Britain, Russia, and the Armed Neutrality of 1780

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

October 20, 2022
by Eric Sterner Also by this Author

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Like a rock dropped into a smooth pond, the American Revolution spread ripples across the European world. French and Spanish entry into the war amplified those ripples to reach the distant shores of the Baltic and White Seas. In 1780, Russia reacted and threatened to upend the entire strategic balance in Europe, which would have thrown British strategy for fighting the American Revolution on its heels. Russia’s creation of the League of Armed Neutrality becomes one of those great “what if?” questions of the American Revolution. It highlights the constant uncertainties and contingencies that British strategists faced as the American Revolution impacted European politics. The immediate issue at stake was how Britain treated neutral states in its wars with the Americans, French, and Spaniards.

Prior to the American Revolution, Anglo-Russian relations were peaceful, benign, and built around a mutually profitable trade in raw materials. In particular, the states surrounding the Baltic Sea, including Russia, were reliable sources of naval stores. For their part, British merchant ships carried most Russian exports to overseas markets.

Portrait of Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796) by Aleksey Antropov. (Art Gallery of Tver)

Catherine II, eventually known as Catherine the Great, was a minor German princess who took power in 1762 following a coup against her husband. Catherine initially focused on internal administrative, legal, and economic reforms. To that end, her government signed a commercial treaty with Britain in 1766.[1] The treaty allowed neutral trading with ports of belligerent states so long as the goods did not include contraband. Russia could trade with Britain’s enemies during wartime so long as the goods did not include war material, and vice versa. The treaty capitalized on a mutual interest in foiling French policies and strengthening an already beneficial trade relationship, particularly in naval stores. Russia had little ability or interest in violating the treaty. Due to Russian dependence on Britain, the latter had little need to enforce it. Still, Catherine disliked relying on British merchants and encouraged increased trade with other states. By 1776 the British consul in St. Petersburg noted the growing presence of French and Spanish vessels in port. In 1778, British merchants still carried over half of Russia’s cargos: 339 British ships versus 285 from other countries.[2] But, the next year British merchant visits fell to 314, while non-British vessels rose to 379, a growing portion of them Dutch.[3]

In 1775, Britain explored the possibility of hiring Russian troops for use against its rebellious colonies. Catherine dismissed the idea, but predicted American independence in her lifetime.[4] Otherwise, Russia took little interest in Britain’s American colonies. The war’s spread to France and Spain changed that.

Under evolving standards of international law, Britain’s trade embargo against its colonies was legitimate as few European powers questioned a country’s right to control colonial trade. Privateers and Royal Navy vessels would stop ships at sea, inspect their cargos, and dispatch those vessels suspected of violating the embargo to a British port for adjudication by an Admiralty court. As Anglo-French tensions increased and war loomed, Britain strengthened and widened its blockade. On July 29, 1778 new orders in council directed the Royal Navy to seize or destroy all French vessels it encountered. A month later, the council expanded the blockade and directed the Navy to bring all vessels, including neutral ships, bound for French ports carrying “Naval or Warlike Stores” into a British port.[5] Worse, British lawyers in the Admiralty began tinkering with the definition of contraband and interpretations of various treaties, sometimes including grain that might find its way to an enemy, sometimes not. At the same time, the burden of proving a neutral vessel was not trading contraband cargo fell on the ship’s owners.

In 1778, Denmark floated the idea of an armed neutrality to defend the doctrine of “free ship, free goods” and the rights of neutral states to trade with countries at war.[6] The Danes noted that none of the north European states could resist British policy unilaterally, but that in combination they might be able to tip the scales against the Royal Navy, thereby securing neutral trade.[7]

While ideas about banding together or adopting a posture of armed neutrality floated around European capitals, Russia was primarily focused on landward events. To the south, Russia and the Ottoman Empire dueled over different puppet regimes in the Khanate of Crimea following their 1768-1774 war. To the west, the War of Bavarian Succession erupted over political influence and power among the German states in central Europe. Eventually, Russia threatened to intervene. The eventual Peace of Teschen in 1779 made Russia the guarantor of the Holy Roman Emperor and introduced a newly powerful player into the political dynamics of central Europe.[8] Still, Russia could not escape the American Revolution, Britain’s naval strategy, or its impact on maritime trade.

