Unless you're either an Amsterdam-dwelling pothead or an inexplicably-massive fan of 17th-century Dutch maritime history, Admiral Michiel de Ruyter is probably the greatest naval commander you've never heard of. Sure, I know what you're thinking, what's so badass about clogs and windmills, but stick a sock in it – this dude is one of the toughest motherfuckers to ever come out of the Low Countries, and one of the most amazing seaborne murder-machines to ever pound his enemies to death with his massive (cannon) balls. In nearly 60 years sailing on the high seas during the Golden Age of Dutch Badassery, this Netherlandian (Netherlanderthal?) aquatic destruction-monger served in seven wars, led warships into combat in over forty engagements, and fought more than fifteen massive full-scale naval battles against the toughest sailors Earth has ever seen. He swordfought Muslim corsairs on the Barbary Coast, traded broadsides with French frigates in the Bay of Biscay, ballknocked scurvy pirate vessels in the Caribbean, invented the concept of the Marine Corps, and once sailed a fleet of warships up the Thames River into the heart of England, burned half their fleet while it was still in port, and then stole the fucking flagship of the English Navy – and you can be pretty damned sure that it ain't all that easy to roll up against the most fearsome navy in the world and somehow gank an 80-gun, 130-foot-long warship out from under their noses… especially when that ship is named after the reigning King of England.
So that's something.
Michiel de Ruyter was born in the Netherlands province of Zeeland in 1607, the 4th of 11 kids born in a port town to a humble guy who worked as basically a 17th century beer keg delivery man. Eager for something a little more exciting than a life of carting casks of hootch around town for a bunch of rich assholes, Michiel joined on with as a cabin boy with a local whaling crew at the age of 11, where he'd sail the high seas, harpoon gigantic whales on the high seas of the North Atlantic Moby-Dick style, then try to somehow get back home alive before a Spanish warship or an English pirate could board his vessel, kill the entire crew, and rob them of their hard-earned paychecks.
And this was the easy part.
By the time he was just 15 de Ruyter was already a Hoogbootsmansjongen, which is the Dutch word for "petty officer", and I only even include it here because Dutch is one of the most amazing written languages ever and I fully intend to include as many Dutch words as possible in the writing of this article. Well around this time the Spanish military was besieging the Dutch fortress at Bergen-op-Zoom during one of those seemingly-infinite inter-European wars of the Early Modern Era, so de Ruyter's whaling ship was loaded up with cannons and conscripted to help break the siege. De Ruyter got his first taste of battle during this engagement, when he served as a deck gunner and hammered the Spanish troops with something called chain shot, which is basically two cannonballs tied together by a barbed chain. Think of them like cannonball nunchucks that are fired at you at incredibly high velocities, and the chain is strong enough to cut a man in half through the pelvis.
With terrifying weapons like that at his disposal De Ruyter helped break the siege of Bergen-op-Zoom, but then a few months later his whaling ship was attacked and captured by Spanish pirates and the young Hoobootsmansjongen was wounded in the head by shrapnel and subsequently taken prisoner. As you'd expect, he escaped his captors, swam to shore despite, you know, having been shot in the head with a cannon, and then hitched his way through Spain, across the Pyrenees, through France, and back to the Netherlands. Thanks in no small part to his familiarity with badass pirate shit, de Ruyter was then promoted to First Mate, then Captain, and finally recruited by the guys who owned his ship to hunt out a group of pirates known in Dutch as the "Duinkerker Kapers" who were operating off the coast of Dunkirk. De Ruyter didn't blink – he took on this pirate caper by sailing straight into their turf, greasing up the deck of his vessel with rancid butter, and then having his men wear special socks that would give them better grip on the surface. When the pirates eventually boarded him, they were sliding all over the place like dumbasses, giving his pirate-hunting Dutchmen plenty of opportunity to walk over there and cap them in the face at point-blank range.
De Ruyter's exploits were already so badass that he was given command of his own Dutch Navy warship, and by 1641 the 34 year-old was already a Rear Admiral and third in command of the entire Navy. He fought against the Spanish at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, but when that fight was inconclusive (thanks, according to De Ruyter, to the cowardice and loserly-ness of the rest of the Dutch high command), he got fed up with the politics and other bullshit, quit the navy, bought his own boat, and became a merchant trader. He sailed the West Indies and Mediterranean, made a ton of money, kicked the Barbary Pirates' asses so hard in a series of naval and hand-to-hand combat engagements that they eventually negotiated a deal to leave him alone, and ultimately became so wealthy that in 1652, when he married his third wife, he quit sailing and decided to live in Holland in a gigantic mansion on top of piles of gold with a beautiful woman for the rest of his life.
His retirement lasted about seven months.
De Ruyter was called out of retirement later that same year, when the King of England started authorizing privateers to raid Dutch shipping all willy-nilly like they didn't give a crap, and the Dutch responded by declaring war. De Ruyter was called in, reluctantly agreed, and then immediately kicked the shit out of a massive English fleet at the Battle of Plymouth, getting the best of a fleet that outnumbered him two-to-one and that was crewed by some of the best sailors and gunners on earth. He commanded squadrons in three more massive battles, fought through the end of the war, and then subsequently turned down an offer to be the senior Admiral in charge of the entire Dutch Navy.
