ARMED NEUTRALITY. Conceived and phrased by the Danes, proclaimed by Catherine the Great of Russia on 29 February 1780, and also subscribed to by Sweden and several other European nations, Armed Neutrality began as a response to specific British naval actions but became a long-lived principle of neutral rights. In order to enforce a blockade of its rebellious colonies, England claimed the right to inspect neutral ships at sea and seize contraband goods bound for America. In practice, this policy focused primarily on ships from the Netherlands. The Dutch island of St. Eustatius in the Caribbean was the center of their trade with the Americans. Goods from the American states bound for Europe were exchanged at St. Eustatius for Dutch and French military supplies, which were essential to the American war effort. Further alienating the British, Dutch ports offered a safe haven to American privateers and ships of the U.S. Navy. While the Americans, Spanish, and French had no problem with the Dutch trading with both sides in the war, the British found it an intolerable betrayal of the Treaty of Alliance of 1678. The British government was willing to allow the Dutch to carry non-military goods, but insisted that they cease supplying arms and ammunition to the Americans. In 1779 the Netherlands informed the British that they refused to limit their trade in any way. In response, the British announced their intention to put a stop to the shipment of military stores in Dutch ships through the English Channel, issuing what they thought was a fair warning. Again, the Dutch ignored the British and in January 1780, Commodore Fielding encountered a small Dutch fleet off Weymouth, England, and demanded to search the Dutch ships. When the Dutch commander, Count Byland, refused, Fielding fired upon the outgunned Dutch, who surrendered. In response, the Netherlands filed diplomatic protests. Catherine, seeing a major diplomatic opportunity to increase Russian influence, took a more proactive approach, announcing that her ships would resist all search efforts at sea. She then entered into a defensive treaty for the protection of neutral shipping in wartime with Denmark and Sweden and called upon the belligerents to accept the treaty's terms.
The principles of the treaty were: (1) that neutral vessels may navigate freely from port to port and along the coasts of the nations at war; (2) that the effects belonging to subjects of the said powers at war shall be free on board neutral vessels, with the exception of contraband merchandise (that is, "free ships make free goods"); (3) that as to the specification of contraband, the Empress Catherine holds to what is enumerated in the tenth and eleventh articles of her treaty of commerce (1766) with Great Britain, extending her obligations to all the powers at war (that treaty did not include naval stores or ships' timbers as contraband); (4) that to determine what constitutes a blockaded port, this designation shall apply only to a port where the attacking power has stationed its vessels sufficiently near and in such a way as to render access thereto clearly dangerous; (5) and that these principles shall serve as a rule for proceedings and judgments as to the legality of prizes.
Spain and France immediately accepted these principles. Great Britain, which received the declaration of neutral rights from the Russian ambassador on 1 April 1780, could accept the first and third principles as a matter of policy but would not recognize them as "rights." To do so, the British ministers determined, would be to undermine their most effective military weapon, the blockade. They therefore decided on the course of publicly disregarding the Armed Neutrality while actually being very fearful of its consequences.
Since it was supposed to be the League of Armed Neutrality, Catherine announced the creation of an armed fleet to enforce the principles of neutrality and called on other nations to join. This fleet consisted of 84 Russian, Danish, and Swedish warships. Most of the nations of Europe eventually signed on, and even the United States attempted to join, despite being one of the belligerents in the war. When the Netherlands indicated a willingness to join the League, the British government decided that it was better to declare war on the Dutch than to have them enter into an alliance with the Russians. In November 1780 the States-General of the Netherlands voted to join the League. The British government felt they had to act before the Dutch officially joined the League, and so declared war on the Netherlands in December, hoping thereby to avoid dragging the rest of the League into the war. The British ministers, fearing that Russia might seize upon the pretext of the Dutch voting to join the League and enter the war as a Dutch ally, voted to offer Catherine the Mediterranean island of Minorca if she would side with them in the war. George III refused, however, to approve this deal, which ended up not mattering. The Dutch went ahead and signed onto the League at the beginning of 1781, but Catherine voided this treaty when she learned of the English declaration of war on the Dutch, nullifying their neutral status.
The British government acted quickly to take advantage of its war on the Dutch, directing Admiral George Rodney to attack St. Eustatius. Rodney's fleet seized the island, but in doing so, he became bogged down in the Caribbean and was unable to join the British fleet in the encounter with the French off the Chesapeake Capes, which led in turn to French victory and Cornwallis' surrender.
Catherine attempted in December 1780 to use the leverage of the League of Armed Neutrality to mediate an end to the Revolutionary War. France was initially interested in the offer and Britain agreed so long as Joseph II of Austria participated, but the tangle of negotiations soon broke down and events at Yorktown decisively terminated the effort at a mediated peace. Other than the unintended consequence of Britain declaring war on the Netherlands, however, the League of Armed Neutrality accomplished so little that Tsarina Catherine called it an "Armed Nullity."
Syrett, David. Neutral Rights and the War in the Narrow Seas. Fort Leavenworth, Kan., U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1985.
revised by Michael Bellesiles