The Dutch Navy Warships of the Napoleonic Era

An watercolour of a small Dutch frigate shown, from two angles in a common convention of ship portraiture. She is flying the ensign of the Batavian Republic, dating it between 1796 and 1806.

Prince Frederic of 64 guns late revolution Dutch ship taken at the Cape.

Built in 1777 for the Admiralty of the Maas, Prins Frederik was originally rated as a 60-gun ship; she has only twelve ports a side on the lower deck whereas thirteen was the norm for 64s. Despite the spelling on the draught, with the establishment of the Batavian Republic the ship was renamed Revolutie and reverted to an anglicised version of her original name on capture. Like many Dutch prizes, the ship saw no frontline service in the Royal Navy, being converted to a storeship in 1797 and then hulked as a convalescent ship at Plymouth in 1804 before being transferred to Berehaven in Ireland as a floating hospital. The hulk was sold in 1817.

The largest Dutch 74 captured in this period was the 1565-ton Washington, taken by Admiral Mitchell’s fleet in the Texel in 1799. This dismantling model of the ship is built to the curious scale of I/41, and is assumed to be Dutch-made. The Admiralty Collection also contains a Dutch plan of the ship, and it may be that both items were captured with the ship. Although renamed Princess of Orange, the ship was never commissioned in the Royal Navy but was hulked at Chatham until broken up in 1822.

After about 1714 the Netherlands possessed what its own historian described as ‘a second-rate navy’. The country’s relative economic decline left it without the resources to match its Great Power legacy, but the navy, although no longer an arbiter of the European political balance, was left with significant commitments around the globe. Much of the colonial empire remained, while the Dutch merchant marine was still a major carrier of the world’s trade. To defend both in straitened times became a serious problem for Holland’s naval leaders.

For most of the century the circle was squared by an alliance with Great Britain that effectively absolved the United Provinces from building a battlefleet. The navy therefore concentrated on producing ships for colonial policing and trade protection, which translated into an emphasis on small two-deckers. Of 64 guns and less (the majority in the 50-gun range), these were cheap to build and man, but powerful enough to deal with those like the Barbary states who regularly threatened Dutch commerce, while providing a two-decker ‘presence’ on foreign stations.

The policy fell apart during the American War when the Netherlands found themselves in conflict with their erstwhile allies. In 1780 there were only three ships that could be considered fit for a modern line of battle, and the country’s elders decided on a mammoth construction programme aimed at building a genuine oceanic battlefleet for the first time in nearly a century. Given the meagre and moribund nature of the existing naval administration – still divided into the five traditional autonomous admiralties – the programme of about 75 battleships and 40 frigates was hopelessly optimistic. Large numbers of ships were launched, but post-war political upheavals did not help with regular finance, and the quality of timber employed and the standards of workmanship left much to be desired. As a result many of the ships that were completed had short active lives. The lack of experience was most clearly manifest in the smaller admiralties, the worst example being the two Friesland 74s built at Harlingen which proved too large to get out of the harbour.

It was with the residual ships of this programme that the Netherlands went to war in 1793. An official list, divided by admiralty, gives the following numbers of serviceable ships available at the end of 1792. There was the nucleus of a battle squadron in seven 70/74-gun ships, armed with main battery 36pdrs, but at less than 1600 tons they were very small for their rate. The majority of the fleet (27 ships) still comprised the old 66-gun rate, like the Prins Frederik, most of which carried 24pdrs and did not exceed 1350 tons. The remainder of the ‘line of battle ships’ were made up of seven 56-gun ships, averaging about 1050 tons, which usually carried an 18pdr main battery.

