Awakening of Europe - M. B. Synge

De Ruyter

"Henceforth must all your fleets be free

On every coast from east to west."


The war with England was over. It had lasted two years, and Holland had suffered deeply, more even than in her eighty years of war with Spain; for during the war all trade had stopped, 1000 ships had been lost, and Admiral Tromp was dead.

Tromp was dead, but an abler man than Tromp had come forward during the war, and was now to save his country and make himself a name of undying fame. Michiel de Ruyter was born at Flushing in the year 1607. His grandfather was a trooper, and therefore called De Ruyter, "the rider." His boyhood was passed at Flushing. Here he could look out over the sea, where the Dutch ships returned laden with the wealth of the Indies. He would hear wondrous stories of adventure, until his eager mind grew restless. He was never much of a scholar.

There is a story told of him at ten years of age. Some workmen were repairing the steeple of Flushing, and young De Ruyter thought he would climb the scaffolding and mount the ladder, by which he could reach the dizzy pinnacle at the top. He arrived safely, but while he was perched at the very top the workmen removed the ladder, and nothing was left the boy but to slide down the steep pinnacle as best he might. Looking up, the burghers of the town saw a little figure waving his cap fearlessly from the top and then prepare for his perilous descent. With his nail-shod boots he kicked away a slate and placed his little foot on the wooden bar below the slate, then the other foot kicked away another, till slate after slate crashed into the street below, and the boy moved slowly downwards. At last he reached the scaffold and soon appeared in the street below.

Courage, cool-headedness, and resource,—these were to make a man out of the fearless boy. He was now apprenticed to a ropemaker at 1d. a-day; but as he was longing to be at sea, to sea he went at the age of eleven. At the age of fifteen he was fighting on shore with other Dutch sailors against Spain. His courage marked him out above his comrades, and when he was taken prisoner on the Spanish coast, he escaped and walked all the way home through Spain, France, and Belgium.

When war broke out with England, De Ruyter was given some ships and fought under Tromp with marked success. It was therefore to this man that Holland looked when war broke out again between the two countries in 1666.

Much had happened since the last war. The great English admiral, Blake, was dead. He had died on the sea, within sight of the home for which he had been yearning, just a year before the death of his master, Oliver Cromwell. An event of the greatest importance had taken place two years later, when Charles II. ascended the English throne and England had a king once more. The son of Charles I. had lived a great part of his life as an exile in Holland, and now, when he was called upon to return to England, he was given a magnificent feast at Amsterdam.

"My love for you is as great as that of all the other kings put together," he told the Dutch people when he left their hospitable shores.

He left his sister Mary amongst them, with her young son, William of Orange, and no one could foresee that a short four years was to make Charles II. the most active enemy of Holland.

Now Charles had married a Portuguese princess, and she had brought him as part of her dowry the possession of a port on the coast of India called Bombay, a little to the north of the famous Goa of Portuguese fame. This was not pleasing news for Holland, for it strengthened the English East India Company, and the Dutchmen trembled for their trade in the East.

Again Charles annoyed the Dutch by capturing their colony in America, New Amsterdam, as they had called it, after their own capital. The English renamed it New York, and New York is the largest city in America and the richest in the world to-day. In the East and West, England was competing with Holland on the seas, and war at last broke out between the two countries. De Ruyter was now made Admiral of Holland, and a splendid new fleet was placed under his command.

"The eyes of all the world are upon us," he cried to his officers and men. "Behave, then, as honest and brave men, bearing yourselves as you ought. We have no need to fear our enemies, nor to despise them, because they are soldiers and sailors. Be resolved, then, to conquer or to die."

The most memorable sea-fight of modern days was now to take place between the Dutch under De Ruyter on the one side and the English under Prince Rupert on the other. It began on June 11, 1666, and lasted for four days, till the English ships were disabled, powder and shot were spent, and they were obliged to retreat. Through a thick sea-mist the ships made their way home after the four days' contest for the ocean, which has not been equalled to this day.

"English sailors may be killed, but they cannot be conquered," a great Dutch leader had said. Holland had now proved as unconquerable as England herself. All Europe rang with praise of the brave De Ruyter. The little cabin-boy of forty-nine years ago had become one of the greatest men of his time. Humbly enough he took his great victory. "And De Ruyter gave thanks to God, then swept out his cabin and fed his fowls," says his historian.

A short time later the thunder of Dutch guns in the Thames awoke England to a sense of her weakness, and the great Dutch admiral, after burning ships in the river, sailed proudly along the English coast, master of the Channel.