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The One Shot Battle of the Kettle

History has given us some exceptional heroes and villains. Nero falls into the second category. Debauchery and cruelty dominated his rule.

A soup kettle or marmite.

A soup kettle or marmite.

A One Shot Battle With Several Names

On the 8th October 1784, a peculiar historical event occurred. This day marked the Battle of the Soup Kettle, also called the Marmite War, a marmite in this instance being a kettle not a yeast product, the Kettle War and the Boiler War. The Dutch refer to it as both Keteloorlog and Marmietenoorlog.

On one side was the Spanish Netherlands backed by the massively powerful Holy Roman Empire and on the other was the much smaller Republic of the Seven Netherlands, the northern Dutch provinces. This was one of the shortest and most baffling European battles to ever take place and it was utterly bloodless. Only one shot was fired and it hit a soup kettle.

The Dutch Provinces and the Spanish later Austrian Netherlands circa 1700.

The Dutch Provinces and the Spanish later Austrian Netherlands circa 1700.

Access to the Important River Scheldt

We need to go back to 1585 to find the root of the problem, and that was, as is often the case, money. The House of Habsburg ruled Spain as part of the Holy Roman Empire and Spain had control of all of the Netherlands until seven states rebelled and formed a republic. Surprisingly they were permitted to do so by the Habsburgs who soon wished that they’d thought their decision through.

The new Dutch Republic’s rulers closed the 270-mile-long River Scheldt to the Spanish Netherlands. As the river led to the busy ports of Antwerp and Ghent in modern-day Belgium and into the North Sea via Dutch Zeeland this barrier to a key trade route limited the Spanish Netherlands' opportunities and their revenues.

The River Scheldt flowing through modern France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The River Scheldt flowing through modern France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Decades Pass but No Change

Resentment festered as the Scheldt and its ports remained out of reach. The Spanish Habsburgs were unsuccessful in gaining access to the waterway in the 1648 treaty, the Peace of Westphalia, which upheld the closure of the River Scheldt by the republic.

In 1714, after the thirteen-year-long War of the Spanish Succession’s conclusion, the Spanish Netherlands was transferred to the Austrian branch of the Habsburgs. They were as keen as their Spanish relatives to have the Scheldt opened to them. All requests were denied, the war had left the republic almost bankrupt and so every florin they could get into their coffers was vital.

Finally, in 1784 Emperor Joseph II took his chance to secure access to the Scheldt.

Emperor Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire.

Emperor Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire.

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Unpopular Stadtholder William V

After the American War of Independence, the 1783 Treaty of Paris secured peace between Britain and America and her allies which included the Dutch Republic under their last Stadtholder William V, Prince of Orange. Privately, William was pro-British. William was not universally loved because the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War of 1780 placed great strain on the republic and it brought defeats. His leadership was questioned.

William’s chief adviser Field Marshal Ludwig Ernst, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel-Bevern (1718-1788) also happened to be Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor’s (1741-1790) great uncle. He was partly culpable for the losses of the Anglo-Dutch War but in the press, he was vilified. The people believed that William V’s errors were due to the duke’s incompetency in raising and guiding him. The duke was stripped of his duties and, in disgrace, he left the republic on the 14th October 1784. William was unable to recover. He eventually fled to exile in Britain in 1795.

Stadtholder Willem or William V.

Stadtholder Willem or William V.

The Soup Kettle Takes the Bullet

Joseph II, the first of the Habsburg-Lorraine rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, was known as an “enlightened despot” and with the destabilisation in the Dutch provinces he ordered that the River Scheldt be opened to the empire’s ships so his merchants could trade. He also lobbied for the territories of Overmass and States Flanders to be returned to the empire and for Maastricht to be evacuated. Words brought no reward so Joseph sent three ships including his shiny new flagship Le Louis onto the River Scheldt to provoke a response from the republic.

The Dutch sent one ship, De Dolfijn. The ships met at the point the Scheldt gives way to the North Sea, near the lost village of Saeftinghe in Zeeland. De Dolfijn fired one shot towards Le Louis which hit and destroyed the soup kettle on board. The captain of Le Louis surrendered immediately. Why he did this remains a mystery. Whilst he may have been alarmed, Le Louis was a far greater threat to De Dolfijn than the other way around.

In a one-on-one battle, there would have been few bets on De Dolfijn and the Dutch republic’s victory. Le Louis had two support ships. This was a David and Goliath moment. In case you were wondering, the only casualty, the soup kettle, didn’t survive the battle.

Europe circa 1790.

Europe circa 1790.

Resolution Before a Redefined Europe

Unsurprisingly, Emperor Joseph was incandescent when he learned that his mighty empire had capitulated to one ship from a small republic and with just one shot. He declared war on the Dutch Republic and on land he had greater success. As dikes were shattered and mass flooding killed and ruined the Dutch, William V agreed to negotiate. The resulting agreement left the River Scheldt closed to the Austrian Netherlands but with generous compensation. The several million florins paid helped fund the Austrian army’s expansion. (No news about a replacement soup kettle for Le Louis.)

As the Europe we know today became more clearly defined, so too were the access rights to the numerous trade routes. In 1792, so just eight years later, the Dutch Republic was forced by the French to reopen the river. The French had been in an alliance with Austria since 1756 and the French empire was ruled by Louis XVI and his Austrian born wife Marie Antoinette, Joseph II’s youngest sister.

The Low Countries of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg were established with their own monarchies in the wake of Napoleon Bonaparte’s insurgences and eventual downfall.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

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