keeping an army supplied with food, clothes, tents, and especially munitions and ordnance.
Obtaining, and then maintaining a flow of military equipment and supplies was crucial to the conduct of the American Revolution. Time and time again, the victorious conclusion of a battle or of a phase of the Revolutionary War hung precariously upon the availability of munitions and ordnance. From the very outset of American resistance to British rule, this speck of an island played a pivotal role in providing the means by which a ragged assembly of American patriots ultimately won victory over a well-established and well-equipped army. The success of the Revolution can be attributed in large measure to the activity of the traders of the tiny island of St. Eustatius.
At the outset of the revolt against British rule, there were few facilities for the production of arms and munitions in the colonies. “Long before the Second Continental Congress assumed responsibility for the support of the Continental Army, colonial governments had looked to foreign markets for the procurement of essential military supplies. When the First Continental Congress met in September 1774, few colonists anticipated open warfare. Yet patriots, acting in provincial congresses and conventions, initiated preparatory measures. Militia drilled more conscientiously, and communities of safety collected guns and ammunition at safe deposit points. The Mass-achusetts Provincial Congress in October of that year went so far as to appropriate funds to purchase powder, shot, and shells, flints, field pieces, mortars, muskets, and bayonets.”
“The British government had good reason to suspect that colonists were carrying on illicit trade in gunpowder and other military stores with Holland through the island of St. Eustatius in the West Indies. Determined to prevent the accumulation of such stocks, it enacted a law prohibiting the importation of saltpeter, gunpowder, or arms into the colonies and made the law applicable also to coastwise trade.”
“Shortly after the Second Continental Congress met, it realized that to support the Continental Army it would have to import ordnance and ordnance stores. On 18 September 1775 it authorized the Secret Committee to import 500 tons of gunpowder… Congress also empowered the Secret Committee to procure forty brass 6-pounder field pieces, 20,000 musket-locks, and 10,000 stand of good arms… [It waived non-exportation agreements and] authorized the Secret Committee to export to the non-British West Indies, on behalf of the Continental Congress, as much produce… as was necessary to pay for the arms, ammunition, sulphur, and saltpeter imported. Before the end of the year the Secret Committee reported the necessity of procuring 20,000 stand of arms, 300 tons of lead, 1 million flints, 1,500 boxes of tin and assorted hardware, and 500 sheets of assorted copper for the support of the Continental Army. These orders were but the first of many to the Secret Committee.”
The colonial interests of France, Spain, and the Netherlands led them to support the American rebels. At first, the United States currency, the Continental, having no substantial backing, decreased rapidly in value, leading to the still current phrase, “Not worth a continental.” This financial difficulty was resolved largely by the remarkable Haym Solomon, who raised large amounts of desperately needed cash to bolster the currency by negotiating bills of exchange with France and the Netherlands
Solomon had already served the revolution in a significant way. He was a Polish Jew who spoke several languages, including German. He served as George Washington’s spy among the British forces by becoming a translator for the British in passing orders to their Hessian troops. Zealous as a saboteur (He was caught helping French and American prisoners to escape and persuading Hessians to defect), he was apprehended and imprisoned by the British. He escaped, “leaving behind his wife and a one month old baby and belongings worth about five thousand pounds.” Solomon returned to finance and rebuilt a fortune while putting his talents and the proceeds of his successful ventures at the disposal of members of the Continental Congress and of the Revolution.
The Continental Congress appointed Solomon Broker to the Office of Finance of the United States, and the French consulate appointed him Treasurer of the French Army in the United States.13 Solomon staked his entire fortune in support of the military effort, as did another Jewish financier, Isaac Moses, founder of the Bank of New York
The first recorded moneys received from abroad were two million livres from Spain in hard currency and war material. Thus the United States currency, the Continental, was secured by Spanish silver dollars.” Other financial assistance followed from Spain, ultimately reaching a value of some $6,000,000.
France was particularly helpful before it became engaged in war with Britain. Albeit the French and Dutch, at first, maintained a facade of neutrality, they nonetheless were “showing the same favors at Martinique to the rebelling American colonies as the Dutch were at St Eustatius.”
