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stepping stones of maritime history


4th Anglo-Dutch war
In December 1780, Great Britain declared war on the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. The Republic traded with the rebellious states in America and its (French) allies. The Republic smuggled, among other things, weapons and ammunition to the US. The British were furious and used this to rid the weak Republic of its colonies.

Race to the Cape
In March 1781, the British Commodore Johnstone was sent with a large squadron to capture the Dutch Cape Colony. At the same time, the French also sent a squadron under Admiral Pierre André de Suffren to assist the Cape colony against the British.

The two squadrons encountered each other near the Cape Verde Islands. The battle remained inconclusive (April 16, 1781).¹ Both were shaken, but the French were able to sail on first. As a result, it was De Suffren who arrived first at the Cape in False Bay (June 21, 1781).(1) Johnstone's mission was therefore a failure, the Cape remained in Dutch hands with French help.

valuable information
On July 1, the British intercepted the VOC ship De Held Woltemade (en route to Ceylon) with valuable information on board. Johnstone learned that the French were in False Bay and that a richly loaded unprotected VOC fleet of 5 ships was anchored in Saldanha Bay (100 km north of the Cape). Johnstone then headed for Saldanha Bay.

VOC fleet
The five ships had come into Table Bay one by one. The Honkoop, Hoogkarspel and the Middelburg on 31-3-1781 from Canton (China), a day later the Parel also from China and finally on April 25 the Dankbaarheid from Bengal.
They were ordered to wait for escort ships from Europe. Because the coming storm season would make Table Bay too dangerous, the fleet was directed to the northern Saldanha Bay (approx. 100 km north of Table Bay).
Orders were given that the ships were to be destroyed if they could not escape capture. Each captain was instructed to load his vessel with combustibles, and if capture seemed likely, to set fire to his ship.
Most of the Dutch commanders and crew did not take this order seriously. Captain van Gennep of the Middelburg was the only officer to comply with these instructions by preparing his boat to be set alight.

The situation was still like this two months later in July. The ships were waiting with most of the crew on land and the sails stowed in two hoekers.*

Attack on Saldanha bay
On 21 July 1781, the English Commodore Johnstone, sailed into Saldanha Bay. His vessels disguised by flying French flags. The Dutch were initially jubilant, mistaking the English vessels for the long-awaited reinforcements. And then saw the French flags being hauled down and English colours run up.

The english fleet opened fire on the anchored Dutch ships. The Dutch hastily tried to set their ships alight and cut their cables to run the vessels ashore. The English, however, were prepared for fire fighting and quickly extinguished the fires as they boarded the abandoned vessels.

The only exception was the Middelburg. The vessel was soon fiercely ablaze, and the flames spread through the hull to the powder magazine, whereupon she exploded and sank. The Middelburg was the only Dutch vessel in Saldanha Bay that day not to fall into English hands.

Johnstone had not achieved his mission of capturing the Cape. But the capture of the VOC fleet was more than a consolation prize. The VOC would never fully recover from this blow.

The Saldanha prizes were Dutch ships in the service of the Dutch East India Company until July 21, 1781. The ships were captured by the British Navy. This meant that they were British property according to the applicable laws of war. Prize (law of war)

Prize ships sink
In August, Johnstone left for Great Britain with a total of five prize ships, including the previously captured Held Woltemade. In January 1782 the squadron had arrived approximately south west of England. A violent storm broke out and two prize ships, the Dankbaarheid and the Honkoop, were wrecked.

Prize ships sold
The Parel, the Hoogkarspel and Held Woltemade arrived battered and damaged in England, where their cargo and hull were sold. The lost ships also generated money. They were well insured for the crossing with Loyd's in London.


* Sails and inventory where loaded on the hoekers Zon and Snelheid who where also at Saldanha bay.









H. Steedsel





130000,- *



D. Plokker






A. Land






G. Harmeyer,






J. van Gennep





Held Woltemade

S. Vrolijk





* cargo worth resp. DEIC chamber Rotterdam, Delft and Amsterdam

Source: Niekerk
source tonnage : DAS


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