Portrait of Nikita Ivanovich Panin by Alexander Roslin, 1777. (Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts)

In August 1778, the American privateer General Mifflin sank one British merchant and seized several others carrying Russian goods to Britain.[9] Catherine responded in September by ordering a squadron to the port to convoy British merchant ships.[10] Then, in October, British vessels seized the Russian merchant Jonge Prins, bound for France with a cargo of hemp and flax.[11] Count Nikita Panin, Russia’s foreign minister, did not believe war with Britain was in Russia’s interest, particularly given greater issues at stake in central Europe and the Black Sea. So, in December he proposed that Russia hedge its response and announce an intention to close the White Sea to all commerce raiders, whether naval vessels or privateers. Catherine approved and her government formally protested British policy and practice, but little came of it.[12] Britain seized still more Russian vessels in the coming months. In April 1779, Britain went so far as to announce that convoys of merchant ships, an innovation adopted by neutrals to deter Britain’s Navy, would not be immune to its stop and seize practice. Denmark appealed to the Russian court for support as Britain ramped up its pressure and maintained considerable ambiguity over its embargoes.[13] Although Russia’s trade remained modest, British policies grated. In November 1779, Catherine sent instructions to her new ambassador in London referring to British Admiralty court judgments as episodes of “insolence,” “insubordination,” and “cupidity.”[14] While the main Russian complaint referred to the in-expeditious and unfavorable disposition of Russian cargos seized by British privateers, the British government let the matter pass, offering no new instructions to its courts or privateers in response to the Russian complaint.

Catherine’s attitude toward the warring parties did not improve when in December 1779 the British seizure of an escorted Swedish convoy became the talk of Europe.[15] Then, she learned in January 1780 that Spain had seized a ship chartered by Russian merchants to carry a cargo of corn to France and Italy.[16] About the same time, news reached her of the Royal Navy’s capture of a Dutch convoy. Then, at the end of the month, she learned that the Spanish had seized another vessel charted by Russian merchants.[17] A strong protest was sent to the Spanish government, but the naval free-for-all was becoming intolerable in the Russian court, something the British government did not fully appreciate.

Exactly when and how Catherine II decided to respond to the frequent transgressions against neutral shipping rights, as she—and not the belligerents—understood them, is unclear. However, it does appear that the determination to respond and the concept that emerged originated with her.[18] Although the Russian court was famed for its intrigues and many observers thought policy was determined by that maneuvering, Catherine herself was intelligent, educated, and knew her own mind quite well. Sometime in the winter of 1779-1780, the Russian response came into focus for her.

In February 1780, without consulting her Council of State or Foreign Minister, Catherine mobilized a portion of the Russian fleet, fifteen ships of the line and five frigates.[19] Then, she instructed Count Panin to draft instructions to ambassadors in the neutral states inviting them to make a multilateral declaration about the rights of free trade and invite them into a treaty to enforce those principles. (Conveniently, she learned about this time that her ambassador to The Netherlands had been floating just such an idea in the Dutch government, possibly at her direction but without her government’s knowledge.)[20] Finally, in March 1780, Russia’s reasons for proposing an armed neutrality and the principles that would guide it were presented to foreign ambassadors in St. Petersburg.

Russia’s proposal drew heavily from the principles underlying the posture known as “free ships, free trade.” It began first by noting its neutrality in the Revolutionary War and the resulting European War, the violations of its rights as a neutral power, and the impact of interference with Russia’s trade. Then the Empress decided to announce her intentions.

“These hindrances to the liberty of trade in general, and to that of Russia in particular, are of a nature to excite the attention of all neutral nations. The Empress finds herself obliged therefore to free it [her trade] by all the means compatible with her dignity and the well-being of her subjects.”[21] With that in mind, Russia laid out several principles for Britain, Spain, and France that would guide its behavior:

  1. Neutral vessels were free to navigate from port to port and along belligerent coasts;
  2. Cargos in such vessels, including that owned by subjects of the belligerents, were immune to seizure, with the exception of contraband;
  3. Contraband was defined by the Treaty of Commerce between Russia and Great Britain;
  4. Blockaded ports were defined by a sufficient number of ships stationed outside the port as to render access to others dangerous, i.e., the distant or high-seas blockades common to sailing ships in general and practiced by Britain of necessity, were invalid;
  5. Principles 1-4 would serve as rules regarding adjudications of seized cargos by Admiralty Courts.