Although the Netherlands began the war on the side of the allies, France invaded the low countries in 1795, and in a famous incident French cavalry captured much of the Dutch fleet, frozen in its ports. A pro-French puppet state called the Batavian Republic was set up, and the country changed sides. Taking on the Royal Navy with this old-fashioned and inefficient force was simply disastrous, and although the Dutch, as always, proved the most obstinate opponents in battle, by the end of 1799 twenty-three of the above ships had been captured or destroyed, plus two more recent vessels. Not that the prizes were of much value to their captors: in general they were too small and poorly built for frontline service, so the more seaworthy were converted to troopships and store carriers; a few became floating batteries, guardships or stationary flagships, but many were simply hulked. They last saw widespread service during the invasion scare of 1803–5 when anything that could float was dragged into the defence of the British coasts. In 1803 Lord Keith’s dispositions for the Thames approaches included: Texel, Vlieter, Leyden, Beschermer and Batavia as floating batteries; Gelykheid was stationary flagship in Yarmouth Roads, with Utrecht serving the same function for Keith himself in the Downs. During the Trafalgar crisis, when the new First Lord instructed Keith to reinforce Cornwallis with five ships, the latter replied unequivocally ‘The Utrecht is not manned, nor fit to leave the Downs…’

Very little new construction was possible in the republican years, so that by 1800 there were only sixteen Dutch battleships available, although ten were now of larger types obviously designed under French influence. Dutch shipbuilding was obstinately conservative for much of the eighteenth century; this has been attributed to the outmoded system of decentralised admiralties or to the restrictive effects of small dimensions, but the navy also missed the acid test of real wan This is most obvious in Dutch cruiser design, which persevered with pre-frigate layouts long after the advantages of the frigate-form had been perceived by virtually every other serious navy. The old two-decker 44 was an economical convoy escort, but its sailing qualities (especially to windward) were poor in comparison with a frigate, yet there were still ships of this type being built in the 1780s. Even when the frigate-form was adopted there was an almost wilful refusal to grasp the benefits of a lower topside: the usual Dutch frigate had more headroom on the lower deck, which was also given more freeboard than conventional frigates, resulting in a height of side not much less than a small two-decker – and the same tendency to sag to leeward.

Along with about seven 40s (presumably two-deckers), the 1792 list includes fourteen 36s (about 700 tons; main armament of twenty-six 12pdrs) and fourteen 20/24s, like the Daphne, of 500–550 tons (twenty or twenty-two 9pdrs). Very similar to British post ships, with full quarterdeck and forecastle, the latter were especially vulnerable in any war with a big navy, since they could neither fight nor escape a proper frigate.

The viability of 12pdr-armed frigates was also being eroded in a world where the 18pdr ship was increasingly seen as the norm. Nevertheless, the Dutch continued to build such ships, albeit rather larger, into the first decade of the nineteenth century, the 850-ton Helder being launched at Amsterdam in 1803. A few of the larger frigates were armed with 18pdrs, but the Tholen, taken in 1796, carried only twenty-four on the main deck instead of the twenty-six or -eight common in other navies. Perhaps under French influence, the Batavian Republic built at least one 24pdr frigate, the Amphitrite at Amsterdam in 1797; at 1181 tons she was a little small for that weight of metal, and after capture she was eventually reduced to 18pdrs. Like the battleships, in general Dutch frigates did not see much active service after capture.

The remainder of the fleet in 1792 comprised: two ship sloops, six brigs, eight cutters, five other small craft rated ‘brigantun’ (12–20 guns), one 10-gun schooner, five advice boats (‘adviesjacht’), five 12-gun ‘hoekers’, three 6-gun gunboats, one 10-gun schooner and a bomb vessel. Some of the cutters were very large, at up to 20 guns, and one, Braak was converted into a brig in British service.

French domination of the low countries increased after Napoleon came to power and in 1806 be appointed his brother Louis King of Holland. The Dutch had already been co-opted into contributing invasion craft to the Boulogne Flotilla, and ship construction became increasingly French in style. Indeed, when Louis quarrelled with his brother and abdicated in 1810, France simply took over the remaining Dutch navy. When the British invaded Walcheren in 1809, among the ships they found building was Fidèle, a typically French-style 40-gun frigate, which was brought to Britain for fitting out.

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