The battle of White Water Bank 1689

Battle of White Water Bank
Map for location of the White Water Bank
Date:27 July 1689
Outcome:French Victory
FranceUnited Provinces

1 Fighting at White Water Bank

1.1 Battle or skirmish?

The battle of White Water Bank took place near Texel in 1689. It's a rather unknown fight between French privateers and Dutch merchantmen. Some might therefore consider it as a clash that is part of privateering history, but this is not warranted by the facts. The fight was a true naval battle, with the adversaries cannonading each other in two regular lines. The ships on both sides were also much more similar then one might think. Finally the losses were in line with those of a considerable naval battle.

1.2 The White Water Bank

At the time some spoke of a fight at the 'latitude of Doggers-Sant', others of a fight near the 'White Water', or 18 lieues (c. 80 km) north west of Textel. In the old days the White Water Bank was considered to be the southern part of the Dogger Bank, and therefore all three opinions actually agree with each other. Nowadays the White Water Bank is not considered to be part of the Dogger Bank, and therefore it makes most logical to call this the Battle of the White Water Bank.

The name of the White Water Bank seems to derive from the Water actually looking a bit whiter due to the bottom of white sand. In general the Dutch, and probably also the English would just have called it the 'White Water' or 'Witte Water' at the time. I thought it better to name it Battle of White Water Bank in order to reflect that it was a naval battle, and to make the naming consistent with that of the Battle of the Dogger Bank.

2 The Order of Battle

French OOB Battle of White Water Bank 1689
Ship guns Captain notes:
La Sorcière26 Herpin
Le Profond 40 D'Amblimont* The fluyt
La Trompeuse12 De La Motte
La Serpente26 De Selingue
*Commander of this squadron
Dutch OOB Battle of White Water Bank 1689
Ship guns Captain Destination: Comment
WIC Barck 4 Cornelis Gijsen to Curaçao Captured
De Krijgsman 6 Krijgsman van MedenblickMedemblik to Surinam fluyt had 6 guns Captured The fluyt
St Jan Baptist 24 Gerrit Pauw** to Curaçao could mount 36-40guns Captured
Gouden Leeuw 24 Loefhouwer* to Guinee could mount 36-40guns Burnt
Stad Vlissingen 18 Marten Sorg Medemblik to Surinam and 6 Swivel guns Blown up a Frigate
*Commander of this squadron
**The OHC has 'Gerrit' as this captain's first name, and on multiple instances.

2.1 No names, No story

For centuries historians have known about the small battle of White Water Bank. In the nineteenth century the French had Selingue's relation printed by Sue. The Dutch historian De Jong mentioned Some West Indies ships taken

However, historians of the nationalist era did not get paid to research and publish details about small (but significant) defeats. Without details from both sides this resulted in unproven claims by privateers that probably took some ships. The fact is that without verifyable names of ships and captains, there is no story and it's like events never happened.

2.2 The OOB and the Fluyt

In February 2014 I accidently read the names of the ships on the Dutch side in the recently digitized Oprechte Haarlemse Courant (OHC). The next step was to build the story of events, but there was one small problem with that. In general eye-witnesses were not able to read the name plates of ships they saw in combat1. If they did make observations about the enemy ships, these were often limited to the number of guns of enemy warships, or to the type of construction. In this battle they distinguished between the ships of the enemy that were build as a fluyt, and regular ships. Both sides had 1 ship that was a fluyt, for the French this was the Profond, for the Dutch it was less clear.

After the eye-witness accounts on both the French and Dutch sides, there were two candidates left to be the Dutch fluyt; the St Jan Baptist and the Krijgsman. At this moment the power of digitalization came in: The papers sometimes made explicit mention of a ship being a ship or a fluyt, but also designated fluyts as ships. We had to go to 10 August 1683 to read about a vessel Krijgsman designated as a fluyt. (We also found a fluyt St. Jan Baptist, but that had Adriaen Claever as captain before and after this conflict).

2.3 Merchant ships

In popular imagination privateers sail small well manned ships that board big slow merchant ships. The Dutch sailed 2 ships of a kind of regular defendable merchant ship that could also be found in the Mediterranean or the East Indies. Later on the French said that these two could mount 36-40 guns, but carried only 24 on this journey. The Vlissingen was a light frigate. Like most fluyts the Krijgsman was not a very defendable ship. The WIC Barck was so small that it was insignificant in this battle.

The Dunkirk shipyards were famous for building frigates. There were basically three kinds: The 1st rate frigate-ship (vaisseaux-frégate) with 12 pounders on the lower deck. The 2nd rate frigate-ship with 8 pounders on the lower deck, and the light frigates. Here is a list of Dunkirk frigates, which also has the Serpente and indicates that our French ships where armed with 6 pounders. The Sorcière had been constructed in Dunkirk in 1676, the Serpente in 1678. Both had been rented out by Louis XIV in 1680 to Virnot, a merchant from Lille, for 1200 Livres a month. According to the source informing us about this (cf. below), the Serpente had 16 guns and 110 men and would be wrecked near Gravelines in 1691.

