This story actually took place across June and July in 1667, and is a story involving the Dutch and the British. During the 17th century, these were two of the biggest superpowers in the world, dominating global trade and commerce. The Netherlands had gotten to this position largely due to the wealth and businessminded acumen of Amsterdam traders. This city, for much of the Netherlands’ history, has driven the direction of Dutch politics and commerce.
Over a period of 20 years, the UK and the United Provinces (As the Netherlands used to be called) fought three wars against each other. These three wars were largely about trade, colonization and, of course, political power in Europe.
The British had defeated the Dutch, with a diplomatic victory, in the first war between 1652 and 1654. However, the Dutch had not slowed down their high-trading ways. The second war, which kicked off in 1665, was an attempt by the English to end Dutch trade domination once and for all. This time, surely, the British would crush the insolent little republic and firmly end their globalizing aspirations for good! This may have been the case, were it not for the gumption of the Dutch, a man called Michiel de Ruyter and an absurd plan which was hatched by the powers-that-were
in the United Provinces.
In Michiel de Ruyter the Dutch found a hero who would become a legend. He was pretty much like a 17th century James Bond in possession of a ship. A man of very humble beginnings, in his career he fought in four wars, won numerous naval battles, became the top naval officer in his country, had titles invented specifically for him, fought
pirates, survived assassination, befriended a king (the King of Norway) and inflicted upon the British the biggest naval
defeat in their history. And this brings us to our story – The Raid on the Medway and the Dutch victory over the British.
When the Raid on the Medway took place, the Dutch and British had already been negotiating peace terms for some months, trying to bring an end to their conflict. The British king, Charles II, had been procrastinating, secretly trying to get the French on board against the Dutch. Sneaky King Charles.
The Dutch decided that they’d had enough of this procrastinating, and that something had to be done. In these days, if you needed something done, you got Michiel de Ruyter and you gave him a boat.
De Ruyter and his fellow officers took a Dutch fleet of three squadrons across the channel and into the North Sea. Over the next three days they commenced wreaking havoc all the way from the North Sea and into British heartland. They captured the town of Sheerness, before sailing up the Medway to Chatham, destroying over 10 British warships along the way. They retook some Dutch ships which had been previously captured by the British, and generally made the enemy a bit weak at the knees and loose in the bowels. Before withdrawing, the Dutch then captured two of the British Royal Navy’s most important ships, the HMS Unity and, even better, the HMS Royal Charles – the flagship of the British fleet. In doing so, the Dutch perpetrated the worst naval defeat ever inflicted on the UK. The British reaction to this attack was best summarised by the exclamation of English naval officer and politician, Sir William Batten, who cried ‘By God…I think the Devil shits Dutchmen!’
It was this risky move that decided the war. On the 31st of July a peace treaty was signed. However, while the Dutch had won a victory, the British king, Charles II, continued his secretive cooperation with the French king, Louis XIV. Together, they would both ally to attack the United Provinces 5 years later, in 1672 – known in Dutch folklore as “the disaster year.” Indeed, the story of the Medway is just one in a series of episodes between the British and the Dutch
Over the course of these 20 years the two nations were engaged in a geo-political arm wrestle for domination of global trade. Britain, of course, would eventually go on to create the biggest empire the world has ever seen. At this point in time, however, it was the tiny Dutch Republic that came out on top.