With those principles in mind, Russia announced it was readying a portion of its fleet to enforce them. While the announcement pledged to maintain neutrality, it hinted at the possibility of using force: “This measure . . . will observe so long as she is not provoked and forced to pass the bounds of moderation and perfect impartiality. It is only in this extremity that her fleet will have orders to go wherever honor, interest, and need may require.”[22]

While word traveled to the courts in London, Versailles, and Madrid and those governments contemplated the Russian declaration, Catherine proposed to the Netherlands, Denmark, Prussia, Sweden, and Portugal in April that they form a League of Armed Neutrality. British diplomats learned of the overtures nearly immediately. The proposal was based specifically on Catherine’s conclusion that the British were violating the Anglo-Russian Commercial Treaty of 1766 and the “natural rights” of neutral states. From Russia’s perspective, that meant “the other trading Powers will immediately come into her way of thinking relative to neutrality.” With that in mind, she invited these powers “to make a common cause with her, as such a union may serve to protect the trade and navigation.”[23] It was a moment of extreme vulnerability for Britain’s naval power.

France and Spain capitalized on the opportunity quickly. The King of Spain responded by expressing his desire to respect neutral rights and attributed Spanish violations to Britain’s refusal to embrace them and neutral violations of their obligations vis a vis contraband. “The King . . . will this day have the glory of being the first to give the example of respecting the neutral flag of all the Courts that have consented, or shall consent, to defend it . . . and to show to all the neutral Powers how much Spain is desirous of observing the same rules in time of war as she was directed whilst neuter, His Majesty conforms to the other points contained in the declaration of Russia.”[24] An exception was made for trade with Gibraltar, then under siege by Spanish forces.

The King of France was quick to embrace the concept as well:

The war in which the King is engaged having no other object than the attachment of His Majesty to the freedom of the seas, he could not but with the truest satisfaction see the Empress of Russia adopt the same principle and resolve to maintain it. That which Her Imperial Majesty claims from the belligerent Powers is no other than the rules already prescribed to the French marine. . . . The King has been desirous, not only to procure a freedom of navigation to the subjects of the Empress of Russia, but to those of all the States who hold their neutrality and that upon the same conditions as are announced in the treaty to which His Majesty this day answers.[25]

It was a de facto recognition of the League of Armed Neutrality, even before the league had come into being. Better still, from Russia’s standpoint, France rested its posture on Catherine’s concept of neutral rights, again seeking to diplomatically isolate Britain and make entry into a league more attractive.

Russia’s proposal was potentially disastrous for London’s security, not to mention its strategy. Britain suddenly faced the prospect of an alliance of neutrals created specifically to counter her naval strategy. Worse, they would radically change the naval balance of power. In 1780, Great Britain had roughly 117 Ships of the Line in its fleet, divided among the North Sea, the English Channel, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and North America. Combined, the French and Spanish boasted 129 such vessels, although they were similarly divided among multiple theaters. Russia only had thirty Ships of the Line, but the Danes and Swedes together boasted nearly sixty. The Netherlands sported another twenty-six.[26] Even superior ships, crews, and command would not spare the British in the event of such a quantitative mismatch.

The question for Britain, however, was what exactly did Catherine’s proposal mean? Was Catherine trying to rewrite international law? Britain relied heavily on notions of legitimate national security and self-defense to justify intercepting and seizing cargo that might aids its adversaries. As a practical matter, its routine of stopping neutral ships at sea and dispatching them to British ports for adjudication was the only way to enforce its policy. Building an international consensus against Britain’s concept threatened to undermine one of its greatest advantages in warfare: its maritime edge. Thus, Catherine’s principles not only threatened Britain’s advantages in its war with America, France, and Spain, but could well do so in any future war it fought. Alternatively, was Catherine laying the groundwork to intervene in the American Revolution as part of some new continental strategy? Russia was in the midst of shifting its major alliance from Prussia to Austria and might well have further designs on the Mediterranean. Or, was Russia simply looking to apply economic pressure to improve its position relative to Britain’s naval practices? As late as 1780, Britain still relied on Russia for 90 percent of its cordage and nearly 90 percent of its largest masts.[27] The bottom line for policymakers in London was determining how far Catherine was prepared to go to defend her new doctrine.

