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Essay competition submission to the Arquebusier Magazine.
Richard de Grijs
Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia
‘Sir Robert Holmes, first an Irish livery-boy, then a highwayman, now bashaw
of the Isle of Wight, got in boons, and by rapine, £100,000. The cursed
beginner of two Dutch wars.’1
A quarrelsome Restoration officer, a notable villain and buccaneer, a hot-
tempered, violent and frequently uncontrollable Royal Navy commander, Robert
Holmes (1622–1692) is often held directly responsible for starting the second and
third Anglo–Dutch wars.2,3 No doubt, he was a seasoned soldier and competent naval
commander, ‘a man of understanding fitt to make warre, and a courage to make it
good; in the latter few goe beyond him; in the former few come short.’4 Yet squarely
laying the blame on him for starting both wars does not seem fair, nor does it even
closely reflect reality.
In fact, William Coventry, Commissioner for the British Navy and responsible
for drafting Holmes’s orders, explicitly exonerated the commander: ‘The truth is the
Dutch warre arose by strange accidensal things concurring from severall parts and
parties without any interest to helpe each other.’ 5 Nevertheless, Holmes was
undeniably a key agent in stirring up the tensions—tensions that eventually led to
armed conflict between Europe’s late-seventeenth-century maritime superpowers.
The culmination of numerous skirmishes, raids, sieges and tit-for-tat
altercations along the West African coast, the Dutch formally declared war on 22
February 1665—a turn of events that had been brewing for the better part of two
Increasingly violent hostilities driven by politics and greed had made this
military escalation all but inevitable. As early as October 1663, Holmes had been
given the command of the H.M.S. Jersey, a fourth-rate frigate equipped with 40 guns.
Leading a small flotilla, he was sent to the African coast under the orders of King
James II to ‘protect and promote the Interests of the Royall [African] Company, which
is the sole end of your present voyage’ and to ‘kill, take, sink or destroy such as shall
oppose you.6 In fact, as we will see shortly, Coventry referred in his orders to a
‘game’ that was to be started upon Holmes’s arrival on the African coast.7 This can
only be interpreted as a poorly disguised reference to armed conflict.8
When his small squadron arrived at the mouth of the Gambia river, Holmes
received word from his Portuguese and English informants about Dutch
encroachments and misconduct: usurpation, violence, rapine and treachery. In 1661,
the Dutch had taken possession of Cape Corse (Cape Coast) Castle, having
overpowered the English, which directly violated the 1654 Treaty of Westminster—
although its opponents argued that the Stuart Restoration of 1660 had voided that
Treaty. Meanwhile, the Dutch had seized English possessions, blocked the English
merchant navy from access to the African coast, started to dominate the trade routes
and supported the local population in uprisings against the English colonial powers.9
James Ustick, governor of James Island—present-day Kunta Kinteh Island in
the mouth of the Gambia river—was particularly displeased by ‘the great violences
and spoils committed against our Trade and Traders in these parts’ by the Dutch West
India Company’s agent, Peter Justobaque (possibly ‘Joost Bacqur’).10 Nevertheless,
Holmes’s orders were to avoid hostilities if at all possible. The Royal African
Company, as well as the Dutch, clearly had other ideas, as we learn from Coventry
himself (emphasis mine):
‘At the same time the Guinney Company [the Royal African Company] …
grew very violent in their Debates against the Dutch, and nothing would serve
but their sending ships of Force to the Coasts of Africa to support (they called
it) their trade; but the intent was to take away the Dutch Forts or at least Cape
Corse which the Dutch possessed, but to which wee had some pretence. … For
this, under the name of convoy, some of the King’s ships were demanded and
granted by the Councell. This Captaine [Holmes], being sent with
instructions drawne according to the dictates of the Rll. Company, my selfe
having drawn them by notes received from Sr. Richard Ford (being soe
commanded), though the instructions were pretty bold, yett they served not the
Captain’s turne, whoe not having patience to stay till he came to the Gold
Coast (where it was intended by the Company the game should begin)
meeting some Dutch ships outward bound at or near Cape de Verde, hee
seized them and fell to shooting at the fort (on wch wee had no claimmance)
and by the Cowardice of those within it, it was surrendered to him11
Despite Coventry’s veiled accusations of improper behaviour on Holmes’s
part, a letter from the Royal African Company to Captain John Ladd, Administrator of
the Gambia, explicitly demanded that Holmes’s squadron be as assertive and
provocative to any Dutch vessels they encountered en route as they would have been
in their home waters. And so, from the day of their departure from England on 21
November 1663 until they reached the Cape Verde archipelago by Christmas, Holmes
challenged any Dutch ship that did not ‘strike [lower] her flag’ in deference to the
English standard.
