Pirates on the Prowl
In the painting of the Battle at Sea between Hollanders and Pirates Backhuyzen portrayed this dramatic scene with verve. The gunfire is almost audible; the victory within reach. Yet which battle did the artist use as a model for his composition, and what was the story behind the engagement? These questions puzzled us for some time, until new details emerged.
That the battle was ferocious is clear. But it proved impossible to find references in any of the sources about what actually happened here. It seems not to have been an actual historical encounter. None of the sterns of the vessels are visible. So we turned to the flags to point us in the right direction.
Amid the forest of masts we see the Dutch tricolour from the tops of the foremost ship; flying from the stern is a bright red battle flag. In the central group the first vessel also has a Dutch flag together with a large red flag. And the same is true of the group furthest in the distance. Three Dutch ships are engaging nine enemy vessels. But who are the enemy?
The opposing ships are flying plain blue battle flags, in contrast to the red flags of the Dutch vessels. And the enemy is also flying blue-white-and-blue pennants. These were the colours of the French merchant fleet. But why would the French two ships in the nearest group be flying a Dutch red-white-and-blue flag from the topmast? They were certainly enemy vessels, to judge from the blue battle flags on the sterns. These flags were hoisted when the attack began and enabled combatants to identify each other amid the smoke and violence of the engagement.
We noticed the red-white-and-blue flag on the two enemy ships immediately, but suspected that they might turn out to have been painted over later. Perhaps they even concealed a correct blue-white-and-blue flag. But the Dutch tricolour remained in place when cleaned. Clearly, Ludolf Backhuyzen had painted these flag here on purpose. A solution to this puzzle seemed a distant prospect.
Until one day Frans Laurentius paid us a visit and saw the painting. He suggested that the enemy ships might have been privateers. It turned out to be the key to the interpretation of the composition. Like pirates, privateers would often sail under false colours in order to trick their prey. Pretending to be a convoy of French merchantmen was a clever ploy. The Dutch had little to fear from French ships. When they saw the Dutch men-of-war these privateers had also hoisted the tricolour, in the hope of being mistaken for fellow Dutchmen. But the stratagem failed. The Dutch were looking for a confrontation. The three of them engaged the enemy, and they won. Here they have boarded the pirate ships and taken the fight onto the opposing decks. That is where the battle is being waged. On the gundeck, the remaining Dutch crewmen are firing the cannons.
What we see in this large painting by Backhuyzen is a Dutch punitive expedition against Dunkirk, Ostend or Barbary pirates.
Until this point we had not found any references to the painting in our sources. Now we were able to undertake a more specific search. In 1918 Dr C. Hofstede de Groot compiled a record of Lodulf Backhuyzen’s oeuvre in his Verzeichnis. At first we had failed to locate Backhuyzen’s marine here. But armed with this new information, we managed to find our painting in this key published source listed under Backhuyzen, number 34, described as:
SEESCHLACHT ZWISCHEN NIEDERLÄNDISCHEN SCHIFFEN UND PIRATEN. Heftige Kanonade; Rauchwolken stiegen auf. Am blauen Himmel grosse Wolken, die durch die Sonne rosa gefärbt sind. Mit dem Monogramm bezeichnet. Leinwand 103 x 137 cm. Nachtrag Versteigerung de K. u. A. in Amsterdam am 25. April 1911, nr 175 A (fl 300.-).
The description and size coincide precisely. Moreover, no other known work by Backhuyzen fits the same parameters. The title is printed in capitals, indicating that the renowned art historian had seen the painting himself and had immediately recognised it as an authentic work by Ludolf Backhuyzen.
Hofstede de Groot’s description is perfectly succinct. He saw directly that these were Dutch ships engaged in battle with privateers. Privateers were pirates who pursued their victims with a license from their government. A naval tactic that was common practice in the 17th century. Strict rules covered privateering. But they were rarely honoured.
To sail as a privateer it was necessary to obtain so-called letters of marque from the government, giving license to attack and take enemy ships as prizes. Stringent conditions applied to letters of marque, and the official permission from the government was outlined in the ‘instructions to commissioned seamen’. This contract stated that particular ships could be boarded, plundered and sunk and that certain of those on board might be taken prisoner. A deposit payment was usually required as security to ensure that the privateer played by the rules. However, in most cases they paid little heed to the regulations and were equally ready to attack non-belligerent shipping. The temptation was enormous: with the rise of overseas trade and the transport of increasingly valuable cargoes, ships presented rich pickings. Many privateers were little more than brutal pirates. But if a privateer kept to the rules, a successful voyage might result in huge dividends.
In the North Sea and the English Channel it was the Dunkirk privateers who were most notorious. In 1585 the Duke of Parma issued the first letters of marque to the inhabitants of this Flemish coastal town in order to harass the nascent Dutch Republic. Two years later, the States General decided that Dunkirk ships should be treated as pirates, whatever letters they had in their possession. Whenever they fell into Dutch hands, their crews were thrown overboard without compunction.
From around 1660 pirates also began to put out of Ostend. They waged a kind of terror campaign on the high seas, focusing principally on ships sailing under French colours. Richly laden merchantmen from other countries, especially Dutch and English ships, were equally welcome prey for these plunderers, who managed to inflict enormous damage with their attacks on the trade of the large merchant companies and admiralties.
