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The Kettle War

Photo: B toy Anucha/Shutterstock.com

The Kettle War of 1784 was a quintessential David versus Goliath story. A formidable naval fleet of the Holy Roman Empire faces a lone battleship, underpowered and hopelessly outnumbered, yet comes back defeated. In the short battle, lasting less than a day, only a single shot was fired, and the only casualty was a soup kettle.

The circumstances that led to this bizarre conflict began more than two hundred years ago, at a time when the Low Countries—corresponding roughly to the present-day Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg—were under Spanish rule, overseen by the House of Habsburgs, who also controlled the Holy Roman Empire. In 1568, a group of seven Dutch states occupying the northern part of the region rose up in revolt against their Spanish rulers. After eighty years of conflict, the Habsburgs relented and the Dutch gained independence to form the Dutch Republic, which eventually became modern Netherlands. The southern provinces, which would later become Belgium and Luxembourg, stayed under Spain.

More than a century passed since the Dutch gained their independence, but relation between the Dutch Republic and Spain still remained tensed. The cause of enmity between the two was the Scheldt river that the Dutch had under lockdown since 1585. The river rises in northern France, flows through the southern provinces then briefly enters the Dutch Republic before emptying into the North Sea. Before the Dutch took control of the river mouth, the southern provinces had two flourishing ports on the Scheldt, namely Ghent and Antwerp. With the closing of the Scheldt for shipping, the trade shifted from these ports to Amsterdam and Middelburg and seriously crippled the commerce of the southern provinces.

The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was not pleased that his empire was losing money, and he demanded that the barriers be removed and again the Dutch refused. In 1784, Joseph II sent three ships from Antwerp into the Scheldt in order to force the river to open. In response, the Dutch sent a single ship, the Dolfijn, to intercept the Imperial ships. They met on October 9, 1784, near the town of Saeftinghe in southwest Netherlands. Records are scarce on what exactly happened that day, but the popular narrative is that the Dolfijn took one well-aimed shot at the enemy’s flagship Le Louis and completely destroyed a kettle on the ship’s deck. The captain of Le Louis surrendered without a fight.

Emperor Joseph II was understandably furious. He declared war on the Dutch and sent an army to occupy the old Fort Lillo, north of Antwerp. The emperor’s forces broke several dikes, inundating a large area and drowning many people.

Eventually both parties agreed to end conflict and came to the negotiating table. The Dutch retained control of the Scheldt, but had to pay several million Dutch florins to the Habsburgs as compensation. The Scheldt river didn’t stay closed for long. As the Dutch lost authority over their territories to the French, the river was reopened for commerce in 1792.

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