Holmes was particularly determined that any ship would pay respect to the
English sovereign. Just two years previously, he had been summarily dismissed from
his command of the H.M.S. Royal Charles for allowing the Swedish ambassador to
continue his journey without striking his sails to the English flag:
‘Captain Holmes, formerly Admirall of the ships in Guinea, did his endeavour
to make the Swedish ship strike her sailes and did fyer 2 gunnes at her but at
last he was persuaded by the said Ambassador that the King had given him
leave to proceede his journey without stryking sails to any ship. This was
taken by His Majesty soe haynous that he immediately casshiere [dismissed]
the said Captain Holmes and did declare him not worthy of further
employment and doth yet more threaten him with further punishment.’12
Off Gorée Island on 27 December 1663, Holmes hit the proverbial jackpot.
Strengthened in his resolve to declare the entire African coast, from Mauritania to the
Cape of Good Hope, the exclusive domain for trade and navigation on behalf of the
King of England, the Jersey fired a gun to compel the Dutch West Indiaman Crown
and Brill to acknowledge English sovereignty. Although the Dutch vessel lowered her
flag, she did not adjust her topsails, ‘upon which wee fired severall guns at her untill
she struck and bore away [heaved to] right with us.’13
Holmes alleged that among her papers, he found an express order to the
governor of Gorée to establish a Dutch presence in the Gambia and Nuñez (Nunez)
rivers. That information was apparently sufficient cause for the English contingent to
capture the Crown and Brill. But that was not the end of Holmes’s attempts to
undermine the Dutch presence in West Africa. Having taken a second prize, closer to
shore, and sunk two other Dutch West Indiamen, on 22 January 1664 he audaciously
attacked the well-armed fort at Gorée itself:
‘I anchored, and presuming more upon the dissensions I understood to be
among the Flemings ashore and their want of Provisions than any other hope
of taking so strong a place with one ship, I sent ashore to demand that Island
[Gorée]. Having received a slight answer (as they might very well have
given me considering both our conditions) wee began to fire at one another
which continued almost 6 houres, being so long as we could see to shoot.’14
At the end of the day, crippled and in dire need of repairs, Holmes retreated.
To his surprise, however, a white flag appeared above the fort’s battlements: Gorée’s
surrender was a fait accompli. A few days later, Holmes wrote to Coventry,
‘You have now all the trade in your owne hands from Cape de Verd to the
Gould Coast … being the most considerable trade in the Christendome. I hope
you will take a resolution to keep it.’15
Given the instructions he had received, and in view of the circumstances at
hand, Holmes most likely thought that he was simply following the spirit of his orders
when he ‘fell to shooting at the fort.’ Politics muddied the waters, however, as
Coventry quickly disavowed Holmes’s actions. He bluntly stated that Holmes had
acted ‘without any commission.’ 16 King James subsequently assured the Dutch
ambassador, who had conveyed his country’s strong protests and threatened
‘… that he had given no Commission or Order to Captain Holmes for that
purpose [to take Gorée], nor did [he] know upon what Grounds he had
proceeded to that Act of Hostility.’17
Holmes was well aware of the fickle nature of political machinations,
however, as we learn from his letters to Coventry. He routinely implored the
Commissioner to indulge him in case he had exceeded the spirit of his orders. No
doubt, this was a mere formality. Holmes must have expected to be made a scapegoat
in case the war games backfired politically:
I know not how my Actions vpon the Coast of Guyny are resented at Court,
nor how my Condicon stands.18
In any case, his actions on the voyage’s next leg, from Cape Verde to Sierra
Leone and from there to Cape Palmas in present-day Liberia, were fully in line with
his orders to safeguard English trade along the African coast.
