The Children’s Crusade: A Teenage Recollection of the American Revolution

By Tessa de Boer

On August 4, 1781, a glittering frigate left the port of the Dutch isle of Texel. Its name was South Carolina, and it was tasked with transporting military supplies to the nascent United States, taking as many prizes as possible along the way.[1] On board was someone decidedly small: Botto Scultetus Aeneae, a twelve-year-old boy from Amsterdam, feverishly excited about his fanciful midshipman job and the adventures ahead of him. In the next two years, he certainly experienced enough adventures to last a lifetime. Sailing straight into the heart of the American Revolutionary War, the young teenager survived military engagements, brutal treatment as a prisoner of war, and life on the streets of Charleston. Once back in the Europe – defeated, traumatized and at only fourteen years old – his experiences were recorded. His is the glorious and all too familiar story of the American Revolution, demystified through the eyes of an increasingly disillusioned child. 

Recent indexation works at the Amsterdam City Archives unearthed Botto’s adventure for the first time since its recording nearly 250 years ago. On November 25, 1783, Botto (fourteen at the time) paid a visit to Amsterdam notary Cornelis van Homrigh to officially record what he had witnessed aboard the South Carolina and ashore in the United States. It resulted in fourteen pages of notarized witness testimony, declared under oath to be truthful aside from the occasional (and very present) errors in numbers and dates, “which he tried his best to remember.”[2] The deposition, which was likely intended as an instrument in eventual legal proceedings, is remarkable in multiple ways. Botto’s storytelling was lucid, lively, and emotional (not always a given in notarized witness testimonies), but more importantly, acutely aware of and reflective on the historical importance the American Revolution, as early as 1783 and at a very young age. It is valuable testimony because it features multiple pivotal events, objects, and personages from the American Revolution from an unexpectedly humble angle. We directly witness life aboard the South Carolina and the British prison ship Jersey, we meet commodore Alexander Gillon, and we experience the effects of the Treaty of Paris. However, through this very small, teenaged microhistorical lens, we find these familiar narratives suddenly demystified.   

Read more: The Children’s Crusade: A Teenage Recollection of the American Revolution

Botto was born in February 1769 to Henricus Aeneae and Martha Sikkes in Amsterdam.[3] The Aeneae family was of Frisian extraction and of global ambition. Several of its members, generations before and after Botto, found their way to the colonial world and back. Henricus Aeneae was a scientist, (naval) engineer, and erudite,[4] possessing a natural curiosity that might in 1780 have spurred him to – as Botto opens his deposition – sit his son down and “inquire whether he would be interested in seeking his fortune somewhere else.”[5] Botto enthusiastically agreed. The decision was made to enlist him in the service of commodore Alexander Gillon, “at that point tasked with considerable commissions of the one of the states of the [new] Republic.” The “considerable commissions” of Gillon entailed the purchase of several European frigates to become part of the so-called South Carolina Navy, intended to protect South Carolina’s exposed coastline from British attack. The ship South Carolina (originally named l’Indien) had – after the considerable shedding of diplomatic and financial blood, sweat, and tears spanning several European borders – become one of these frigates and was readied in Amsterdam. Beyond “seeking his fortune somewhere else,” no further details are given regarding the Aeneae couple’s admittedly drastic decision to send their prepubescent son aboard a ship soon to be deployed in an active war.  Gillon did assure them that “he would take [Botto] under his wing, advance him as much as possible, and under all circumstances would treat him as if he were his own child.”[6]

At the end of the summer of 1781, the South Carolina thus departed the Dutch Republic. Aboard were Botto, Gillon, and approximately 550 others – a mix of Europeans (the majority French-speaking) and Americans; all, however, were understood to be American servicemen by sailing on the South Carolina. The ship’s destination was Charleston. However, after finding it occupied by the British, decisions had to be made about where to go instead, and what to do next to aid the rebellious cause. It was decided to cruise the Caribbean and dock in major ports of allied foreign colonies, primarily Havana (Cuba) and Cap Français (Saint-Domingue), to provide naval support to respective Spanish and French operations against the British, and so gain goodwill for the American cause. For about half a year, the South Carolina roamed the various imperial spheres of the West Indies, taking prizes here and there, culminating in aiding the Spanish capture of the Bahamas in May 1782. It had certainly not been easy: for every joint mission, a Sisyphean amount of negotiation, conflict, and distrust between the multinational commanding parties had to be overcome.[7]

