Title: "Swampin' Guns and Stabbing Irons"
The Austrian Netherlands, Liège arms and the American Revolution. 1770-1783
Authors: Huibrechts, Marion
Issue Date: 7-May-2009
Abstract: Academic interest to connect American and Belgian eighteenth century his tory is very limited, actually non-existing. The only link I found was a doctoral dissertation presented to the University of Leuven by Thomas K . Gorman in 1925. Some articles were published by amateur historian Albe rt de Dorlodot. A few master dissertations on related subjects were scat tered on university departmental book shelves. Two interesting articles were the only academically valuable and readily available information I could detect. It seemed I was treading on unexplored territory. In my various attempts to gather information for a preliminary stu dy description I was fortunate to get response from two of the sons of A lbert de Dorlodot. In 1947 Albert de Dorlodot began collecting notes on his ancestor, Fédéric Eugène François de Beelen-Bertholff, the first com mercial agent from the Austrian Low Countries to the United States. Read ing through the available archival documents, he unearthed evidence of a n arms supply route through the Austrian Netherlands during the 1770’s. Thus, the first questions gradually appeared. What was known of the Brit ish American colonies in the Austrian Netherlands? Did the Austrian Neth erlands support the Americans in their effort to resist British supremac y during the American Revolutionary War ? Were Liège made arms used duri ng the War and how important were they to the final outcome of the War ? How did they reach the American battlefields ? In addition to the available historical literature and a few published s ources, most of my research material is original to archives around the world. My archival research started in the Royal Archives in Brussels and various American archives. The most valuable archives to my research were the British National Archives in Kew and the Haus- Hof- u nd Staatsarchiv in Vienna. The results were complemented with documents from the Archives du Ministère des Affaires Etrangères and the Archives Nationales in Paris, Important information came from the National Park Service Rangers. “Why Liège ?” was a question that came up during every conversation. To Belgi an scholars the answer is easy. The presence of a well known arms indust ry which for centuries had been used by European countries, France, The Dutch Republic and Great Britain among them. The fundamental opening query in part I of my dissertation is to determi ne the importance of arms supplies for the American’s efforts to secure their independence. As I see it, the American Revolution and the war that resulted from it, had its source in four centuries of European colonization. Ultimately, w ith the end of the Seven Years in 1763, Great Britain became the unconte sted colonial power in North America. From 1770 onwards, the number of i ncidents involving the American mainland colonies and Great Britain incr eased. To some Americans the approaching thunder clouts called for prepa ratory measures. The Provincial Congress of Massachusetts decided in Oct ober 1774 to buy arms to defend the province. Because there were not eno ugh to be had on the American continent, they had to look elsewhere. Soo n after the decision of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, American vessels scouting for war supplies were present in the Dutch West Indies island Saint Eustatius. Ever since the seventeenth century the Dutch Rep ublic’s major city, Amsterdam, was known as a market for arms. The Ameri can’s presence on the Dutch island seems a logical first attempt to acqu ire arms. Also in 1774, the first private American vessels seeking warli ke stores arrived in Europe. Meanwhile, other American colonial assembli es were convening and deciding upon action. Long before a quasi general consensus on independence was reached, skirmishes in Lexington and Conco rd in April 1775 precluded armed resistance. Were the American colonies able to adapt their manufactories to fill the need for ammunition and arms during their struggle against Great Britai n ? The revolting Anglo-Americans, had not premeditated an armed resista nce. They had not assembled stocks of war supplies. Moreover, as a resul t of the reigning tensions during the years prior to the armed conflict, the governors -who were direct representatives of the crown-, limited t he provisions of powder for the colonists to a minimum. And indeed, shou ld hostilities erupt, there was a dire need of supplies. During the Seve n Years War all war supplies had come from Great Britain. That supply li ne was now cut off. From the first skirmishes onward, London used strong measures to limit c olonial armament supplies. Diplomatic intervention with European maritim e powers, intimidation of arms manufacturers and merchants, cruises alon g the European, American and West Indies coasts, surveillance of America n vessels by British warships in foreign ports, interception of European vessels on high seas, etc., every possible measure was taken by London. In pa rt II of my dissertation I explore the covert trade routes carrying acqu ired war supplies to countless American battle fields. From which perspe ctive did Europe look at Great Britain, its neglected navy and the rebel ling colonies on the American mainland ? Here the Dutch Republic, France and their respective West Indies islands take centre stage. I des cribe the circumstances in France, the Dutch Republic and the West Indie s up to the point actual war between these countries and Great Britain e rupted. Contrary to what might be expected from the non-rebelling Britis h West Indies isles, their survival made them difficult to control for t he homeland. What could London do to stop the extended West Indies area from illicitly supporting the American cause? The Americans received a helping hand from European countries with colonies in the West Indies. Fearing British reprisals, they refrained from