Two skirmishes stand out among the Dutch provocations Holmes had to
contend with. First, upon his arrival in mid-March at Cestos, halfway down the coast
from Sierra Leone to ‘the Cape of Palmes,’ he was made aware of the plunder,
pillaging and enslavement of the local people by a Dutch West Indiaman known as
the Hendraught, likely a poor transcription of Eendracht (‘Unity’). Second, in May,
the Dutch opened fire unprovoked on Holmes’s companion ship, the Galliot, and also
on a canoe carrying the (British) East India Company’s agent at Kormantin, on the
Gold Coast (present-day Ghana).
The Eendracht’s aggression prompted Holmes to immediately ready the
defenses of the Royal African Company’s coastal stations to counter any Dutch
reprisals for his capture of Gorée. The unprovoked attacks on the Gold Coast
triggered Holmes’s company to enact retribution in the form of a full-on assault,
leading to the eventual surrender of Cape Coast Castle, the primary Dutch base, on 1
May 1664. Despite the criticism he would soon endure from his paymasters,
Holmes’s actions initially generated excited and favourable reviews back home:
‘Those great services wch he hath don upon the Coast for the Royall [African]
Compa will merit greater acknowledgement then [sic] is fitt for me to
prescribe to my masters … Upon my creditt his bountie and courage have both
been soe eminent that it would puzzle a wiseman to say which exceeded and
by them he hath made soe perfect a conquest of this whole coast that nothing
but want of men hinders our intire possession.’19
Nevertheless, Holmes was charged with exceeding his orders by capturing
Dutch forts and ships along the African coast. In part, his detention in the Tower of
London that followed was to placate the Dutch. But perhaps more importantly, his
takings were deemed too insignificant by the Royal African Company’s greedy
standards. Holmes, unfazed, prepared a detailed defense supported by formal
depositions, clearly showing that under the circumstances his fleet had encountered,
his orders fully warranted the actions taken.
His eloquent defense implies that he acted with judgment, prudence, skill and
courage. Holmes put the blame for the ensuing hostilities squarely on the Dutch
governor of El Mina (present-day Elmina, in Ghana), Jan Valckenburgh.20 Despite
conflicting accounts, it appears that Holmes was not as keen to initiate the attack as
the Dutch governor. In any case, since his services would soon be needed again to
take charge of renewed armed conflict, he received ‘a general pardon and release for
all felonies and offences in England or elsewhere.21
By the summer of 1671, a third Anglo–Dutch war was brewing. Once again,
perceived disrespect of national sovereignty led to cynical opportunism, which—in
turn—resulted in a resumption of hostilities. The yacht Merlin, carrying the wife of
the English ambassador home, opportunistically changed course and sailed through
the Dutch fleet. Since ‘the Dutch Admiral did not strike to that trifling vessel,’22 King
Charles II feigned wounded national pride and sent Sir George Downing, the
diplomat, as his envoy to The Hague to put the Dutch under pressure and provoke a
new conflict.
Holmes, ever the strategic pragmatist, jumped at the chance to secure a
decisive advantage early on. In late January 1672, 22 Dutch merchant ships
transporting wine and salt were sheltering off Cowes at the northern tip of the Isle of
Wight, protected by just four men of war. An additional 12 or 13 ‘Hamburgers’ were
also riding their anchors at Cowes Road.