In and around the Mediterranean Sea piracy was also a great menace. Here it was the corsairs of the North African coast who were the most notorious. In addition to cargo, the so-called Barbary pirates were as happy to take and trade in human captives. Moreover, they would force ships to pay in kind for a pass to sail through the Strait of Gibraltar. In fact the most infamous of all the Barbary pirates was a Dutchman, Simon the Dancer. Naturally, Dutch merchantmen returning from Asia were also an attractive target for Spanish and Portuguese buccaneers.
Sometimes the Dutch won major victories over these enemies. In 1607, when Jacob van Heemskerck lay off Gibraltar with a Dutch fleet, waiting to accompany the fleet returning from the East Indies to the Republic, he managed with the help of the English to surprise the Spanish fleet, totally destroying it with the assistance of the English.
But the popular Dutch admiral Michiel Adriaensz. de Ruyter, who is commemorated on his tomb as the ‘Scourge of the Oceans’, also enjoyed a reputation as a privateer himself. That was how he began his career at sea, sailing under the brothers Adriaan and Cornelis Lampsins from Flushing. He subsequently served in various other fleets. Eventually, in 1653 he accepted the post of rear admiral of Amsterdam. In the following years he led numerous expeditions against English privateers and Barbary corsairs.
But perhaps the greatest privateer of all times was a Dutchman, Piet Hein. He learned the art of privateering in the period following the Twelve Year Truce (1609-1621) between Spain and the Dutch Republic. Barrels full of gold, silver and entire cargoes of exclusive products fell into his hands, to the delight of those who had invested in his expeditions. Piet Hein eventually met his end when he led a punitive raid on the Dunkirk privateers in 1629, dying in action.
For many years state-authorised privateering remained an accepted part of warfare. It was not until 1856, with the Declaration of Paris, that international agreement was reached on prohibiting privateering, although in the two world wars of the 20th century the practice made a brief return in the all-out struggle for victory.
It is well known that Dutch merchantmen suffered especially from piracy. That is why the States General granted funds on many occasions to finance military expeditions. Dunkirk privateers were an especial nuisance. In 1600 the States General, led by Grand Pensionary Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, requested that the States army invade Flanders and subdue the pirate bases of Nieuwpoort and Dunkirk. Stadholder and army commander Prince Maurice considered the plan too great a risk, but the assembly insisted. The campaign was primarily intended as a punitive raid against the privateers, but also to demolish the Spanish fortifications along the Scheldt in Flemish Zeeland or at least to destroy the Spanish fleet. At the battle on the beach of Nieuwpoort, the Spaniards lost many men and their general was taken prisoner. Yet the bad weather, the stiff resistance and the anticipated Spanish counteroffensive combined to persuade Maurice to bring his army back home. It was a hollow victory and nothing had been achieved. Oldenbarneveldt began negotiations with Spain for the prisoners, and the privateers were able to resume their activities undisturbed.
In 1646, piracy seemed to have come to an end in Dunkirk, when the French captured the town. But the respite was brief. When France went to war with the Dutch Republic in 1672 the Dunkirk privateers were recommissioned under French command to attack Dutch shipping. It was not until 1695 that Dunkirk ceased to be a menace. Privateers from Zeeland and England forced the French to sue for peace and close up the pirate’s nest for good.
In his Battle at Sea between Hollanders and Pirates Backhuyzen portrays an expedition against privateers. Yet it was not his intention to depict an actual historical event. It is impossible to identify the different ships, since all the sterns are facing away from the viewer. Moreover, there is no way of identifying the location of the battle. While the pinkish-red of the sky might represent the Mediterranean, the coast might equally be that of Dunkirk or Ostend.
Evidently, Backhuyzen meant his painting to be an example of Dutch naval puissance: the might of the Republic of the United Provinces which for many years enabled the Dutch to dominate the seven seas.
Piet Hein Super Privateer
Admiral Piet Hein is remembered in Dutch history as one of the greatest heroes of the nation’s maritime past. Little is known of his childhood, except that he was taken prisoner in his youth by the Spaniards. For four years he served on the galleys as a slave, until he was released in an exchange for Spanish prisoners of war. His subsequent career was meteoric. In 1607 he joined the Dutch East India Company.
When the Twelve Year Truce ended in 1621, the war with Spain resumed. In order to hurt the Spaniards financially, the Dutch set up the West Indies Company. Piet Hein soon made sure of his place. In 1623 he accepted the post of admiral in the Company. He proceeded to eject the Portuguese from San Salvador in Brazil. On the way home he overtook a Portuguese fleet carrying sugar, which he naturally plundered. For those who commissioned privateers it was a legitimate tactic. Either way, this was how Piet Hein established his fame.
It was in the Bay of Matanzas off Havanna that Piet Hein’s most famous exploit took place in September 1628. His action was part of a large-scale operation designed to systematically undermine the Spanish supply of treasure that was being shipped through the Caribbean. At the approach of the Dutch, the commander in charge of the silver fleet fled and left his ships to their fate. The Dutch boarded the main ship and the treasure was theirs for the taking. There was so much of it that even the gunports were blocked. The silver and gold was worth four million ducats (12 million florins), enough to finance the war for a further eight months.
Piet Hein’s final commission was to blockade Dunkirk, where the French and Spanish privateers were based. It was here that he was struck by a fatal bullet.
His Name is Short
Every true-blooded Hollander knows the words to the Piet Hein song:
Piet Hein his name is short
His deeds are great,
He captured the Silver Fleet.
The song is still sung at football matches. No other Dutchman, besides William the Silent, can claim to be remembered in a song. In fact Piet Hein’s fame in his own day was not unlike that of today’s football stars. Because of his modest origins and the speed with which he rose to prominence, many looked up to him as a role model.