On March 15th 1776, “Joseph Reed, Washington’s military secretary, wrote the general from Philadelphia: ‘The French vessels begin to find their way to our ports…but their cargoes are chiefly West Indian goods – a little, very little powder merely as a cover.’ Yet within three weeks a total of 121,200 pounds of powder had arrived at the colonies. On April 20th the Virginia Gazette reported the arrival of 1,200 casks of gunpowder…The Dutch island of St. Eustatia and the French Island of Martinique were the principle entrepots of the ammunition traffic…On May 7th an American wrote from St. Eustatia that a Danish ship had arrived there with fifty tons of powder and two others were expected shortly.”
“Besides these, near 20 sail are expected from Amsterdam… St. Eustatius was so important as a source of arms and munitions that [without its help] the war could not have been won.”
“Especially during the American Revolution merchants demanded better protection on the high seas. They used the Dutch island of St. Eustatius to supply the rebels with all the supplies they could pay for, stretching the concept of neutrality to the limit. It was an awkward situation because, until war [between the Netherlands and Britain] was declared in 1780, the Dutch Republic and Britain were officially allies.”
The contacts that the Caribbean Sephardim maintained with their cousins throughout the Diaspora (including in England) stood them in good stead. Trade proved so lucrative that “large numbers of British merchants were enticed into providing supplies for their country’s enemies.”
The French and the Spanish, in order to keep up the appearance of neutrality, formed “a ‘dummy’ world trading company — Roderique Hortelez et Cie. Based in Paris, but operated out of St. Eustatius… the Bourbon Kings of Spain and France each provided one million livres to start the company in May of 1776, six weeks before the Declaration of Independence.” This bogus business became the means by which the French and Spanish Courts “would assist the Americans by sending, in the fall of 1776, arms and ammunition worth 200,000 pounds sterling from Holland to St. Eustatius, Martinique or Cape Francois.”
By the beginning of March, 1777 ten “Hortalez” ships were already engaged in bringing military supplies to the revolutionaries. Until these supplies arrived in 1777, The revolutionaries were at a disadvantage for “the rebelling Americans had been forced to rely on their own efforts to support the war.”
France entered into an alliance with the United States after the victory of the Americans at Saratoga in the fall of 1777. France could no longer pretend neutrality, and French vessels and the French Caribbean islands became subject to British harassment and attack. The Dutch-owned free port of St Eustatius became all the more important as virtually the sole center for the transhipment of military supplies to the Americans.
General Washington was constantly pressing the Congress for more supplies. “I am so restrained in all my military movements,” he wrote General Trumbull, “that it is impossible to undertake anything effectual.” The capture of British supply ships by privateers and of weapons in the field did not assure a steady nor sufficient supply of arms. The brave attempt to locally manufacture gunpowder and ordnance proved inadequate for producing the necessary level of military goods for sustaining the war, let alone for winning it. So desperate was the need for conserving ammunition that Washington ordered that no musket was to be loaded, “until we are close to the enemy and there is a moral certainty of engaging them.”
“The Kings troops, Washington explained, never had less than 60 rounds per man in their possession. To supply a proposed 20,000-man army with the same amount of ammunition per soldier would require 400 barrels of powder. Given the small amount of powder on hand and faced with the dire prospect that an accident would leave the army destitute. Washington allowed each man no more than 12 or 15 rounds. His difficulties were increased by the arrival of militia with little or no powder.”
Samuel Curzon, in partnership with Isaac Gouverneur Jr. , acted as the Caribbean local agent for the Continental Congress in St. Eustatius. When France formally entered into war with Britain in 1778, Martinique could no longer even pretend to be a neutral port. Until the Dutch likewise became a belligerent in 1780, St. Eustatius became almost exclusively the transhipment port for war materials destined for the United States.
The island was a favorite of the founding fathers of the American Revolution. During the perilous times for sea traffic, Benjamin Franklin employed St. Eustatius as a maildrop to assure delivery abroad
The British harbored a seething resentment against the Dutch since the brash salute was made to the fledgling American flag from St. Eustatius. The British had informed the Dutch “that it must formally disavow the salute to the rebels, punish the culprit and recall and dismiss the Governor of St. Eustatius.. ‘His Majesty will not delay one instant to take such measures as he think due to the interest and dignity of his crown.'” It was an empty threat, and Britain realized by 1781 that the war against the revolutionaries could only be won if the lifeline from St. Eustatius to the continent would be severed.
