I’m delighted to welcome a distinguished guest blogger this week, to bring relief from the recent overdose of politics! Gijs Rommelse is one of the pre-eminent Dutch maritime and political historians of the early modern period, being the author of The Second Anglo-Dutch War: International Raison d’état, Mercantilism and Maritime Strife, the co-author with Roger Downing of A Fearful Gentleman: Sir George Downing in The Hague, 1658-72, and co-editor with David Onnekink of Ideology and Foreign Policy in Early Modern Europe, 1650-1750. He is also the editor of Holland Historisch Tijdschrift, in which the Dutch version of the following review first appeared.
I’ve mentioned the lavish new Dutch film about the great 17th century admiral Michiel de Ruyter in an earlier blog on this site. Although it seems to have reached the USA and even China, there’s still no sign of its English subtitled version, titled Admiral, in British cinemas (or DVD shops) – but then, we’re most definitely the bad guys in this, so perhaps the distribution company reckons there won’t be too much of an audience. Consequently, all I’ve seen of the film are some stills and its rather impressive trailer, embedded below at the end of Gijs’s review. However, even this limited view enables me to add a couple more jarring notes from a British perspective. Quite why the film-makers decided to show British warships flying the Union flag as an ensign is beyond me, especially as they seem to be flying ensigns as jacks…and as for casting 68 year old Charles Dance as King Charles II, who would have been at most 43 years old in the period covered by the film, presumably this was some sort of ploy to pack in Dance’s fans from Game of Thrones, as I suggested in this blog a few months back. But I’ll reserve further judgement until I see the film in its entirety, and will hand over in the meantime to Gijs – with big thank you’s to him both for his permission to reproduce this translation of his review on this site, and for his generous mention of my essay on British perceptions of de Ruyter!
A lieutenant-admiral in a naval battle, sabre in hand, swinging over on a rope to an English ship to personally kill a dozen enemies? Prince William III of Orange forcing De Ruyter, through blackmail and threats against his family, to sail to the Mediterranean to commit suicide in a battle against a larger French fleet, because the Prince, prompted by the Rotterdam schemer Johan Kievit, had come to regard the legendary naval commander as the heir of Johan de Witt’s republican heritage? The highly experienced French commander Abraham Duquesne fooled in a childishly simple way by De Ruyter, and sailing his entire squadron onto a sandbank at Kijkduin? Cornelis Tromp gradually developing from a jealous, undisciplined prima donna to a hidden admirer of De Ruyter? These are just some examples of the historical inaccuracies and fabrications which the screenwriters of the new film spectacle Michiel de Ruyter employ to dramatize the heroism and tragedy in the life of the famous naval hero for the general public.
In about two and a half hours, the film tells the story of the career of the great admiral from Flushing during the three Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652-1654, 1665-1667 and 1672-1674), and his eventual death at the hands of a French fleet in 1676. By placing De Ruyter on board Admiral Maarten Harpertsz Tromp’s flag ship Brederode moments before his demise during the Battle of Scheveningen (1653) and letting Tromp’s dying words be directed to him, the makers suggest that De Ruyter was sent by Tromp on a kind of sacred mission to be his successor and lead the Dutch fleet in battle. In reality, this would happen only in 1665, after De Ruyter’s predecessor Wassenaar van Obdam’s ship Eendracht had exploded during the Battle of Lowestoft.
It is true that Johan de Witt, who in 1653 took office as pensionary of the province of Holland, recognized in De Ruyter a formidable talent, someone who would be particularly suitable as a fleet commander. The film rightly makes clear that De Witt played a crucial role in the professionalization of the fleet organization and the building of a strong standing navy. A series of defeats during the First Anglo-Dutch War had shown that the old model – a limited number of purpose-built warships supplemented for the occasion by a much larger number of converted merchant ships – was completely outdated. The great statesman managed to create political support for the ambitious naval construction programme through his extensive network and also organized the financial resources required for this. Incidentally, the film also rightly raises the point that the construction of the standing navy was very much at the expense of the land army, and thus facilitated the invasion by the armies of Louis XIV in 1672. As the film reveals, in fact it was De Ruyter who repeatedly repelled the principal threat posed by the British and French, and thus played a crucial role in the survival of the Republic as an independent state.
Looking at the film, one would get the impression that the career of De Ruyter lasted only a few months, or at most two or three years. The admiral himself, played by Frank Lammers, and his wife and children, never appear a day older. This is because the political and military ramifications of the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars are essentially telescoped into one conflict. It is also striking that one of De Ruyter’s most famous feats is entirely missing from the film: namely, the reconquest of the slave stations of the West India Company (WIC) on the West African coast in 1664-1665. It was this voyage that led activists noisily to disrupt the gala premiere of the film on 26 January 2015 at the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam (see their Facebook page). According to their banners, De Ruyter was a ruthless advocate of slavery. Far-fetched and slightly unhistorical as this accusation might be, the noise of this protest did provide a nice counterbalance to the uncritical worship which De Ruyter invariably receives, and still enjoys in Dutch naval circles. The Royal Netherlands Navy was one of the partners of the production Farmhouse Film & TV.
Particularly interesting in the film is the role of De Ruyter in the political struggle between the republicans, headed by the brothers Johan and Cornelis de Witt, and Orangists seeking the elevation of Prince William III. In the film, De Ruyter is shown as a good friend of the republican brothers; moreover, his naval successes formed an essential pillar for their regime. By contrast, in the most authoritative Dutch literature, most notably the biography by Ronald Prud’homme van Reine, De Ruyter is presented as someone standing more or less outside the political fray, a man who had respect for De Witt and worked together with him, but who otherwise was really only interested in the fortunes of the dear fatherland. This picture seems to have carried over from 19th century studies, which were particularly interested in the glorious deeds of illustrious heroes, and a De Ruyter who was an opponent of Orangism would not fit this image. Interestingly, David Davies recently argued, in an English-language collection of essays on De Ruyter’s life, that far too little attention has been focused on his political role. The film is actually making this same point, although the film-makers were probably just trying to create a villainous opponent to make the story interesting for the viewer, rather than offering a serious reinterpretation. Anyway, maybe it is time that the history of the Dutch fleet in the 17th century should be seen explicitly through a prism of political ideology and polarization.
Finally, it should be noted that the viewer is treated to spectacular battle scenes with sizeable fleets, attractive locations, and a lavish view of the social, economic and religious life of the Dutch Golden Age.