The answers to those questions were not initially clear to Britain, its ambassador in St. Petersburg, or officials around the world.[28] Fortunately for Britain, they were not clear to the states Catherine invited to join her armed league, either. Sweden quickly sought clarification by requesting information about how such a league would function:

  1. How would the league provide reciprocal protection and mutual assistance?
  2. Would each member be obligated to protect the commerce of every party to a convention, or would individual states be able to set aside a portion of their own military forces for its own protection. In other words, would the league create joint military forces?
  3. How would combined operations be governed when operating together, i.e., who would command and what rules of engagement would apply?
  4. Would states complain individually to the belligerents should their trade be interrupted, or must all representations to Britain, France, and Spain be conducted by the league collectively?
  5. Who would decide how the league responded when the trade of a single member was interrupted? Might each state be left to its own devices?[29]

They were entirely reasonable matters to discuss as league members might quickly find themselves at war with Britain. Russia’s reply was quickly forthcoming. Decisions were expected to be unanimous, usually a formula for inaction. The court at St. Petersburg envisioned a narrow security agreement limited to freedom of the seas. Catherine’s government seems to have anticipated a kind of armed convoy escort in which a convoy would pass from the care and protection of one state’s national fleet to another’s as the convoy moved from place to place, a bit like a relay race. Indeed, St. Petersburg’s orders to its Baltic Squadron limited its protection to Russian merchant vessels, which were few in number.[30] Specifics would be worked out in a written convention. Outside of those principles laid out in the March declaration, members would be left to their own devices.[31] Due to Baltic geography, such a concept would place the greatest burden and risks on those members closest and most vulnerable to British naval power, hardly an incentive for Denmark, Sweden, or The Netherlands to join. They might be better off pursuing bilateral side-deals with Britain.

Still, the confusion persisted. British officials received mixed signals from various Russian officials at St. Petersburg and contradictory intelligence in foreign capitals. So, it generally interpreted Russia’s initiative through the eyes of court intrigues. As late as July 1780, Lord Stormont, the British Secretary of State for the Northern Department, could only declare “The more I reflect on all that has passed of late, the more I am inclined to believe that we have not got to the bottom of this strange business.”[32] Nevertheless, Russia’s lack of adequate political and diplomatic preparation caused delays and created opportunities for others. A number of British citizens officered Russia’s Baltic fleet. They used the interregnum to inform Catherine’s government that they would not serve in a conflict with Great Britain.[33] In May, the Danes, who had been negotiating with Britain to resolve their conflicts at sea, promptly and secretly proposed revising a trade treaty of 1670 to address British concerns over naval stores. Then it announced it was closing the Baltic to hostile vessels.[34] Yet, different factions in Copenhagen warmed to the Russian proposal. So, Count Bernstorff, essentially the first minister, negotiated with Britain and Russia simultaneously, signing agreements first with Britain and then Russia in July.[35] Sweden similarly negotiated new terms of trade with Britain. Both Denmark and Sweden promised to forego trade in contraband and naval stores before entering into a treaty with Russia, essentially giving Britain what it wanted. Thus, Russia’s unfavorable terms for creating the league contained the seeds of its failure. Prussia and Austria joined in 1781, followed by others before the American Revolution ended. Catherine had her league, but its existence had been rendered meaningless. Whether British diplomacy in separating Denmark and Sweden from a multilateral alliance with teeth or Russian ineptness was to blame remains a subject of debate. In either case, the potential new threat to the naval component of Britain’s war strategy was rendered moot.

Looking back, the tendency is to dismiss The League of Armed Neutrality as unserious or intended for some other purpose. Historians John Grainger and Sam Willis saw it as a Russian attempt to dominate the Baltic powers or mask Russian imperial and mercantile ambitions.[36] David Syrett considered it a prestige project.[37] Yet, the episode demonstrates two important overlooked aspects of the American Revolution. First, its effects traveled to distant shores, well beyond the immediate combatants, be they American or British, Frenchmen or Spaniards. Britain’s strategy for winning those wars were essentially the transmission belts forcing consequences onto neutral parties and an eventual reaction.

Second, the league’s existence represented a real threat to British strategy and security and the London perceived it so. Indeed, when The Netherlands threatened to join in late 1780, Britain promptly declared war to make the Dutch ineligible. Going to war with yet another European power was preferable to risking a strengthened league. Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, concluded “the fact is, that we are at this moment in the most ticklish crisis with the Court of Russia, and that at this instant the giving them the least cause of complaint or entering into any altercation with them, might have the most decisive & fatal consequences.”[38] Thus, dismissing the league lightly in hindsight, as we sometimes do, was not something the British could do during the American Revolution. Sandwich’s reaction is a reminder of the tenuous and gossamer strands that held Britain’s war effort together for so long. After Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington famously remarked “It was the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” Something similar might be said for the League of Armed Neutrality.