The festering hostility the British had against Holland finally turned into war, and the pretense of the neutral status of the Dutch possessions was no longer a deterrent to British attack upon Dutch possessions. On January 27, 1781 British Admiral Sir George Rodney was informed that Britain was now at war with the United Provinces (Holland) and recommended as “first objects of attack St. Eustatius and St. Martin.”
Britain’s forces in the United States were then suffering severe setbacks, yet so vital was severance of the flow of military material from St. Eustatius considered that two of Britain’s most redoubtable military figures were consigned to the campaign against St Eustatius with a formidable fleet and force. Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney and Major-General Sir John Vaughan were dispatched to raid and occupy the island. Rodney’s name “ranked with the names of the Royal navy’s most illustrious figures, Nelson, Blake and Hawke and it is honoured in St. Paul’s Cathedral…”
Major-General Vaughan had served in England, Scotland, and in Germany in the Seven Years’ War. The General earned a somewhat dubious reputation in the war against the American revolutionaries by burning Kingston.
“The admiral’s own force represented six hundred… guns, the ninety-ton Sandwich being accompanied by five seventy-fours -Terrible, Torbay, Shrewsbury, Resolution and Belliqueux. With these vessels were the Princessa, of seventy guns, the Prince William and the Convert plus fireships and Bomb vessels expedited by Laforey. Shortly, Rodney would add Sir Samuel’s six ships -Barfleur, the four 74’s Alfred, Alcide, Invincible and Monarch and the Sybil … The most modest estimate suggests a minimum of ten thousand seamen crewing the British ships but in all probability their numbers were considerably greater. Each vessel of any consequence also carried a detachment of Marines with Vaughan’s reinforced army now in the order of three thousand souls.”25
The lone Dutch frigate defending Statia could not even consider taking on the fifteen great British warships. Nor could a token garrison of sixty soldiers consider resisting the massive British force that debarked onto Statia.
The British fleet arrived on a Saturday morning as the Jews were at Sabbath prayer in their synagogue. The virtually defenseless island succumbed quickly to the British forces. Rodney confiscated all the merchandise stuffing the warehouses, valued at three to four million pounds sterling. Vaughan wrote that “150 Sail of Ships and Vessels of all Sorts” in the harbor were likewise seized along with their cargos. Included was the Dutch Frigate of War of 38 guns and a number of American vessels.
“The British commanders engaged in the indiscriminate plunder of St. Eustatius. They continued to fly the Dutch Flag over St. Eustatius to trick unsuspecting enemy ships of which ‘the largest proportion belonged to America.'”
The North American agents were sent to England as prisoners. The English and Danish merchants were stripped of all their property and extradited. The French agents were treated more circumspectly, for a powerful French fleet was deployed in the Caribbean. The French were shipped off to Martinique and Guadaloupe. Rodney instructed that they be permitted to carry with them ‘…their families and their household furniture.”
“The indiscriminate plunder of the British commanders at St. Eustatius had violated the spirit and customs of the laws of war which were ‘generally understood’ to allow a conquered people ‘the enjoyment of their property’ as subjects of the victorious state. This was at least the convention toward fellow Europeans… This was the practice of the French toward the occupied British islands during the American Revolution. The British commanders had set a precedent which critics feared the French might imitate if any more of the British islands ‘should hereafter have the misfortune of falling into the Enemy’s power.'”
The Jews, however, were isolated, brutally beaten, and robbed of everything they had. “Rodney singled out the Jews… and ordered them stripped for cash or precious stones or whatever might be secreted in their clothing. Acting out a common antipathy with unnecessary zeal, he ordered the Jews expelled on one days notice, without notice to their families or access to their homes.” 8,000 pounds sterling was extracted from their persons. “The men of the community were rounded up, their wives and families being denied news of them or access to them, and assembled in Statia’s weigh-house pending deportation. … the prisoners were brutally handled and so thoroughly searched for concealed money that their clothing was ripped apart in the process.”
Thirty Jewish men were deported to the island of St Kitts. “The rest were locked in a weighing house for three days when they were released just in time to witness the auction of their properties.”