Botto was either fully unaware of, or utterly disinterested in these struggles occupying the adults on board. In his descriptions of this particular era, he appears to have been fully immersed in the extraordinary adventures of which he was allowed to be a part. Enthusiastically, he lists the Atlantic hotspots he got to experience: Corunna, Ferrol, Tenerife, Madera, Baltimore, Rhode Island, Boston, Philadelphia, Havana, Dominica, Martinique, Saint-Domingue, Bermuda, and of course, the Bahamas. With most of these destinations corroborated in other documentation pertaining to the South Carolina, it is a reasonably accurate recollection. His descriptions of the South Carolina’s endeavors in these places read like an adventure novel, and mirror language employed in other early modern “heroic” narratives of (naval) victory[8]: the term “crusade” comes to mind, which he consistently employs to refer to missions against British ships and ports. He boldly detailed the “incredible dangers, caused by the inflamed struggle between a Mother Country and her colonies” that accompanied these “crusades.” He mentions chasing away several British men-of-war that were certainly larger than their own ship and heroically taking numerous others British vessels. 

Botto’s description of the capture of the Bahamas in particular is engrained with an interesting amount of awareness with regards to the historicity of the South Carolina’s missions and of the American Revolution. For example, he recalled the significance of “[s]natching [the Bahamas] from the power of the British Crown, and offering it up to the leaders of a newborn people.” He notes the rarity of being able to proclaim that “from his earliest youth he witnessed & had been one of those heroes who, for the first time, asserted the power & awe of the flag of this new people, of the Republic of North America, in the Western Seas.” [9]

 At the same time, paradoxically, his recollection of this particular event also demonstrated the narrow scope that was still to be expected of a boy his age: the 1782 capture of the Bahamas was and still is regarded as a primarily Spanish victory and occupation, and the terms of surrender were negotiated with and presented to the Spanish commander Juan Manuel Cagigal.[10] At no point he noted the (all-encompassing) Spanish presence, reminding us of the limited (and therefore in places arguably flawed) nature of the testimony.    

Eventually, the South Carolina docked in Philadelphia. Not much was left of the original Amsterdam-boarded crew. Many went ashore in one of the other ports, attracted by better wages, terms, and prospects. In Philadelphia, another exodus occurred. Among those who left was Alexander Gillon, Botto’s original protector. Botto himself, however, stayed, and therefore proved one of the most resilient of the original crew. However, it is likely that he stayed because he simply had no other options – at a later point, he makes reference to his youth and lack of meaningful connections, which made his stay in the United States very arduous.[11] Eventually, enough new “colleagues” could be enlisted to the crew of the South Carolina: a mix of mostly inexperienced youth desiring adventure, and Germans recruited out of British prisoner camps.[12]

The South Carolina’s glory days, which Botto so fondly remembered, were over. On December 20, 1782, a new “crusade” turned into a deadly nightmare as soon as the ship exited Delaware Bay, the gateway to the Atlantic from Philadelphia. Immediately sighted, chased, and fired at by the British HMS Diomede, Quebec and Astraea, the South Carolina was forced to surrender, and all those aboard were taken as prisoners of war.[13] Botto had hoped he would be spared – vainly so, as there was no regard at all for “his fragile youth, which in any humane court of law would spur clemency.” The British put him in iron shackles and sent him up to New York. He did not explicitly state the name of the prison where he subsequently ended up, but the historical context matched with his observations makes it abundantly clear: Botto’s destination would be the Jersey.

The name Jersey (or Old Jersey) would have instilled fear and despair in many American servicemen of the late eighteenth century. Officially HMS Jersey, this 1736 Royal Navy vessel was converted into a prison ship in 1779, and was moored in Wallabout Bay, New York. Even by the – abysmal – standards of her day regarding the treatment of prisoners of war, the Jersey was commonly known as a particularly brutal place of confinement, with hugely cramped conditions, low rations, and towering rates of death and disease.[14] Botto detailed the extremely precarious conditions he endured, and corroborates many other witness testimonies from survivors of the Jersey.[15] The thirteen-year-old spent several months there, and by his own account ultimately survived 625 of the original 700 prisoners that were kept there at the moment he was brought in.  He was deprived of food and clothes, and subjected to “inhumane” physical, verbal, and psychological abuse. In an attempt to “regain his natural freedom,” he staged multiple escapes, one time almost making it to the gates of New York before getting apprehended and lowered into a small pit topped with a grate as a punishment. At this point in the deposition, the boy turned reflective again. Knowing he was literally buried alive and sensing that he would soon perish, Botto considered “he would shortly switch out this grave for an actual one, without his parents ever knowing that he had died this way.”