 


[1]Samuel Flagg Bemis, The Diplomacy of the American Revolution (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1935, 1957), 149.

[2]Isabel De Madariaga, Britain, Russia and the Armed Neutrality of 1780 (London: Hollis & Carter, Ltd., 1962), 176. Focused on Sir James Harris, Britain’s ambassador to Russia, De Madariaga’s study is by far the most authoritative examination of political and diplomatic maneuvering in St. Petersburg, largely viewing efforts through the perspective of diplomats “on the ground,” in the Russian capital. That perspective, however, often views events through the lens of personal relationships, downplaying matters of strategy.

[3]Madariaga, Britain, Russia and the Armed Neutrality of 1780, 176,

[4]John T. Alexander, Catherine the Great: Life and Legend (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 185.

[5]David Syrett, Neutral Rights and the War in the Narrow Seas, 1778-1782 (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Combat Studies Institute, n.d.), 2-3.

[6]Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 129-130.

[7]David Syrett, The Royal Navy in European Waters During the American Revolutionary War (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1998), 118.

[8]H.M. Scott, The Birth of the Great Power System, 1740-1815 (Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2006), 178-179.

[9]Syrett, The Royal Navy in European Waters, 119.

[10]Dmitrii Katchenovsky, Frederic Thomas Pratt, trans., “Prize Law: particularly with reference to the Duties and Obligations of Belligerents and Neutrals,” in James Brown Scott, ed., The Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1918), 123-124.

[11]Syrett, The Royal Navy in European Waters, 119.

[12]Katchenovsky, “Prize Law,” 124.

[13]Madariaga, Britain, Russia and the Armed Neutrality of 1780, 142-144.

[14]Ibid., 148.

[15]Ibid., 155.

[16]Syrett, The Royal Navy in European Waters, 119.

[17]Madariaga, Britain, Russia and the Armed Neutrality of 1780, 156.

[18]Katchenovsky, “Prize Law,” 124-125; Madariaga, Britain, Russia and the Armed Neutrality of 1780, 156-157.

[19]Madariaga, Britain, Russia and the Armed Neutrality of 1780, 158.

[20]Ibid., 162.

[21]“Declaration of the Empress of Russia regarding the Principles of Armed Neutrality, addressed to the Courts of London, Versailles and Madrid, February 28, 1780,” in Scott, ed., The Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800, 273. Russia still used the Julian calendar at this time and the dates in the Scott volume are offered in the older calendar. Under today’s calendar, the announcement was made on March 10.

[22]“Declaration of the Empress of Russia,” February 28, 1780, The Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800, 274.

[23]“Russian Memorandum containing a Project for an Armed Neutrality, presented to the States-General of the Netherlands, April 3, 1780,” Scott, ed., The Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800, 275.

[24]“Reply of the King of Spain to the Declaration of the Empress of Russia, April 18, 1780,” Scott, ed., The Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800, 279-280.

[25]Ibid., 284-285.

[26]John D. Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2014), 130-131.

[27]N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2004), 347.

[28]Syrett, Neutral Rights and the War in the Narrow Seas, 1778-1782, 31; Syrett, The Royal Navy in European Waters During the American Revolutionary War, 121.

[29]“Explanation requested of the Court of Russia by the Court of Sweden relative to the Project for an Armed Neutrality, April 5, 1780,” Scott, ed., The Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800, 276-277.

[30]Syrett, The Royal Navy in European Waters During the American Revolutionary War, 122.

[31]“Reply of the Court of Russia to the Request of Sweden for Explanations respecting the Project for an Armed Neutrality, April 29, 1780,” Scott, ed., The Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800, 288-289.

[32]Syrett, The Royal Navy in European Waters During the American Revolutionary War, 122.

[33]Ibid., 122.

[34]“Declaration of His Danish Majesty Regarding the Neutrality of the Baltic Sea, communicated to the Courts of the Belligerent Powers, May 8, 1780,” Scott, ed., The Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800, 290-291.

[35]Madariaga, Britain, Russia and the Armed Neutrality of 1780, 187-189.

[36]Grainger, The Royal Navy in the Baltic, Chapter 6; Sam Willis, The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), 402.

[37]Syrett, The Royal Navy in European Waters during the American Revolutionary War, 129.

[38]Quoted in Ibid., 129.

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