Having turned down the highest position Holland had to offer, de Ruyter was given command of the seemingly-unpronounceable warship Tijdverdrijf and unleashed to wreak brutal havoc on all the enemies of the United Provinces. He spent two years beating the shit out of the Barbary Pirates off the coast of Morocco. He commanded the blockade of Portugal when the Portuguese were fucking with Holland. He attacked an English fort on the coast of Benin, Africa, and beat their asses so hard that the British commanding officer was thrown in the Tower of London when he got home. He helped Denmark fight the Swedes by first destroying the Swedish Navy off the coast of Funen in 1659, then deploying rifle-toting soldiers from rowboats to capture the fort in one of the first amphibious invasions of the modern era. The attack went so well that de Ruyter then ordered the construction of a special unit of infantrymen trained specifically to assault enemy positions from the sea. It was the first time this had ever been done in the Modern Era. He called these dudes Sea Soldiers, but nowadays they're known as Marines.
In 1665, the English, fresh off their little Civil War thingie, once again started fucking with Dutch shipping and ordering their pirates to go apeshit on anything bearing a Dutch flag. The English King Charles II commissioned hundreds of privateers, sunk 17 Dutch ships in a single battle, inflicted millions of dollars in damages to Dutch trade, and then captured the Dutch New World colony of New Amsterdam and renamed it New York City.
The Dutch sent de Ruyter to regulate. He crossed the Atlantic, sacked Barbados, and sent his Marines to raid Canada, then came back to European waters and destroyed 17 English ships in an epic four-day naval bloodbath that pitted almost 160 warships against each other.
When the overall commander of the Dutch fleet was defeated pretty badly at the Battle of St. James Day, that jackass was stripped of command and De Ruyter was promoted to overall commander. After escaping from an assassination attempt instigated by the man he'd just replaced (seriously), Michiel de Ruyter launched the most balls-out naval attack of all time – the Raid on the Medway.
Basically, here's what went down – de Ruyter took 62 gigantic warships, 15 sloops-of-war, and 12 fire boats, and sailed them straight up the Thames River into the heart of England itself. After defeating a small defensive force (the English weren't exactly expecting to have a Dutch Fleet rammed up their tailpipes), de Ruyter then attacked every naval base he could find, burning the countryside and lighting basically the entire English navy on fire while they were still stuck in port with their pants down. He burned dozens of ships, then, just to add insult to injury, he hooked up the Royal Charles – the 80-gun pride of the English Navy that, oh yeah, just so happened to be named after the fucking King – to a winch and towed it back to Holland with him as a prize.
It would be the biggest humiliation in English Naval history. They sued for peace almost immediately.
"No King will heed our warnings,
No Court will pay our claims –
Our King and Court for their disport
Do sell the very Thames!
For, now De Ruyter’s topsails
Off naked Chatham show,
We dare not meet him with our fleet –
And this the Dutchmen know!"
- Rudyard Kipling, "The Dutch in the Medway"
The English tried to get revenge a few years later, when they made a secret treaty with Louis XIV of France and attacked Holland with a navy that outnumbered the Dutch fleet by more than three-to-one. Their plan was to wipe Holland off the map entirely, then divide the smoldering wreckage up between England and France.
It didn't work. Michiel de Ruyter used brilliant tactics to divide their navies and engage them piecemeal in battles that he had the upper hand. He beat them in four major battles, one after the other, broke the British blockade, destroyed over a dozen enemy ships, crippled their ability to launch an amphibious invasion of Holland, and then, just to be a dick, he sailed across the Atlantic and attacked the French colony of Martinique. When he was done with that he took part in a political action in Hungary that made everyone there so happy they built a statue of him, because why the fuck not.
Michiel de Ruyter's luck eventually ran out in 1676, when he was helping the Spanish fight the French in the Mediterranean. While engaged in a battle with the overall commander of the French Fleet – a former pupil of de Ruyter's – Michiel de Ruyter was shot in the leg by a cannonball and mortally wounded. When the French commander heard the news that his former mentor was wounded, he called off the attack and sent two of his strongest ships to escort the wounded Dutch Admiral back home. Along the way, King Louis XIV ordered every French warship to fire a salute as the Dutch fleet passed.
Michiel de Ruyter died of gangrene en route back to Holland, was given a state funeral, and is now remembered as not only the national hero of Holland, but a man who is almost solely responsible for the continued existence of the Netherlands as a sovereign country.
"A Dutch fleet under de Ruyter can enter a moonless night in
heavy wind and fog and emerge the next day in perfect line ahead."
Chronology of de Ruyter's Career
Grant, R.G. Commanders. DK Publishing, 2010.
Stewart, William. Admirals of the World. McFarland, 2009.
Sweetman, Jack. The Great Admirals. Naval Institute Press, 1997.