The lives of Botto and those still surviving aboard the Jersey were saved by advancing negotiations on the other side of the Atlantic: preliminary negotiations for the Treaty of Paris (1783) settled the mutual release of prisoners of war, and he suddenly found himself set free. Going back to the South Carolina was not an option, of course: it had been sold off by the British. Botto decided upon going to Long Island “because many Hollanders lived there,” and over the course of several weeks was nursed back from near death by a friendly farmer. 

All this time, Botto had not forgotten the promises that Alexander Gillon had made to him and his parents back in Amsterdam. Driven by his will to confront the commodore, to detail his endeavors, and to claim financial compensation for his services, Botto made his way to Charleston, escaping death once more when his boat started sinking and he was only saved by fishermen at the very last minute. Upon finally locating Gillon (who had picked up merchantry and politics) and pouring his heart out, Gillon was brusque in his reply: “I cannot help you anymore, because the state of South Carolina doesn’t maintain any ships of her own any longer.” 

Left with no connections and prospects whatsoever in this part of the world, Botto described aimlessly wandering around Charleston for a while longer and relying on the charity and kindness of others for his most basic sustenance. While having received certificates of the Continental Congress as compensation for his services to the United States (one for 200 GBP, one for a piece of land in North Carolina, one for his share of the South Carolina’s prizes), he was unable to meaningfully claim these as Gillon consistently refused to help him navigate the bureaucratic procedures required for these claims, or outright ignored him. At last, Botto realized there was nothing left for him in the United States, and he had certainly experienced enough adventure to last a lifetime. He boarded a merchant ship to Ostend, arriving on 6 September 1783, a few days after the definitive signing of the Treaty of Paris, ending the war that he had lived through. Crossing the Low Countries on foot, on 15 November and in “severe distress,” he was back in the arms of Henricus and Martha in Amsterdam, two and a half years after he had left. His deposition would be recorded by the notary just a week later. 

Botto would see more of the world: in 1786 (age 17), he enlisted with the Dutch East India Company and departed for Batavia, where he obtained a respectable job in the civil administration of Puntiana (Pontianak in Indonesia). However, after cheating death so many times in the West, he was not so lucky in the East. On September 3, 1792, he passed away at 23 years old.[16]

The scope of Botto’s testimony is uniquely balanced. It is small and large, broadly reflective and at the same time inherently limited. It is the singular recorded experience of just one boy, who found himself intertwined in the major historical concurrences of his day. This ultimately strips back traditionally grand narratives of revolution, and frames it in a light that is perhaps familiar not in its grandness, but in its humanity and approachability. 


Tessa de Boer is a doctoral candidate at Leiden University in the Netherlands, writing a dissertation on the Dutch exploitation of French colonial resources in the eighteenth century. She is also a data curator at the Amsterdam City Archives and enjoys tweeting about ridiculous archival tidbits.

Title Image: British soldiers guard prisoners of war held in the hull of the H.M.S. Jersey. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Further reading:

Lewis, J.A. Neptune’s Militia: The Frigate South Carolina during the American Revolution. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1999. 

Burrows, E.G. Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Endnotes:

Groves, R. “Alexander Gillon.” American National Biography, edited by S. Ware et al. Oxford University Press, Feb. 2000. American National Biography Online, https://doi-org.ezproxy.leidenuniv.nl/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1000631.

[1] J.A. Lewis, Neptune’s Militia: The Frigate South Carolina during the American Revolution (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2013), 1-33; P.H. Silverstone, The Sailing Navy, 1775-1854 (Routledge: New York, 2006), 10.

[2] NL-SAA (Stadsarchief Amsterdam; Amsterdam City Archives), 5075, inv. no. 12470, deed 750/scan no 252 (25-11-1783).

[3] NL-SAA, 5001, inv.nr. 112, f. 64 (baptismal registration of Botto Scultetus, son of Henricus Aeneae and Martha Sikkes, 15-2-1769). 

[4] P.C. Molhuysen & F.K.H. Kossmann (eds.), Nieuw Nederlandsch Biografisch Woordenboek part 10 (A.W. Sijthoff’s Uitgevers-Maatschappij N.V.: Leiden, 1937), 8. 

[5] NL-SAA, 5075, inv.no. 12470, deed 750/scan no 252/3.

[6] NL-SAA, 5075, inv.no. 12470, deed 750/scan no 253.