‘I beleeve they are upon the Accompt of the Dutch. … There have not been
three Hamburgers at Cowes till now, and if the King will permit them to
trade, all the ships in Holland will quickly turn Hamburgers.’23
Since more Dutch merchantmen were reportedly on their way to the Cowes
anchorage, this seemed a great opportunity to capture a richly laden hostile fleet and
make a dent in the enviable Dutch resources within such an easy reach:
‘If my intelligence be true they have hardly salt enough in Holland at this time
to salt the meat they must use for their fleet this summer, and without meat
they cannot come to sea; and if the salt be stopped you may be confident that
they will be in great want. They will not be able to fish nor provide for their
Garrisons or scarce doe anything without it.’24
Yet it took another six weeks before Holmes received orders to take Dutch
prizes unprovoked. Holmes was less than pleased by this delay, as we learn from his
letter to the Earl of Arlington, Commissioner of the Admiralty:
‘You have let slip the best opportunity that ever people had to destroy those I
think you will make your enemies … The very day I had his Royal Highness’s
order a fleet of Merchantmen passed through the Channel which I suppose to
be their first fleet from Cadiz, another being still behind. Had your orders
come but twenty-four hours sooner we could not miss this last fleet.’25
On 12 March 1672, Holmes finally received permission to attack the
homeward-bound Dutch ‘Smyrna fleet’ in the Channel. But with only five war ships
at his disposal, his attempt to intercept a fleet of 56 merchantmen, some heavily
armed and under the guns of eleven men of war, was doomed to fail. After a fight that
lasted most of the afternoon and evening, Holmes’s ships were forced to retreat to
repair the significant damage they had incurred.
‘… the next morning by six a clocke the fight renewed againe & soe continued
all that day off of Rye very Sharpe. Early in the morning young Holmes [Sir
Robert’s brother John] bore bravely in with the Rear-Admirall of the Dutch
and without fyreing one gun, came close up to arme & arme with him, & then
pouring in a whole broadside tore him down as broad as the syde of a house,
plying him againe & againe till at last he made him stryke his ancient [ensign].
Haveing manned him with English he carried him in the fleete severall houres
but at last he was seene to make two totters from one syde to the other & soe
to dropp downe right into the sea. He has eighty bales of silk on board besides
much plate …’26
They had little to show for their foolhardy assault; among up to half a dozen
prizes only one seems to have been one of the rich Smyrna ships. The attack had been
an expensive gamble that had failed to pay off. In search of a scapegoat, the English
government once again blamed Holmes for the battle’s disastrous outcome. This
seems hardly fair, given that the commander was acting under direct orders.!!
King!Charles proceeded to declare war a few days later, on 7 April 1672. !
Holmes had been a central actor in the hostilities leading up to both the second
and third Anglo–Dutch wars, yet all evidence suggests that he was merely following
orders. Although quarrelsome and blunt—referred to as both ‘a rash, proud
coxcomb’27 and ‘an idle, proud, conceited, though stout, fellow’28—he is regarded as
an early example of the British professional naval officer, a prudent leader of his men.
By all accounts, he was a fiercely loyal nationalist.
His deplorable reputation might be attributed to Samuel Pepys’ low opinion of
the commander. Pepys, Secretary to the Admiralty, expressed ‘a natural fear of being
challenged’29 by Holmes following a quarrel about the appointment of one of Pepys’
protégés as Holmes’s ostensibly inept master as early as 1662.
Following the battles of the third Anglo–Dutch war, King Charles seemed
rather displeased with the commander’s performance and he did not give Holmes
another flag—despite strong support from Prince Rupert, the king’s cousin. It appears
that Holmes was well ahead of his time. He obtained results using his own judgment
in interpreting his orders, adjusted to the circumstances, often to the exasperation of
Coventry and Pepys.
On balance, we should probably be looking at Sir George Downing as the key
facilitator and possible instigator of the second and third Anglo–Dutch wars. He was
actively engaged in undermining Dutch interests preceding both wars, using
diplomatic means and punitive financial measures. Downing’s diplomatic
intransigence remains largely hidden in the annals of history, however. Perhaps it
1 Anonymous pamphlet, 1677; often attributed to Andrew Marvell. Parliamentary History, IV, App.
pp. xxiixxxiv.