The French ships were fast; this was the first requirement for them to be used in privateering, The three largest ships were probably quite equal to the Dutch in artillery strength, and of these the Profond probably had the best artillery of all participants. However, in the end guns were not the main weapon of privateers. For conquering resisting merchants they relied on boarding them with a superior number of men. A ship like the Serpente could have 200 men on board while a defending ship like the Gouden Leeuw had only 50.

To the contrary there are sources that claim that while Jean Bart and Forbin were captured by the Nonsuch in 1689, one of them commanded the Serpente. In his memoirs Forbin indeed alludes to having the command of a 16 gun ship, but does not name it Serpente. It's therefore best to stay with what the French papers said, and that was that the Nonsuch captured the 'Yeux(28)' and the 'Railleuse'(16). The sources below have the basis for this.

What should be noted is that even though the Serpente and Sorcière might have been built for the war fleet originally, this did not make them fit to be used in a regular fleet battle. All of the involved ships fell at least two steps short of a sturdy 40 gun ship with 170+ men. In general the Serpente and Sorcière were also not much different from commercial frigates. One can however think of something that De Jong remarked about the Dunkirk frigates, that is that the Dutch could also build frigates that were just as fast, but that this was hardly done. One can then speculate that it was King Louis's money that made the Dunkirk yards build such good ships. Imagine less cargo space, more expensive constructions, parts, etc. resulting in ships that sail much better.

2.4 A WIC convoy

The Dutch squadron was basically a WIC convoy. WIC meaning West Indische Compagnie. The ships busied themselves with trade in slaves, gold, ivory and sugar. The St Jan Baptist e.g. had also sailed to Curaçao in the summer of 16872.

3 The Dutch convoy leaves Holland

3.1 The French find the convoy

For the Dutch we have Gerrit Pauw of the St. Jan Baptist as eye-witness. In his perspective the convoy left the Dutch coast on 25 July, and encountered the French on 27 July 9 AM. The OHC had: On sunday the West Indies ships left Texel for sea: The St Jan Baptist, Gerrit Paeau; the Gouden Leeuw, Loefhouder; the Frigate Vlissingen, Mat. de Sorger; and the Krijgsman, Jan Medenblick, all destined to circumvent EnglandOHC 28 July 1689

On the French side we have De Selingue3. From his perspective the French squadron had left Dunkirk on 19 July, and was 67 km NNW of Texel at 3 AM in the morning of the 27. It then got to know of 5 ships about 80 km north west of Texel. The convoy was not in view, and it was night, so we have to assume the French got this info from ships in the area. The French next sailed before wind to pursue the convoy.

De Selingue was detached to get a closer look at the Dutch. He noted that when he came into the range of one and a half cannon shot the Dutch raised their flags and brailed their main sails. Almost in range of a cannon De Selingue made some speed again, and the Dutch brailed even more sail. D'Amblimont and others approached as fast as possible, and when they where almost in range, all French ships hoisted the French flag.

3.2 The Dutch decide to stand

From the above it's clear, and De Selingue explicitly says so, that the Dutch did not make an attempt to flee. They probably had very good reasons to act like this, and from the above we can guess these. If we rely on the statement that their ships could carry much more guns than they did, we can assume that the St. Jan Baptist and Gouden Leeuw were in the upper league of solid and big merchant ships. These kinds of ships could stand up to a privateer's guns, and could have up to 50 or 70 crew.

Even so, these kind of ships still had to fear getting boarded. Having 50 crew did not mean having 50 fighters on board and privateers generally had a lot more than 50 men. Keeping a line was a sensible course to at least prevent boarding from happening from two sides, and it also helped to prevent enemies broadsiding from behind or in front of the merchant. Apart from all this De Selingue later on mentioned that the ships had lots of soldiers destined for the West Indies on board. It was therefore quite possible that some Dutch ships were also rather well manned.

4 The Battle

4.1 The line of battle

We have the French line by De Selingue: Sorcière, Profond, Trompeuse, Serpente. From his relation we can also deduce that the Vlissingen was last in the Dutch line, and the Gouden Leeuw one but last. The wind was South West, and so the French had the advantage of the wind.

4.2 The Dutch admiral on fire

The French approached till musket range before opening fire, and soon things got out of hand for the Dutch. De Selingue stated that his artillery quickly forced the Vlissingen out of the line. This might be true, or the reason might be that the Vlissingen feared to get surrounded by the Serpente and the Trompeuse. However, the Vlissingen dropped out of the line, and the Serpente pursued. De Selingue then passed the stern of the Gouden Leeuw and fired a broad side through it. To all appearances, this was what ignited a blazing fire on the poop of the Dutch admiral. From a rather long distance Cornelis Louwe (cf. below) noticed this fire.

The burning Gouden Leeuw next sailed before the wind, and the Profond pursued a bit. The Serpente again fought the Vlissingen. Soon D'Amblimont left the burning Dutch admiral, and approached the Vlissingen from below the wind. This gave Selingue reason to abandon the Vlissingen and to approach the St Jan Baptist, which had been fighting the Sorcière.

