I once heard a thing, which I’ll paraphrase here: people are what they can’t stop doing. The context was intelligence gathering: if you want to catch or blackmail a foreign official, another spy, etc., you learn their compulsions. Me? I can’t stop buying Fabergé eggs (it’s a $1,500-a-day habit).
I tend to think that’s what history tells us about human nature. Things change all the time, but there are certain patterns of weird behavior that transcend generations and cultures. Patterns like totalitarianism and war. We don’t necessarily like these things, but humans just can’t stop doing them. War, particularly, has shaped so much of human history that I suspect it might be an inextricable part of human nature.
That said, humans aren’t always great at following through, even with the things we are hopelessly wont to do. Sometimes compulsion can bring us to war’s doorstep, but for whatever reason—maybe humanity’s just having an off day—we just can’t bring war to its traditional, horrific conclusions.
That’s what happened in 1784, when four warships converged in a fight for control over the Scheldt River. The defenders fired a single shot which completely annihilated the enemy flagship’s . . . soup kettle. The superior attacking force promptly decided “f**k this, not worth it,” then surrendered.
Were the Attackers French?
Ha ha ha—no. The French, believe it or not, enjoyed a reputation for military prowess before they were blitzkrieged by the German war machine in the 20th century. That’s why the United States military is modeled primarily after the French military. Hence the reason we say “lieutenant,” as opposed to the English-er “leftenant.” But I digress.
In this case, the belligerents were the Northern Netherlands and the Southern Netherlands.
I don’t mean to be pedantic, but I’m going to explain the context as if you don’t know anything about how the Netherlands became a country:
The short version is that, originally, the “Netherlands” just referred to the Germanic lowlands, and the area was populated by various counties and duchies that each had their own way of doing things. The Netherlands were, for a time, owned entirely by Spain. Spain, in turn, was being run by the House of Habsburg—royal Austrians who also controlled the Holy Roman Empire for nearly 400 years. So, for our purposes, consider Spain like a subsidiary of the Holy Roman Empire.
Starting in 1568, some of the Dutch people of the Netherlands led a “Dutch Revolt” against their Spanish landlords. Actually, it was a series of revolts and conflicts that lasted for 80 years. Finally, in 1648, with no clear path to victory for either the Dutch or the Spanish, the two factions reached a peace agreement.1
The result was that the Dutch gained their independence from the Spanish (and, therefore, the Holy Roman Empire). This was the first time the Dutch people had their own nation-state, occupying the northern part of the Netherlands region. This divided, by political lines, the Netherlands territory into the Northern Netherlands and the Southern Netherlands—the latter being the part that the Spanish were able to keep, in spite of the Dutch Revolts.
For a little modern context, the Northern Netherlands are, more or less, today’s Netherlands: the country. The Southern Netherlands, well—we don’t call those Netherlands anymore. Now we call ‘em Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg, or parts therein.2 3
Northern Dutch v. Southern Dutch (Holy Roman Empire)
So, by 1784, things were still tense between the Northern Netherlands and the Holy Roman Empire they’d left behind almost 140 years earlier. The Northern Netherlands was a pretty wealthy little patch of land, and they’d been keeping the Scheldt River on lockdown ever since 1585.
Hey, no big deal—it was their river, right? Sure, part of it was. Namely, the part that connected to the North Sea. But the whole river is 270 miles long, and it flows through a bunch of other places once it winds its way inland through the Netherlands.4
Belgium, which was part of the Southern Netherlands, which was in turn part of the Holy Roman Empire, had some nice little trading harbors in Ghent and Antwerp—both on the Scheldt River. But the Northern Netherlands controlled another important part of the Scheldt: the mouth. Anybody who wanted to travel from the North Sea and into the ports of Ghent and Antwerp had to go through the Northern Netherlands.
Locking up that river, therefore, was a bit of an economy buster for that part of the Holy Roman Empire.
You know who didn’t like it when the Dutch f**ked with the Holy Roman Empire’s money? The Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II.
“Ach! Du Dutch!” he said, “open up the Scheldt River! Schnell!” He also said it with ships. He sent three of them, including his own flagship, Le Louis, to open up that river even schneller.
One of the provinces of the Northern Netherlands wasn’t about to give up control over the Scheldt River without a very small fight, however. The Admiralty of Zeeland deployed a fleet to stop Joseph II’s ships in their tracks. This Northern fleet consisted of De Dolfijn, which, yup, means “dolphin” in Dutch.
Anyway, that’s it. They just sent the one ship. It was the classic one-versus-three naval gambit, where you send one-third the number of ships you should send, then just hope for the best.
It was a brilliant plan, apparently. You ever see a big dog sniff a little too much of a little dog’s undercarriage, then the little dog gets real street about it, flips the f**k out, and the big dog just rolls over like, “Oh, sh*t! You’re in charge now!” That’s a lot like what De Dolfijn did.5
On October 9, De Dolfijn, without making any kind of announcement, took one well-aimed shot, and blew away a soup kettle on the deck of Le Louis. At which point all of the Austrian sailors must have thought, “there but for the grace of god go I,” and Le Louis surrendered without another shot.
Le Louis, by the way, was a ship that, on its own, would have been more than a match for De Dolfijn, and it had two other ships in its fleet. Navals battles back then, mind you, typically consisted of number of volleys, and those volleys usually killed people or ruined the ships. Suffice to say, neither side really did what they were supposed to do: De Dolfijn fired in anger, but only broke a kettle, and Le Louis surrendered without any of its fleet taking any actual damage or casualties—except for that soup kettle.
Yeah, I bet that’s what Joseph II thought, too. He was pretty sure that he had distinctly ordered that a number of men die for this river to be opened. Instead, nobody died, and the river stayed closed. Unpleased, he declared war on the Northern Netherlands on October 30, 1784. The Dutch began raising an army to defend themselves from Austrian incursion.
Before you get too excited that this led to a proper war: it didn’t. Before either side had to shoot each other in their human bodies, rather than their crockery, the rest of Europe petitioned Joseph II to just f**king leave it. Joseph submitted and, as a consolation prize, the Northern Netherlands had to pay somewhere between 2 and 10 million guilder in damages.
And so, you see, a war was totally averted, for once. Don’t get too excited, though. I count 43 other wars in Europe during that same century, and people weren’t shooting soup kettles for all of ‘em.
- Daley, Jason. (2017, June 6). Researchers Catalogue the Grisly Deaths of Soldiers in the Thirty Years’ War. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/researchers-catalogue-grisly-deaths-soldiers-thirty-years-war-180963531/
- Encyclopedia.com. (2004). Dutch Revolt (1568-1648). Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dutch-revolt-1568-1648
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed July 18, 2018). Dutch Republic. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/place/Dutch-Republic
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed July 18, 2018). Schelde River. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/place/Schelde-River
- Saad, Mohammed Rafi. (2015, January 13). Ten Most Senseless Wars of All Time. Retrieved from https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/ten-most-senseless-wars-of-all-time.html/2