It’s become something of a cliche to say that 2020 has been a year of tragedies on a global scale. Amid such horrors, it’s perhaps possible for individual losses to be diminished and to have less impact than would usually be the case. Last week, though, I learned the shocking news that my friend, the Dutch naval historian Gijs Rommelse, had died suddenly at the age of forty-three. Such an early death would be tragic in any circumstances, especially as he leaves a widow and a young family, but for the small world of seventeenth century naval history, his death represents an incalculable loss.
I first met Gijs twenty or so years ago when he was studying at the University of London. We hit it off immediately – the ranks of six-foot-something non-English naval historians of the 17th century were and are not large – and we stayed in touch after he went back to the Netherlands. There was also a similarity in our career paths; Gijs, too, forged a career outside the university sector by teaching secondary-age students while researching and writing naval history in his spare time. In that respect, though, I was always astonished (and perhaps a little shamed) by just how productive he was in the time available to him, especially as he had a growing family too. His first book, The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667). International raison d’état, mercantilism and maritime strife, a modified version of his doctoral thesis, was published in 2006, and he followed it with a biography of Sir George Downing, a history of the Dutch in the early modern world, a book on ideology and foreign policy in the early modern world, and several other titles in Dutch. A number of these books were jointly authored; Gijs loved to collaborate with others, and it was a pleasure to work with him and Alan James as a co-editor of our book on western naval ideologies, c.1500-1815. The planning session that the three of us had in Amsterdam, where we worked out the themes and overall plan for the book, was a particularly memorable time. He always had a new project in the pipeline, the most notable at the time of his untimely death being a history of the Dutch navy from 1400 to 1815. He was also a good friend of this blog and contributed several guest posts, probably the most memorable of which was his review of the film known in the Netherlands as Michiel de Ruyter and elsewhere as Admiral: Command and Conquer. His workrate was phenomenal, as was his ability to juggle several ambitious projects at any one time – not to mention family life and teaching History to teenagers. He was remarkably modest, always self-deprecating about his command of English (which was actually better than that of many native speakers) and profusely apologetic when asking me if I could check references in British sources for him – his sign off line, ‘thanks ever so much’, was more than just a standard courtesy because I knew he absolutely meant it.
Historians should die in the fullness of their years, leaving a substantial body of work behind them. Gijs certainly achieved the latter in the limited time given to him, but it is a tragedy both for his family and for naval history that he was denied the former. He had so much more to contribute, and for my part I shall miss a good friend who has been taken far too soon.