4.3 The Vlissingen explodes

The Serpente next attacked the St. Jan. They exchanged some broad sides, while the Sorcière and Trompeuse concentrated on the Krijgsman. The Profond boarded the Vlissingen, but while her boarding party was on the Vlissingen the ship exploded. D'amblimont lost his 'enseigne' and his second in command was wounded. From the crew of the Vlissingen only a boy was saved. The Profond had 35 killed and 40 wounded and was on fire. From the words of Gerrit Pauw and Cornelis Louwe one can deduce that this explosion happened shortly after the Gouden Leeuw got on fire, probably before 10 AM.

4.4 The St Jan and Krijgsman

From a distance Louwe had the impression that there was a kind of pause in the fighting after the explosion. This is quite likely, because De Selingue sailed to help the burning Profond. Only after seeing the fire extinguished did Selingue rejoin the fight. The fight next continued for a few hours without the French attempting to board the Dutch. Even though the forces were now very unequal it seems that St Jan Baptist and Krijgsman fought till there sails were gone. Perhaps they hoped to be rescued, but when no help arrived they surrendered at about 12 or 1 o'clock.

The WIC barck fled, but was captured later. The Gouden Leeuw meanwhile burned to the ground. Its sloop with survivors was later picked up by the Serpente.

5 Dutch Warships too busy

The Dutch had a squadron of 3 cruisers near Callandsoog. These were the warships of Paulus van der Dussen, Van Bassen and the late Gerrit Hooft. Probably warships of 50, 40 and 30 guns4, and certainly more than a match for D'Amblimont's squadron. Louwe adverted these ships, and it seems they sailed towards the battle for a while. They turned back after some time, because they had orders to await a convoy from the Meuse5. A look at the map shows that this was probably a very valid reason to turn back. But, it sounds as a lame excuse, and reflected a situation that was not acceptable for Dutch shipping.

6 Dunkirk

After the battle the French sailed to Dunkirk. On the way they took a dogger (fishing ship) on the 28th. On the 3rd the squadron entered the banks near Dunkirk, and on 4 August the French with the St Jan Baptist and the Krijgsman entered the harbor. The WIC barck was brought in on the 5th. Selingue estimated the value of the St Jan at 100,000 livres, and found the Fluyt also a rich ship.

Selingue found he had lost the vast majority of his manoeuvres (i.e. ropes), haubans (rigging) and sails. His ship had been hit multiple times. He had 1 man dead and 1 dangerously wounded, as well as a lot of sailors with lesser wounds. Herpin had 2 wounded, and De la Motte one dead and one wounded. Apart from the 35 killed and 40 wounded on the Profond, privateering seemed a low risk occupation. Hundred and fifty years later Léon Guérin probably did not know about these numbers when he described this battle in his Histoire Maritime de France.

7 Sources

I've chosen not to clutter this page with too many notes. Everybody can check the sources I used, and who knows somebody can add something. Perhaps the letter by d'Amblimont that Sue refers to?

On the French side Eugene Sue has a letter by Monsieur de Selingue on p.66. The Gazette de Renaudot has the losses on the Profond. There is a modern work which I used to retrieve some details for French shipsLes Tyrans de la Mer

The nineteenth century historian De Jong has this battle on page 182. In a single sentence 'shortly after that, some West Indies ships were attacked and taken after a heavy fight'. The primary Dutch eye witness was skipper Gerrit Pauw of the St Jan Baptist. A letter by him from Duinkerken made into the Oprechte Haarlemsche Courant and the Amsterdamsche Courant in a probably somewhat mutilated form.

Cornelis Louwe was an eye witness who arrived in Schiedam shortly after the battle. He observed a fierce battle between 4 Dutch and 4 French ships, both sided having one fluyt. Furthermore a big fire near the mizzen mast of a French(!) ship, that could not be extinguished, and let to the ship exploding. He's also the one who adverted the Dutch cruisers.

For the battle between the Nonsuch and Forbin Memoires de Forbin page 268. For the captured Forbin then commanding the Serpente Jean Bart et la guerre de course For the 13/23 May Nonsuch battle from the English side London Gazette 16 May 1689. For the French media about the Nonsuch battle we have the Gazette de Renaudot

8 Notes

1) There is no pun intended here. If a ship was named 'Mary' it would have a mother and child on the stern. The Eagle would have a big eagle etc. etc. This was a 'nameplate', a very visible and expensive nameplate. There is a logic behind this investment in art.
2) The OHC of 1 April 1688 for the earlier trip to Curaçao
3) In Sue he's named 'Selingue', in the printed index of the archive where his testimony is found, he's named Relingue, but I'm very convinced that Sue knew to tell Selingue and Relingues apart. Antoine Selingue is also famous for greeting James II when he arrived in France in disguise after fleeing England.
4) Among them most probably the Stad Nimwegen
5) The OHC of 2 August 1689 for the orders