sending arms and ammunition to the American mainland colonies. Send ing this merchandise to their own colonies with the purpose of defending them was another matter. It was a national trade. That later on the arm s and ammunition were traded with the Americans for alimentary commoditi es was considered a necessary evil to keep their colonies safe and quiet . For the Americans it meant they avoided the dangerous journey to Europ e. Even before the organized colonial effort, many private merchants sent o ut their vessels to Europe and the West Indian Islands to procure all th e supplies they could possibly lay their hands on. Reciprocally, French, Dutch, Spanish, Danish and other merchants seized the opportunity and – in search for profits- were filling their merchant vessels with supplies for the American colonies. Part III of my dissertation studies the first lap of the journey. The second part of the eighteenth century was a flourishing era for the Austrian Ne therlands. The area had for centuries been a battleground for European p owers. Now it had finally been free from foreign invasion for some decad es. Agriculture, industry and commerce had developed unintruded. To this effect, roads were repaired, canals excavated to enable the use of larg er barges and interconnected to avoid transfer of cargoes (Coupure at Gh ent) and the port of Oostende was modernized by constructing a non-tidal dock and a new lighthouse. A new network of roads and canals was constr ucted. A developing economic legislation favoured transit trade. Taxes a nd charges were lowered to attract export from Germany and, especially f rom Liège. The Austrian Netherlands were but a small and remote part of the great a nd influential Austrian Empire. Who took decisions on urgent matters and were these decisions validated by Vienna? In what way did actions from and appeals by the British consul and ambassador influence policy? Was t he Brussels government supportive to British demands ? Did the Austrian Netherlands profit from the American War for Independence ? If the answe r to this last question is affirmative, then was this the result of a de termined policy decision to support the Americans? These and many more q uestions are answered in part three of the dissertation. Were Liège and its arms industry involved in producing arms for the Amer ican war? The various authors, who, on both sides of the Atlantic, studi ed the logistical problems of the insurgents, failed to mention the impo rtance of arms supplies from Liège. Was there an arms transit through th e Austrian Netherlands ? If so, then which impact did the arms transfers through the Austrian Netherlands have on policy, economy and infrastruc tural developments in the Austrian Netherlands ? And finally, how important was it to the Americans ? The f irst American vessel arrived on the coast of the Austrian Netherlands in March 1776. Soon the British government realized that exports of arms w ere taking place from ports in the Austrian Netherlands. Immediately a r equest to put an end to the traffic was sent to Charles de Lorraine, the Governor General. After some weeks of diplomatic activity, he issued an ordinance on 27 April 1776, prohibiting the export of warlike stores. T he Financial Council, the third and most active of the three councils of government of the Austrian Netherlands, was given the task to control a nd approve of the export requests of military stores. Despite the publication of ordinances which were adopted under the press ure of British diplomatic representations to prohibit the export of war supplies through seaports of the Austrian Netherlands, the government in Brussels judged it not to be its duty, nor would it have been suitable, to alter the considerable transit trade in these commodities. Consequen tly large transport of arms and ammunitions, presumed to be headed for F rench ports, passed through the country. Thus the government managed to conciliate its commercial interests and its obligations toward Great Bri tain. Ooste nde and the Dutch ports could easily be reached through the Austrian Net herlands. In both cases, the muskets were first hauled to Leuven by road by way of Orsmael and Tienen. From there on transferred into barges and by canal and river to the river Schelde, where the two routes parted. T o Oostende, the barges went up to the Schelde to Gent, from whence the f ollowed the canals to Brugge and Oostende. In the direction of the Dutch Republic, the barges went down the Schelde via Antwerpen to the Schelde Delta. Thanks to the exertions of the Austrian government it was easier and safer in the 1770’s to transport exports from Liège by either of th ese two routes rather than directly down the river Maas towards the Dutc h Republic. The thousands of arms made in Liège and transferred through the Austrian Netherlands with the approval of the government contributed , be it in an inconsequential manner, to the conclusion of the War for A merican Independence and the resulting successful culmination of the Ame rican Revolution. The American War for Independence has as main characteristic that, witho ut allies and external support, the rebels, inhabitants of colonies whos e industrial development had as a result of British mercantilist policy not passed its first stages, have managed to acquire gunpowder and warli ke stores from Europe in defiance of the prohibition thereof from its mo ther country, the first naval power of the world since 1763. Liège arms kept both sides in the conflict going. The Americans won beca use they managed to keep the war effort going while Great Britain became wary and wanted to end the fight. Without Liège arms supplies during th e first stages of the war, hostilities would have ended sooner and Briti sh forces most likely would have won because they had more swampin’ guns and stabbing irons.
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: TH
Appears in Collections:Early Modern History (15th-18th Centuries), Leuven

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