“Rodney’s behavior… suggests anti-semitism… Earlier in his career as a naval commander in Jamaica, Rodney had lashed out against the Jews who conducted a ‘Pernicious and Contraband Trade’ at Kingston where he insisted that ‘particularly the Jews’ traded illegally with the Spanish. He confiscated two of their ships which were condemned for sale in the vice-admiralty court. The ‘Sons of Israel, who are possessed of most of the ready money in [Jamaica]’met with a lawyer and considered making an appeal. None of the correspondence of the other naval commanders in the Caribbean made such special mention of the Jews.”
Rodney’s hatred for the Jews found expression in his letters. He urges Vaughan on 13 February – a day of reckoning for the Jews, “they cannot too soon be taken care of – they are notorious in the cause of America and France.” Again he promised to “take Care of this Nest of Villains to condign [fitting] Punishment: they deserve scourging and they shall be scourged.” Once again, as for the island: “…take Care this Nest of Thieves shall be leveled with the Earth, as an Example to Perfidious States.”
Rodney’s indiscriminate looting subjected him to a mass of lawsuits in Britain. The Jews (even the few that were British citizens), however, had no such recourse. So heinous was Rodney’s treatment of the Jews that he came under fire in Britains Parliament by the most prestigious voice of the Opposition, Edmund Burke. After denouncing his plundering of Statia’s citizens of various nationalities, Burke focused on the egregious manner in which Jews were separated and brutalized. “Speaking of the order exiling them on one day’s notice without their property and without their wives and children he described their vulnerability through statelessness…’If Britons are injured,’ said Burke, ‘Britons have armies and laws to fly to for protection and justice. But the Jews have no such power and no such friend to depend on.'”
Rodney’s insatiable appetite for loot is amply evident from his letters. In a letter of February 6 to Vaughan, for example, he wrote: “One of my officers will wait upon you, upon a very good affair – a Rascal of a Jew has his a chest with 5000 Joes [Johannes – i.e., Portuguese gold coins] in a cane patch – a negro will shew the place, upon a promise of Freedom and reward.”
Historically speaking, however, Rodney’s greed proved to be the determining factor in the last significant battle of the American Revolution: Washington’s campaign against the British forces under General Cornwallis.
The capture of St. Eustatius would undoubtedly affect the long-range ability of the Americans to sustain resistance. The fact was, however, that the passage of material to the Americans from St. Eustatius had already provided the Americans with the essentials for victory.
The Revolutionary’s victories at King’s Mountain (Oct. 7, 1780) and Cowpens (Jan. 17, 1781) sapped Cornwallis’ reserves. Cornwallis regrouped, marched his 7,800 man army to the coast. He entrenched them at the Chesapeake Bay port of Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis expected that the British domination of the sea would provide a lifeline to military reinforcements and supplies and the means by which he could recoup his military strength. vThe astute General Washington sensed an opportunity. If Chesapeake Bay could be bottled up, and British ships prevented from succoring Cornwallis, and if enough time could be gained to march in enough forces from around the colonies, an assault upon the still powerful forces under Cornwallis could be launched that could clinch the success of the Revolution.
The American navy, such as it was, was inadequate for the Job. The French, however, concerned with protecting her interest in the Antilles, had “issued orders to Admiral François de Grasse to take a strong fleet of supply to the Leeward islands, and from there… to cooperate with the generals of the Revolution in whatever military action they planned.”
Rodney’s first great mistake was his failure to intercept the French fleet under Admiral de Grasse on its way to the Chesapeake Bay. Rodney was expected to intercept the French fleet, but he was so involved with looting Statia’s treasures that he assigned this task to Admiral Hood, who later stated “‘…What Sir George Rodney’s motive for it could be I cannot conceive, unless it was to cover him at St. Eustatius.'”
On September 5, 1781, Washington rode into Chester, a town on the Bay “when a courier from de Grasse’s fleet came riding up to tell him that the Admiral had arrived in the Bay with no less than 28 ships and 3000 troops, and that they were already being disembarked and placed in contact with Lafayette.” The Cornwallis trap was laid! “After announcing the stunning news to his troops, Washington turned his horse northward to inform Rochambeau, who was coming down by barge. As Rochambeau’s boat neared the dock at Chester, he and his staff saw the astonishing sight of a tall man acting as if he had taken leave of his senses. He was jumping up and down and waving his arms in sweeping circles, with a hat in one hand and a white handkerchief in the other. On nearing the shore they could see that the eccentric figure was undoubtedly George Washington, ordinarily so grave and well-contained. No one had ever seen the General so unres-trained and joyful, and almost childlike in his happiness.”
