Conferences are often opportunities to meet old friends and make new ones, and that was certainly true of last weekend’s conference in Amsterdam to mark the 350th anniversary of the Dutch attack on the Medway. I caught up with several people I hadn’t seen for ages, finally met some of my Dutch Twitter followers in person, and was greatly impressed by the Vrienden van de Witt, who provided much of the organisational groundwork and most of the audience, not to mention a really warm and genuine welcome, epitomised by the outstanding (and outstandingly generous) dinners provided on the two evenings. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve become Vrienden indeed!
Ultimately, though, any conference stands or falls on the strength of its programme, and this one certainly ticked that box. After the opening formalities, David Onnekink of Utrecht University provided an impressive overview of Anglo-Dutch relations through the seventeenth century, showing the progression from uneasy alliance to open hostility, and using a number of sources that were relatively unfamiliar to the Brits in the audience – such as Joost van der Vondel, the ‘Dutch Shakespeare. The first dual-speaker session saw Marc van Alphen, of the Netherlands Institute for Military History, discuss pay and morale among the seamen of the two navies, while Richard Blakemore of Reading University provided a lively overview of the development of the Stuart navy. (Richard was the only British speaker to display any sort of command of Dutch, which was well received by the audience – although all of the Dutch speakers, and the Dutch members of the audience, had no problem with proceedings that were otherwise conducted entirely in English. This remarkable level of easy fluency never ceases to impress me whenever I’m in the Netherlands, and, indeed, in Scandinavia too.) The second keynote came from Professor Henk den Heijer of Leiden University, who talked about the Asiatic and Atlantic dimensions of the second Anglo-Dutch war. This was followed by talks on the respective countries’ dockyards from Alan Lemmers of the NIMH and Ann Coats of Portsmouth University, chair of the Naval Dockyards Society, the other co-organisers of the conference. These talks brought out the important differences between the two systems, with the Dutch yards being much more integrated into their wider communities and mercantile networks.
The second day began with a keynote from Dr Louis Sicking of Leiden University, who provided a broad overview of early modern naval tactics and technology, including the adoption of the line-of-battle tactic by both navies. Erik Odegard of Leiden University then looked at Dutch amphibious tactics and the actual events of the Chatham raid (as well as pointing out just how insignificant most of the ships lost at Chatham actually were, a point that I also covered), while Philip MacDougall from the NDS spoke on the defence responses to the raid, notably the new fortifications built from the late 1660s onwards in the Thames and Medway, at Portsmouth, and at Plymouth. Then came what Ann Coats cheekily described as ‘the terrible two’ – Gijs Rommelse talking about Chatham as Johan de Witt’s finest hour, and yours truly lobbing in a few more revisionist grenades in an assessment of the political and ideological ramifications of the raid for the Stuart monarchy. My contention that in mid-June 1667 the raid was much less important to the Stuarts than the death of the duke of Cambridge, the second in line to the throne, led to a few raised eyebrows, but I escaped relatively lightly during the Q&A, whereas Gijs had to defend against a spirited denunciation of his definition of ‘republicans’ in the Dutch state from no less than Professor Jaap Bruijn, one of the legends of Dutch maritime studies. (Jaap still looks exactly the same as he did when I first met him thirty years ago, so I want some of whatever he’s having.)
The absence due to family issues of Chris Ware of the Greenwich Maritime Centre meant that Remmelt Daalder of the Netherlands National Maritime Museum had the next session to himself, and he presented a fascinating overview of how de Ruyter’s legacy had been shaped and often distorted for political ends in the 350 years since the raid – most chillingly, in his adoption by the Nazis as a propaganda symbol to encourage the Dutch to fight alongside the Germans against the British. Finally, the conference was closed by Professor John Hattendorf of the US Naval War College, who provided a characteristically concise but penetrating analysis of the talks and the overall themes of the two days. John suggested that the constant references to the raid as a ‘humiliation’ were a bit too glib, and that the real humiliation for Charles II was the failure to set out a fleet in the first place – a moot point, perhaps, but a suitably thought-provoking way of closing the conference.
A ‘sequel’, with many of the same speakers and delegates, is taking place at the University of Kent’s Chatham campus this weekend, but personal circumstances mean I can no longer go to that – a great pity, as it would be terrific to keep the party going! But the good news is that many of the papers from the two conferences are likely to be combined into a single book, which should be an absolute must for everyone with an interest in seventeenth century naval history and/or Anglo-Dutch relations. For my part, I’ll retain many happy memories of a glorious weekend in Amsterdam. And it’s only five years to the 350th anniversary of the start of the third Anglo-Dutch war…but I’ll definitely be back long before then!!