2 Ollard, R., 2001, Man of War: Sir Robert Holmes and the Restoration Navy, London: Phoenix Press.
3 Jardine, L., 2015, Never trust a pirate: Christiaan Huygens’s longitude clocks, in: Temptation in the
Archives: Essays in the Golden Age of Dutch Culture, London: UCL Press, pp. 3344.
4 Bath MSS, CII, f. 5.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid., XCV, ff. 3–5.
7 Ibid., CII, ff. 313.
8 Wilson, P., n.d., Sir Robert Holmes Bart. (c. 16221692), in: The family history of Philip Wilson, [accessed 24 February 2020].
9 Laughton, J. K., 2012, Holmes, Robert (16221692), in: Dictionary of National Biography, 1885
1900, Vol. 27;,_Robert_(1622-1692)_(DNB00) [accessed 7
March 2020].
10 Holmes, R., 1664, Captain Robert Holmes his Journalls of Two Voyages into Guynea in his Mts
Ships The Henrietta and the Jersey, Pepys Library, Sea MSS No. 2698 (January 1664), pp. 1–14.
11 Bath MSS, CII, ff. 5–6.
12 Hyde, E., 1st Earl of Clarendon, 25 November2 December 1661, State Papers, 105 (ii), 122; see
also [accessed 5 March 2020].
13 Ollard, R., 2001, op. cit., p. 89.
14 Bath MSS, XCV, ff. 1114.
15 Ibid., f. 14.
16 Pepys, S., 29 May 1664, Diary.
17 Lords Journals, XI, 625; 24 November 1664.
18 Holmes, R., 1666, Pepys Library, Sea MSS No. 2698, p. 168.
19 Ollard, R., 2001, op. cit., p. 119.
20 King Charles II, January 1663, Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, cxiv, ff. 19, 20, 68; for an
opposing account, see Brandt, G., 1698, La Vie de Michel de Ruiter, Amsterdam: P. & J. Blaeu, p. 245.
21 Laughton, J. K., 2012, op. cit.
22 Evelyn, J., 12 March 1671/2, Diary.
23 Ollard, R., 2001, op. cit., p. 173.
24 Ibid.
25 State Papers 29/303, f. 211.
26 State Papers 29/304, f. 25, I.
27 Pepys, S., 16 June 1665, Diary.
28 Ibid., 28 October 1666.
29 Ibid., 22 March 1662/3.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Man of War: Sir Robert Holmes and the Restoration Navy
  • R Ollard
Ollard, R., 2001, Man of War: Sir Robert Holmes and the Restoration Navy, London: Phoenix Press.
Never trust a pirate: Christiaan Huygens's longitude clocks
  • L Jardine
Jardine, L., 2015, Never trust a pirate: Christiaan Huygens's longitude clocks, in: Temptation in the Archives: Essays in the Golden Age of Dutch Culture, London: UCL Press, pp. 33-44.
Captain Robert Holmes his Journalls of Two Voyages into Guynea in his Mts Ships The Henrietta and the Jersey
  • R Holmes
Holmes, R., 1664, Captain Robert Holmes his Journalls of Two Voyages into Guynea in his Mts Ships The Henrietta and the Jersey, Pepys Library, Sea MSS No. 2698 (January 1664), pp. 1-14.
State Papers, 105 (ii), 122; see also
  • E Hyde
Hyde, E., 1st Earl of Clarendon, 25 November-2 December 1661, State Papers, 105 (ii), 122; see also [accessed 5 March 2020].
Pepys Library, Sea MSS No. 2698
  • R Holmes
Holmes, R., 1666, Pepys Library, Sea MSS No. 2698, p. 168.
Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, cxiv, ff. 19, 20, 68; for an opposing account, see Brandt, G., 1698, La Vie de Michel de Ruiter
  • King Charles
King Charles II, January 1663, Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, cxiv, ff. 19, 20, 68; for an opposing account, see Brandt, G., 1698, La Vie de Michel de Ruiter, Amsterdam: P. & J. Blaeu, p. 245.