In this answer to a related question "the first salute" of the Dutch to the United States (Continental) flag is brought up as well as this source on it https://www.john-adams.nl/the-first-salute/.

Unfortunately I don't find that source very clear (and it doesn't include further sources). Wikipedia, also linked there has very little to say on the matter of the salute except to say it happened.

Was the salute an official recognition? The source suggest it was not as it customs for a merchant vessel were followed. Was this the case? If so why did the British interpret it otherwise. Was it pretense due to the already growing conflict with the Dutch caused by them providing the United States with weapons?

"The consequences of De Graaff’s order, therefore, were far-reaching. The governor’s defense that the salute from the island’s fort proved he was convinced that he was dealing with a merchantman, made no impression on the British government. In Britain’s view this was the utterly unjust recognition of a bunch of rebels – a hostile act Great Britain could not accept"

Just to clarify some points that are unclear. (Since MCW, commented that the situation seemed to clear-cut to ask here.)

  1. Was it Dutch policy to return salutes (in the "merchant manner") for ships with unknown flags.
  2. Did they recognize the flag or not.
  3. Was it British policy to see any salute as recognition of the country who's flags the ship bore. (This makes for a very interesting situation since it is very at odds with 1. It seems that all any country needed to do in order to get this "recognition" from the Dutch, as interpreted by the British, was raise a flag and approach the Dutch.)
  • I don't understand the question. The Dutch saluted the Americans. That constituted official recognition (albeit irregular). Not sure why "first salute" is in scarequotes; is that relevant somehow?
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 21 at 14:39
  • @MCW, If that is true it would make a great answer. But it should include sources that that is how official recognition works. The other source seems to say that that is NOT how it works. It says (or at least implies) that any merchant ship will receive those salutes (regardless of the flags they have up). It also raises the issue of them not knowing which flags were up. I think an answer should address whether this was or was not the case. (If known.)
    – Kvothe
    Commented Jun 21 at 14:41
  • @MCW, Also if it was indeed the Dutch policy to salute any ship with unknown flags and it was the British policy to interpret any salute as recognition of any country whose flags the ship bore that would be a very interesting situation to have more details on (sources please).
    – Kvothe
    Commented Jun 21 at 14:45

1 Answer 1


I'm confused by the question; as far as I can tell the question is answered by the source provided [JohnAdams.net], so I'll answer as best as I'm able, and hope that someone can use that to provide a better answer

  1. Gun salutes to a foreign nation.

When a ship enters a port of a foreign nation, the government of which is formally recognized by the Government of the United States, she shall fire a salute of 21 guns to that nation unless: there is present no saluting battery or warship of that nation capable of returning the salute; or the ship is returning from a temporary absence from port, when, by agreement with local authorities, the salute may be dispensed with. When a ship is passing through the territorial waters of a foreign nation with no intention of anchoring therein, the salute to the nation need not be fired unless unusual circumstances make it desirable to do so. In case of two or more ships arriving in port or passing through territorial waters of a foreign nation in company, only the senior shall fire the salute prescribed in this article. The salute to the nation, if fired, shall precede any salutes fired in honor of individuals. All Rights Reserved MilitaryWives.com, Inc.

_I'm aware that I'm quoting from a modern source. A better answer would reference a contemporary source, perhaps Rocks & Shoals?

This derives from an earlier custom - have to find a citation, but it isn't relevant to the answer. The ship's salute is a symbolic "emptying" of the weapons to indicate that the ship has a peaceful intent. Similar to offering an open hand demonstrates the lack of a weapon, discarching all weapons demonstrates a lack of the effectively ability to project force in the short term.

The protocol continues

  1. Returning salute to the nation fired by foreign warship. A salute to the nation fired by a foreign warship entering a port of the United States shall be returned by the senior ship present, provided no saluting battery of an armed service of the United States, designated to return such salutes, is present in the area. All Rights Reserved MilitaryWives.com,

So the protocol is that when a ship enters a port, it fires a salute; the resident Navy (or if there are no vessels, the port battery) returns the salute to recognize the visitor and demonstrate a similar lack of hostile intent.

The US saluted the Dutch, the Dutch returned the salute. As explained in JohnAdams.net the Dutch returned the salute with a volley the size of which is indicated that they were returning the salute of an armed merchant ship.

The Dutch are resting on that protocol - they responded to the salute of an armed merchant ship.

The whole situation would be clearer if the British position were more clearly articulated.

In Britain’s view this was the utterly unjust recognition of a bunch of rebels – a hostile act Great Britain could not accept. JohnAdams.net

The British position seems to be that that the ship did not fly a flag indicating the ownership/registration, (the 13 stripes, according to the British, was merely a defaced British ensign). Consequently the ship was an armed, but lawless, non-state actor and deserved no response at all. (When I was Navy, I would have shown deference to a senior military officer of a foreign nation, but no deference at all to a random bloke wearing fatigues who, when approaching, emptied the clip of his assault weapon. )

  • 1
    Thanks. Did you read my replies to your comment or the edit of the question? This is certainly a start although indeed the source should be about the policy at the time rather than in modern times. Also the more relevant policies to the question would be that of the Dutch and that of the British. The source seems to suggest that these policies were at odds with each other in a very interesting way in that the Dutch would salute regardless of the ship's flags while the British would see any salute as recognition. It would be great to have sources confirming this.
    – Kvothe
    Commented Jun 21 at 15:01
  • I think I edited in the updates before I saw this.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 21 at 15:02

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