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Michiel de Ruyter (1607-1676) Dutch admiral

Born in Vlissingen
The Netherlands’ most famous Dutch admiral was born Michiel Adriaenszoon on March 24, 1607, fifth child of a beer transporter in Vlissingen. This meant his family was part of the lower ranks of society and the future was far from bright for the young boy, which was extended by his recalcitrance. As a 10-year-old he climbed the local church tower, for which the little kid got expelled from school and had to find a job.

Heart for the sea
After he was fired at his first employer (where he earned 30 cents a week), Michiel Adriaenszoon got the chance to do “waar syn hart naar jookte” (“what his heart yearned for”): to travel the seas. He was just eleven years old at the time (1618).

The Dutch golden age
The young boy grew up in the Dutch golden age, which gave birth to distinguished spirits as Rembrandt van Rijn, Maarten Tromp, Cornelis Leeghwater, Frans Hals, Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, Joost van den Vondel, Simon Stevin, Constantijn Huygens and many others. In those days the Netherlands were a Spanish province, but an extremely rebellious one. The 17th century Dutch were seafarers and teenager Michiel Adriaenszoon was crewmember of an armed trade vessel, often battling its way to carry cargo from Brazil and the East Indies.

Rider De Ruyter
His experience in combat made the 15-year-old Michiel decide to enlist in Prince Maurits’ army. He even bought himself a horse to join the cavalry troops. His mother carried the name De Ruyter after her brother (who probably mentored Michiel), who rode a horse in the prince’s army. (Ruyter is an old Dutch word for horse rider). Now he was a ruyter as well, the youngster chose to call himself Michiel de Ruyter.

Return to the sea
Despite lots of battles, the brave soldier only got injured once. He made career in the army and got married in 1631. Within a year his wife and his first daughter died. In the meantime De Ruyter studied the theoretic mathematics of naval navigation. At the age of 26, De Ruyter returned to the sea, enrolling in some disastrous whaling expeditions at the Greenland coasts. Thanks to his sober lifestyle and his reasonable income, he grew to be a well-to-do civilian and married for the second time in 1636.

Becoming an admiral
In 1640, Portugal rebelled against the Spanish oppression and the Dutch decided to give the Portuguese king a hand with a fleet of twenty ships. Michiel de Ruyter was appointed captain on one of these, De Haze, 360 tons, 26 cannons and 90 heads crew. De Ruyter was also given the honour of becoming rear admiral, responsible for the well being of the entire fleet.

Helping friends at St. Vincent
The Portuguese expedition turned out far from successful. The ships were not up to their battle tasks and when it came to the Battle at St. Vincent on November 4, 1641, the Dutch were defeated. The cowardly vice admiral (one place higher in rank than De Ruyter) took the safe place at the rear of the fleet, which caused De Ruyter to declare that his superior was a far from trustworthy man. When the Spaniards attacked two loose Dutch ships, De Ruyter decided to assist them instead of facilitating the assault. He was more a social being than a soldier: helping friends was more important than attacking enemies.

”Never again”
In severe storms, De Ruyter managed to get his heavily damaged ship in safe haven and consequently home. The first real expedition had brought no glory to the Dutch fleet, but the young captain was praised. Nevertheless he decided that it was a “never again” experience. He bought a trade ship called De Salamander, travelling to the West Indies and other distant regions. Then his second wife died in 1650, which made him consider giving up the deep and stay home with his children. He remarried for a third time two years later, but his peace did not last for long.

First Anglo-Dutch War
Conflicts between England and the Netherlands led to war in 1652, called the First Dutch War in England and the First English War in the Netherlands. De Ruyter was asked to command the flagship in the Channel. But the former admiral was “gantsch ongeneegen” (Old Dutch meaning “entirely without desire”) to take the job. The government of Zeeland - his home province - managed to change his mind after long pondering and an appeal on his chauvinism.

Commanding a run down fleet
Again, De Ruyter commanded a weak and run down collection of ships. The barely armed and badly equipped fleet of 30 vessels was attacked by the English fleet in the Channel on August 25. The experienced admiral George Ayscue led the British who controlled 40 fully armed ships, but De Ruyter managed to resist them. In October, he joined the rest of the Channel fleet, thus becoming vice admiral. His commander Witte de With decided to attack the clearly stronger British fleet in a blast attack (the balance was 49 against 84), although De Ruyter advised him to stay patient and wait until the time was right. Afterwards De With admitted his miscalculation.

Gaining honour against his will
However, the victory of Maarten Tromp over Robert Blake near Dungeness in December gave the Dutch command of the Channel. Although De Ruyter wanted to quit again, he commanded one of the ships. All captains were loaded with honour and praise after the victory, making it more difficult for De Ruyter to leave the fleet for real. When the tide turned and the Dutch were set back, De Ruyter stayed at his post however. In 1653 the country asked De Ruyter to become the nation’s vice-admiral, after which he left his province Zeeland to settle himself and his family in Amsterdam.

Defeating the English in the second war
In the second Anglo-Dutch war, the British fleet was defeated in the Four Days Battle (or Battle of the Downs, June 1666) by Michiel de Ruyter and his flagship De 7 Provinciën, but in August they inflicted a severe defeat on the Dutch and destroyed shipping along the Dutch coast. King Charles II let the fleet fall into a state of unreadiness that enabled De Ruyter to attack the British ships in the Thames and inflict heavy losses (1667), including the capture of the Royal Charles at Chatham.

”We dare not meet him with our fleet”
Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Dutch in the Medway (1664-72) confirms De Ruyter’s fame after his impressive appearances in the conflict:

If wars were won by feasting,
Or victory by song,
Or safety found in sleeping sound,
How England would be strong!
But honour and dominion
Are not maintained so,
They're only got by sword and shot,
And this the Dutchmen know!

The moneys that should feed us
You spend on your delight,
How can you then have sailor-men
To aid you in your fight?
Our fish and cheese are rotten,
Which makes the scurvy grow-
We cannot serve you if we starve,
And this the Dutchmen know!

Our ships in every harbour
Be neither whole nor sound,
And when we seek to mend a leak,
No oakurn can be found;
Or, if it is, the caulkers,
And carpenters also,
For lack of pay have gone away,
And this the Dutchmen know!

Mere powder, guns, and bullets,
We scarce can get at all;
Their price was spent in merriment
And revel at Whitehall,
While we in tattered doublets
From ship to ship must row,
Beseeching friends for odds and ends-
And this the Dutchmen know!

No King will heed our warnings,
No Court will pay our claims-
Our King and Court for their disport
Do sell the very Thames!
For, now De Ruyter's topsails
Off naked Chatham show,
We dare not meet him with our fleet-
And this the Dutchmen know!

Exclusive title
In 1673, De Ruyter was appointed lieutenant-admiral-general, an exclusive title that was especially created for him by Dutch Prince William III. He got to the top of his fame at the 1673 battles at Schooneveld and Kijkduin, while his son Engel climbed up to become rear admiral in the footsteps of his famous father.

Fatal injuries
An expedition against the French in south Italy proved to be his last journey. During the Battle near the Etna on April 22, 1676, De Ruyter was wounded by a cannonball. He lost both his legs, breathing his last breath because of the injuries on April 29 aboard D’Eendraght. Only on January 30 of the next year, his body returned to the Netherlands. He was buried in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, where his grave can still be visited.

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