St Eustatius and William Robertson

St Eustatius and William Robertson; Smithfield Iron Company.

This relates to a shipment of 419 casks of nails consigned to the West Indian island of Saint Christopher in October 1780 by the Smithfield Iron Company of William Robertson and Co. to William Warddrop, transported on the ship, Princess Amelia, master being Robert Lindsay. Warddrop forwarded the casks to St Eustatia where he sold 143 casks. On or about the 11th of February, 1781the remaining 276 casks, valued at £1,155:15/- ,  were taken or seized in Warddrop’s stores or warehouses on St Eustatia by his Majesty’s Sea and Land Forces under the Command of Admiral Sir George Bridges Rodney baronet (now Lord Rodney) and the Honourable General John Vaughan and afterwards sold at Vendue on Saint Eustatia by their Order or by the Order of one of them. William Robertson et alclaimed for reimbursement of the cost of the nails and also for all costs, charges, losses, damages and expenses which had arisen or shall or may arise by reason of the unjust capture detention and sale of the goods.

How this situation arose is of interest but does not add to the family history!

This was the time of the American Revolution and at the time trade with America was disallowed. However it was quite common for merchants to ship product to the Caribbean islands and for American ships to collect goods from there and trans-ship these to the USA (including gunpowder!). A booklet written by J.F.Jameson in1903 : St Eustatius in the American Revolution provides an excellent source of background information and a great deal of this note is taken from that publication. Apparently the lower town, a range of storehouses about a mile and a quarter in length[in St Eustatius].

After France entered into the war, French carriers and French islands like Martinique became ineligible , and  the position of the Dutch neutrals became doubly profitable. Merchants of the neighbouring islands tried to keep their goods safe in case of French attack by storing them on St Eustatius. [Dutch territory]

Immediately prior to the time of William Robertson’s shipment Sir George Rodney was sent out to command on the Leeward Islands station in the spring of 1780. And on December 20 1780 England declared war on Holland and within a short time 200 Dutch ships had been seized. On the same day that war was declared, orders were sent to Rodney and Major General Vaughan, commander in chief of the land forces in the West Indies , to make immediate conquest of the Dutch islands beginning with St Eustatius and St Martin. He [Rodney] appeared before St Eustatius on 3 February [1781]and demanded the instant surrender of the island and all that it contained. It would be through this action that the Robertson’s nails were seized “on or about the 11thFebruary, 1781”.

Begun in the spirit of boundless exasperation, the measures of the British admiral were summary and sweeping. Briefly, it was decreed that all inhabitants of St. Eustatius were to be held as prisoners of war, and all the property found there was to be confiscated to the King;- as Burke phrased it, “ a general confiscation of all property found upon the island, public and private, Dutch and British; without discrimination , without regard to friend of foe, to the subjects of neutral peers, or to the subjects of our own state; the wealth of the opulent, the goods of the merchant, the utensils of the artisan , the necessaries of the poor, were seized on, and a sentence of general beggary pronounced in one moment upon a whole people”. The admiral enjoined that there should be no plundering; that neither officers nor men should go ashore from the fleet; and that none of the English inhabitants of the Leeward Islands should approach the doomed town; that all the naval stores should be sent to the government shipyards at Antigua; that the provisions designed for St Domingo should be despatched to Jamaica; that all the goods of European origin should be sold publicly for the King; that all the rich stores of West Indian and American produce should be sent to England under convoy; and that the “lower town” should be destroyed or unroofed, and the materials sent to the devastated islands of Barbados, St Lucia, and Antigua”. [This latter point may have been in response to a major hurricane striking the Caribbean in October, 1780].

The Governor, the Dutch, American, Bermudian and British merchants were also to be allowed or compelled to retire taking with them their household goods. Only the sugar planters were to be treated with positive favour………. The warehouses were locked; the merchants were denied permission to take inventories; all their books and papers were seized; and their cash was taken from them.

 But if the capture of St Eustatius was not glorious, undoubtedly it was lucrative. Rodney himself was surprised at the magnitude of the spoil. “ the riches of St Eustatius” , he wrote to his wife, “ are beyond all comprehension..”

 [There was great indignation in Britain about Rodney’s actions and the matter was raised in parliament]  Upon motions for an inquiry into the conduct of the chief commanders, the whole affair was debated in May, and again in December, when Rodney and Vaughan, who were members in the house, were able to be present. [Edmund]Burke had no difficulty in showing that a wholesale confiscation of private property found in a captured place was contrary to the law of nations.”…. “ At [Rodney’s giant auction]the whole property had been sold at far less than its value, and the ultimate result had been, that in spite of the admiral’s precautions, the Americans, French and Spaniards had been supplied by the British government at a much cheaper rate than they otherwise could have been.

 [There were also accusations that Rodney] had lingered in the road of St Eustatius, superintending with eager care the disposal of the spoil, and thus squandered away the opportunity of important naval successes which had been afforded him by the temporary naval weakness of the allies in the Caribbean…..Certain it is,  that he remained at the island three months and a day and that meanwhile De Grasse, watched only by Hood’s squadron, had slipped around the shoulder of Martinique and joined the other French ships.

 Much the most valuable part of the spoil had been, after careful preparation, sent to England in a large fleet of thirty-four merchantmen under convoy of Commodore Hotham, with two ships of the line and three frigates. Before they reached the English coast, but only twenty leagues to the west of the Scilly Islands , a French admiral, LaMothe Piquet, having under his command a much superior force, fell in with the ill-fated convoy….But the French made after the convoy and captured twenty-two of them. Only eight of the merchant vessels, together with the ships of war, succeeded in making their escape into Berehaven Bay… So vanished a part of Rodney’s expectations of wealth. Before the end of the year St Eustatius itself, which he supposed that Vaughan had made impregnable, was taken by the French.

 In the course of the legal proceedings, no fewer than sixty-four claims appeared….Rodney was subjected to great expense and vexation…..Six years after the capture, only thirteen of the cases had been finally disposed of, and in nine of these there had been sentences of restitution … but Vaughan declared in the House of Commons that he had not made a shilling by the transaction and Rodney seems  to have fared hardly better.[So William Robertson was not alone in having to wait a long time for restitution].

The conquest on which he [Rodney] had prided himself as “ the greatest blow that Holland and America ever received” ended in disappointment and vexation for him, reversal and odium for his country.

 Rodney was raised to the peerage, and a pension of two thousand pounds per annum was bestowed upon him.