In the ensuing engagement, the British Chesapeake fleet, outnumbered and out-gunned, was crippled and dispersed. De Grasse made the Chesapeake Bay his domain. In addition, naval reinforcements under the command of de Barras “slipped in from Newport, with his siege guns and his beef and his eight fresh ships.”
The blockade and a massive bombardment by land and sea of the entrapped British forces brought that campaign to an end. “While the bands played in New York, Cornwallis watched the horizon in vain for masts to appear. A dispatch from Yorktown told how he was ‘in daily expec-tation of the appearance of the British fleet to relieve him.”
No sails appeared. On October 19, Cornwallis’ petition for surrender was granted. His defeat determined the eventual victory of the rebels. vWhile Cornwallis was entrenching his army of 7,800 men at Yorktown, Rodney, his officers and men were amassing vast stores of loot from Statia’s warehouses and population, and lading it aboard a convoy of 34 vessels to England and in enriching themselves in the process.
Had the British fleet under Rodney provided the critical support to the beleaguered British army at Yorktown, the war might have taken an entirely different course. vInstead, Rodney assigned a sizable part of his naval force to protecting the convoy. Rodney’s occupation of Statia began on February 3rd, 1781. Already, in a report of March 5, 1781, General Vaughan advised Rodney against attempting to keep the island. Rodney did not follow Vaughan’s advice. Professing to be ailing, but evidently swayed more by consolidating the riches gained than with geopolitics, he departed for England, leaving a garrison of 670 men behind on decimated Statia, and assigned a naval contingent to protect them.
The Encyclopedia Britannica notes in “American Revolution” under “The War at Sea” that “[Rodney] became so involved in the disposal of the enormous booty that he dallied at the island for six months.”
“Rodney was so pre-occupied with stopping and plundering the Statian merchants that he failed to cut off the French fleet that was headed to the Chesapeake Bay. The arrival of the French fleet, together with the British army’s failure to send promised reinforcements from New York, forced General Charles Cornwallis to become trapped between Washington’s and Lafayette’s forces and the sea at the decisive Battle of Yorktown.”
The British occupation of Statia was terminated on November 20th 1781 by a French invasion. They found the place in ashes, and virtually depopulated.
St. Eustatius played two roles in the victorious outcome of the American Revolution. It had first served as a main artery for the creation and sustenance of an American revolutionary military force. Admiral Sir George Rodney himself bitterly declared in a letter to Rear Admiral Sir Peter Parker that “had it not been for that nest of vipers… this infamous island, the American rebellion could not possibly have subsisted.” In a letter to Lady Rodney he stated: “This rock had done England more harm than all the arms of her most potent enemies.”
Statia’s ultimate contribution to the American Revolution was not made voluntarily. The dazzling wealth of goods in the warehouses of the island, in the ships in its harbor, and the personal possessions of its three hundred and fifty Jews diverted Rodney and the commanders under him from preventing the disaster that befell the British forces under General Cornwallis. The sacrifice made by the inhabitants of St. Eustatius, and above all, the sacrifice of the Jews among them, was a major factor in the outcome of that critical battle of the American Revolution.
The Jews of the island, Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike, had staunchly supported freedom, and were instrumental in bringing it to reality on a new continent. In a “Petition of the Philadelphia Synagogue to Council of Censors of Philadelphia,” on December 23, 1782 (document 8), it was pointed out that: “The Jews of Charlestown, New York, New-Port, and other posts, occupied by British troops, have distinguishedly suffered for their attachment to Revolutionary principles; and their brethren in St. Eustatius, for the same cause.”
“Rodney set fire to St. Eustatius and burned it flat, destroying at the same time all the precious records of that golden epoch. A historical catastrophe! That is when the Sephardic Jews of St. Eustatius raised themselves from the great disaster and moved to St. Thomas.”
Jews did come back to Statia, but those who had escaped to St. Thomas built a new synagogue and began a new and illustrious history.
The ruins of the Honen Dalim synagogue on St. Eustatius now stand as a lonely monument to a glorious history.
© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved