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Zeeland hometown plans extensive De Ruyter commemorations in 2007

Quacentennial birthday of famed admiral

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

VLISSINGEN - The Zeeland town where renowned Admiral Michiel de Ruyter was born almost 400 years ago, is in the early stages of mounting a major homage to the Dutch hero for the twelve months starting March 24, 2007. During his life, and especially in the 18th and 19th century, the son of sailor Adriaen de Ruyter became synonymous with Dutch military resolve and maritime power. De Ruyter’s bold naval strategies were widely acknowledged, even in the countries, such as competing maritime power England, which suffered defeat and humiliation at the admiral’s hands.

The Foundation 400 Years Michiel de Ruyter has plans for a variety of events in and around the port of Vlissingen. The town, which gave its name to the New York community of Flushing, will host such major attractions as a Royal Navy pageant, and a Sail Vlissingen with hundreds of heritage ships and boats. While the opening of the De Ruyter Year will take place in Vlissingen, the months-long commemoration very appropriately will be capped with a national event in the Dutch capital. Following his death in battle in the Mediterranean on April 29, 1676, De Ruyter was buried in a church building in Amsterdam.

Organizers of the De Ruyter Year hope that Sail Vlissingen in particular can be enhanced through the participation of other maritime organizations. During the Summer of 2007, the port could be a stopover for such events as the Tall Ships Race, a sail regatta with heritage yachts now held in nearby Hellevoetsluis, and a British race with classic yachts. Very likely is the participation of various segments of the Dutch ‘brown fleet,’ the flotilla of antique and historic fishing vessels and inland freight barges.

Rope maker

The national celebration ‘Michiel Adriaenszoon de Ruyter, Hero of the Netherlands and Figurehead of the Zeeland Admiralty’ also has a national context with a scholastic purpose. In cooperation with the Department of Education, Vlissingen is preparing a multi-grade project for schools, both at home and in a selected number of foreign countries.

De Ruyter, whose early childhood ‘wheel-turning job’ at a local rope-maker through a popular ditty is imbedded in the minds of most Dutchmen, as a cabin boy went to sea at the tender age of eleven. The Spanish captured his naval ship when he was only fifteen. Michiel escaped and returned home to Zeeland.

Working on a range of merchant ships, young De Ruyter acquired skills as a sailor and quickly rose through the ranks. A cunning man, Michiel set off on his own as a merchant and mastered a number of foreign languages.

In 1641, De Ruyter became captain of a warship and was appointed Rear Admiral of a fleet commanded by Arnout Gysels. Although the fleet’s mission was successful, De Ruyter quit and returned to the merchant navy. With his own ship he sailed quite a number of profitable voyages between North Africa and the Antilles, making him a rich man.


It were the conflicts with England which landed De Ruyter in the annals of Dutch history. In 1652, when it became obvious that war with England could no longer be avoided, a very reluctant De Ruyter was persuaded to become Vice Commander of a new battle group for just one mission. He greatly distinguished himself in a series of naval battles and encounters off the Dutch coast as an astude strategist and a fierce commander. His success at Dingeness, Nieuwpoort and Ter Heijde prompted the Dutch government to establish the post of Permanent Vice Admiral of Amsterdam, the most powerful of the five regional navies, also known as Admiralties. Holland’s political leader Johan De Witt persuaded De Ruyter to take the job designed for him.

Then a citizen of Amsterdam, De Ruyter on many occassions commanded Dutch fleets sent out to squash Algerian and French pirates in the Mediterranean. At times, he was second in command as well, for example when Lieutenant Admiral Wassenaer van Opdam led an expedition to break the Swedish blockade - during the intermittent so-called Northern Wars - of the Baltic port of Dantzig (now Gdansk), which was a major trading partner of the Netherlands. Van Opdam and De Ruyter also sailed in the Netherlands’ own blockade of Portugal, with whom the Dutch were at war over Brazil.

Of more importance to De Ruyter and the Netherlands was a subsequent involvement in a war with Sweden (and a Navy landing on the island of Funen, now part of Denmark). De Ruyter also was instrumental in the re-capture of the African region known as the Gold Coast, which the British had wrestled away from the Dutch. From the African continent, De Ruyter’s ships sailed to and from America.


De Ruyter, still Wassenaer van Obdam’s second-in-command, was elevated to the post of Lieutenant Admiral when the latter was killed in the Battle at Lowestoft, during the second war with England (1665-1667). Again it was De Witt who facilitated the appointment of De Ruyter over the equally capable Cornelis Tromp, who initially had succeeded Van Obdam. De Ruyter’s elevation to Supreme Commander likely was politically motivated, since Tromp was a staunch supporter of the House of Orange, while De Ruyter a moderate supporter of the De Witt faction.

