In 1795 the Netherlands was conquered by the French revolutionary armies and annexed by Napoleon. The Netherlands, now being a client state of France brought them in conflict with France’ s arch enemy Britain. As a result, the British launched a series of campaigns against Dutch colonies around the world, including in the East Indies, to weaken French influence and disrupt Dutch trade.
Consequently, the fledging British colony of New South Wales became embroiled in a war with the Dutch to their north.
Within the context of these developments a Dutch merchant ship named the ‘Swift’ was captured by the British Whaler ‘Policy‘ on 12 September 1804 and taken to Sydney.
The Swift was reportedly sailing from Batavia (now Jakarta) to Ambon (Amboyna) with a cargo of rice and sugar when it was intercepted by the Policy in the Indian Ocean. Mauritius was during the Napoleonic wars captured from the Netherlands by France.
The ‘Policy‘ was under the command of Captain Joseph Underwood, who took the ‘Swift’ as a prize and brought it to Sydney. The ‘Swift’ was subsequently condemned by the Vice-Admiralty Court in Sydney and sold at auction.
However, this event is part of a larger historical context of British and Dutch colonialism and commerce in the Indian Ocean region in the early 19th century. For the last 200 years there had been fierce rivalry between the Brits and the Dutch regarding trade in S.E. Asia. They were only to happy to use this opportunity to get ahead of the Dutch.
It is possible that under the political circumstances the ‘Swift’ was sailing under a neutral flag, and therefor suspected of carrying contraband goods. During times of war, such as the Napoleonic Wars, neutral countries were supposed to remain impartial and not trade with either side.
However, both the British and the French frequently disregarded neutral rights and seized ships suspected of carrying contraband goods that could aid the enemy.
The ‘Policy‘ may have suspected that the ‘Swift’ was carrying goods that could aid the French, who were in control of Mauritius at the time. This suspicion could have been based on intelligence or rumours, or the Policy may have simply acted on a hunch.
It’s also worth noting that during this time period, privateers and other ships of opportunity were common, and capturing enemy or neutral vessels was a way to make money through the sale of prizes or ransoms.
The ship was subsequently sold in Sydney.
After the fall of Napoleon, shipping contacts with the Dutch in the Indies were re-established, but trade did not flourish.
“British Whaling and International Relations, 1800-45” by Keith Vernon – This book includes a chapter on the capture of the Dutch ship Swift by the British whaling ship Policy in 1804. It provides historical background on the British whaling industry and its role in colonial commerce, as well as the context of British-Dutch relations during the Napoleonic Wars. The chapter includes details on the capture of the Swift and its subsequent fate in Sydney, Australia.
“The History of Australian Shipping” by L.J. Blake – This book includes a chapter on the Dutch ship Swift and its capture by the British whaling ship Policy. It provides a detailed account of the events leading up to the capture and subsequent sale of the Swift in Sydney, as well as historical context on British and Dutch maritime commerce in the Indian Ocean region.