“The wealth of St. Eustatius is beyond your imagination,” the English admiral George Rodney wrote in 1781, just before he would plunder the Dutch colony and rob the merchants of their money and goods. This small island in the Caribbean was called the Golden Rock back then. It was a free port where everyone could buy everything, from slaves and goods to ships and weapons.
The island flourished during the American Independence War (1775-1783), when the colonies in North America freed themselves from the English motherland and the armaments of the rebels largely took place via Statia. Until the English seized the opportunity and plundered the island. This history is described by Willem de Bruin in his recently published historic novel De Gouden Rots (The Golden Rock). De Bruin, a former journalist, shows in an accessible way how Statia played an historical role in the rise of the United States, but at the same time in the decline of the Dutch Republic.
Statia wrote world history when nine cannon shots were fired from Fort Oranje on November 16, 1776, to greet the Andrew Doria, a ship flying the American flag which wanted to buy weapons and ammunition on the island. Johannes de Graaff was not only the governor on the island, but also one of the most important traders, something that would have major consequences.
It was very common at the time that merchant ships fired a salute that was answered by the fort as a sign of friendship. However, the Andrew Doria was no longer a merchant ship, but converted into a warship. De Graaff must have known that, since he and other rich merchants on the island made good money from the legal, but especially from the illegal trade with the US. The Netherlands had promised England that it would remain neutral in the conflict with the American colonies, but for the English this was yet another proof of the unreliability of this ally.
The salute that sounded from Fort Oranje on November 16, 1776 was the first time that the flag of the US was officially recognised by another country. I don’t think the governor realised the impact of his act at the time, but this First Salute is important in the history of the United States. Fort Oranje has a beautiful plaque, given by President Roosevelt in 1939, in which he thanked Johannes de Graaff for the recognition of his country, which had declared itself independent 200 years earlier.
But De Graaff’s performance also heralded the end of St. Eustatius as a paradise for doubtful traders. The English used the First Salute to block the free port and to stop the trade. Admiral Rodney also bent the rules in his favour by appropriating part of the wealth. In De Gouden Rots, Willem de Bruin takes a close look at the double lives of directors and traders such as De Graaff and Rodney and how their greed destroyed themselves and the island.
The “betrayal” of the First Salute also prompted the English to declare war on the unreliable Dutchmen, a battle that the militarily weak Republic could never win. This naval war (1780-1784) was disastrous for the Dutch trade and heralded the end of the once powerful Republic. However, this war was also extremely inconvenient for the English, because it diverted attention from the rebellious Americans, who were still fighting for their independence, which the US actually managed to achieve in 1783.
Meanwhile, on Statia the English had been chased off the island by the French (allies of the Americans), who eventually gave the island back to the Netherlands. But with the end of the Dutch glory, the Statia free port also lost its importance. Moreover, the US could now do business with everyone and it no longer needed the Statian back door. Author De Bruin also extensively describes this decline of the island.
It is also interesting to see how the same surnames appear in this history that now still play a major role on Statia, as well as on Saba and St. Maarten. A name such as Heyliger: Johan Heyliger was a descendant of Johannes de Graaff, who married a Maria Heyliger. These old families still have a lot of influence on the islands. Theo Heyliger was the most important politician on St. Maarten for years, until he recently had to resign because he is suspected of corruption.
Last year, all political parties in The Hague decided to intervene on Statia because of “gross neglect of tasks.” The island is now run by a National Government Commissioner who has to reform the government and fight corruption. “The contrast between the poor present and the rich past could not be greater,” says Willem de Bruin. A wealth that, he shows at the same time, was based on colonialism and the slave trade and the greed of Dutch merchants.
On November 16, 2026, it will be 250 years since the First Salute was fired from Fort Oranje and the US was officially recognized by another country for the first time. Last year I suggested celebrating this anniversary extensively, a plan that was adopted by the Dutch government and, as I learned, was also enthusiastically received in the US. De Gouden Rots shows that this history has many horrors, from slave trade and arms trade and the dubious behavior of Dutch traders. This history of Statia also shows the historical roots of the problems on this beautiful Island and why life here is not easy. As far as I’m concerned, that too will be part of the commemoration of the First Salute in 2026.
This is also an extra opportunity for the Dutch government to invest in this neglected island and to ensure that by that time Statia is more caught up and the heads of state of the Netherlands and the US can visit a proud island.
Ronald van Raak is a Member of the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament for the Socialist party (SP). He regularly sends contributions to the media. This time, it concerned a book review.