De Ruyter’s new ship The Seven Provinces became an intrinsic part of his subsequent fame, when he defeated the British fleet in the now famous Four Day Battle of June 1666. The British had divided their fleet in two, with 20 ships sailing south from the North Sea to engage a French fleet, which could have joined the main battle to support the Dutch. Outnumbered and out-gunned, De Ruyter after two days forced the British back to their Thames River sanctuary, immediately joined by the split-off force. Now faced with a regrouped British fleet, De Ruyter heroically went on the attack, and in a decisive routing again forced the British ships back to their homeports.

A few months later however, the same British fleet defeated De Ruyter , during a two-day sea battle in the English Channel. Squalls and lulls in the weather had scattered the Dutch fleet, which then was pounced on by the British, again commanded by Monk and Prince Rupert. They attacked the advance ships in force in a fight which took the lives of famed Dutch commanders Evertsen and Tjerk Hiddes. De Ruyter sailed to their rescue but his fleet was weakened as Tromp on his own had decided to attack the British rear guard. Forced into retreat, De Ruyter saved all his ships. He soon blamed Tromp for the defeat. The government was quick to dismiss the Orangist admiral.


De Ruyter sailed to England in June 1667, in a scheme to destroy the British Navy in its homeport of Chatham. The attack was orchestrated by the Dutch government, and was based on 15-year old strategy by Admiral Maarten Tromp, Cornelis’ famous father. With Cornelis De Witt, one of the two prominent politician brothers, looking on from one of the ships, De Ruyter’s fleet orchestrated a series of attacks on Fort Sheerness which they secured. The fleet then sailed onto the Medway, eventually breaking the heavy chain shielding the mostly moored British fleet. The Dutch navy set fire and otherwise sunk or captured all the British vessels, including their flagship Royal Charles which a Dutch crew sailed to the Netherlands. An armed incursion into the heartland of England was called off a day later, when De Ruyter arrived at the scene. Known in English history as the ‘Medway Disaster,’ a humiliated England signed an armistice with the Dutch two months later.

With global trading interest at stake, the truce after five years had outlived its purpose for the British. This time, a well-prepared Dutch fleet, likely for the first time in the various battles with the British, outperformed the English ships in all aspects. The Dutch fleet commanded by De Ruyter prevailed in the Battles of Solebay, Schoneveld and Kijkduin, thus staving off an English invasion of the Netherlands. The defeat forced the British to abandon the war as well and significantly enhanced De Ruyter’s reputation as a bold commander.

The ensuing peace also sprouted trouble for the future. An overly confident Dutch government, eager to lighten its defense budget, scrapped many of the navy ships and let other men-o-war fall into disrepair. De Ruyter’s stature as the country’s hero was assured however. He was elevated to the position of Lieutenant Admiral General, the newly formed most senior naval rank.

Test of times

As such, de Ruyter in 1675 was sent to assist the Spanish fleet, which in the Mediterranean was engaged in naval warfare with the French, a frequent enemy of the Dutch. Although he strongly advised the government against such a venture because of the disrepair of the current Dutch fleet, De Ruyter nevertheless set sail. His fleet engaged the French first near the island of Stromboli, and subsequently off the Sicilian coast near Syracuse. The famed Admiral did not live to fight another naval battle. Instead, mortally wounded he now fought for his life but lost. He died a week later.

Following the fleet’s homecoming, De Ruyter received a state funeral and was entombed in a special vault in Amsterdam’s New Church. The death of the 69-year naval commander was widely lamented. He had gained the admiration of many for his opposition against the establishment of which he, perhaps reluctantly, himself had become part.

The Admiral also had an international following, and was one of the few people who was feared but frequently admired as well throughout seafaring countries. That he had been inducted into Danish nobility as well as in Spain, both former enemies, speaks volumes.

When the Netherlands went into a decline in the 18th and 19th century, national awareness of its heroes from the more ‘glorious’ 16th and 17th centuries was used to bolster the spirit of gloom. This also was the case during the occupation of the Netherlands during World War II when De Ruyter’s battles against - and especially his defeats of - the British was exploited by the puppet administration that did not want to deprive the Dutch of their identity, but twisted its hero selection process for their own purposes. While De Ruyter’s portrait was used in many ways to adorn German/Nazi propaganda, including stamps, the Nazi’s failed to achieve their goal and their efforts never compromised the Admiral’s reputation. It already had withstood the test of times.