[7] Lewis, Neptune’s Militia, 24-76; see also newspaper coverage of the time, for example the Oprechte Haerlemsche courant (11-4-1782, 18-7-1782), Middelburgsche courant (25-7-1782), Hollandsche historische courant (13-4-1782).

[8] See, for example, diplomatic correspondence during the Seven Years’ War: Dutch ambassador Mattheus Lestevenon van Berkenroode writes to the Dutch Estates General, that “The Aliede, a ship of the line alongside two frigates, has successfully entered the port of Brest, upon return from her crusade.” Nationaal Archief (Dutch National Archives; NL-HaNA), 1.01.02 (Staten-Generaal), inv. no. 6834: ambassador Mattheus Lestevenon van Berkenroode to the Dutch Estates General (Paris, 11 November 1759). 

[9] NL-SAA, 5075, inv.no. 12470, deed 750/scan no 253.

[10] D.F. Marley, Wars of the Americas. A Chronology of Armed Conflict in the New World, 1492 to the Present (Santa Barbara: ABC Clio, 1998), 345; T.E. Chavez, Spain and the Independence of the United States: An Intrinsic Gift (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002), 207-208.  

[11] NL-SAA, 5075, inv.no. 12470, deed 750/scan no 257.

[12] Lewis, Neptune’s Militia, 85-95.

[13] Ibid.; Silverstone, The Sailing Navy, 10.

[14] R.E. Cray, Jr., “Commemorating the Prison Ship Dead: Revolutionary Memory and the Politics of Sepulture in the Early Republic, 1776-1808,” The William and Mary Quarterly 56:3 (1999): 565-590: 568-571; Lewis, Neptune’s Militia, 96-104.

[15] Including recollections of several other (older) teenagers. See, among others, the memoir of Andrew Sherburne (18 at time of imprisonment): Memoirs of Andrew Sherburne: a Pensioner of the Navy of the Revolution, written by himself (Providence: H.H. Brown, 1831) and Ebenezer Fox (Ibid., 17), The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox, in the Revolutionary War (Boston: Charles Fox, 1847). 

[16] NL-HaNA 1.04.02, inv.nr. 6747, f.21; NL-SAA, 5075, inv.nr. 15468, deed 1150/scan 191 (12-10-1790).

Botto Scultetus Aeneae’s Notarized Testimony (translated by Tessa de Boer):

On the 25th of November in the year 1783 appeared before me, Cornelis van Homrigh, public notary in Amsterdam, admitted to the Court of Holland,

Botto Scultetus Aeneae, approximately fifteen years old, son of mr. Hendrik Aeneae, subject and citizen of this town.

And for his own benefit or of those who would be otherwise interested, he has testified and deposited the following:

That it was over three years ago when his parents inquired whether he would be interested in finding his luck elsewhere; that he did not make any trouble about this and was ready to fully commit himself to what his parents would judge to be the best and most suitable for him, and that he was also really happy and amused by the proposal; that shortly after, he was introduced to and contracted by a certain gentleman named Alexander Gillon to make the crossing to the New Republic of North America, and that once there this gentleman would show him favor and help him along; this was a proposal that really appealed to him, not in the least because of said Gillon’s (who, at the time, had been charged with prolific missions by the States of that Republic) repeated assurance to his parents and friends that he would take as much care & protection of him as possible, to help him along, and to take care of him as if he were his own child, under all circumstances. 

That for his purpose he boarded the frigate The South Carolina, commanded by said Alexander Gillon, who officially took him on on the 15th of March 1781 and put him on the crew list of the said ship as midshipman or adelborst in the service of the state of South Carolina. 

That subsequently, after having been on board the same ship lying idle in Texel for 5 or 6 months, he departed said harbor on board the ship on the 29th of August 1781, and sailed to the following places on several ‘crusades’: A Coruña, Ferol, Tenerife, Baltimore, Rhode Island, Boston, Havana, Dominica, Martinique, St. Domingue, Madera, Bermuda, Providence, and Philadelphia; that during these ‘crusades’ he couldn’t resist partaking & sharing in the incredible dangers, caused by the inflamed fight between those nations, between a mother country and her colonies; a fight that endangered the defenders of those parties, as The South Carolina first took to battle against two warships, which they managed to subdue and chase away despite their power; afterwards, the ship commander’s courage took them to the port of the English island Providence, with the aim to steal it away from the British Crown, and to offer it up to the leaders of the newly born nation as its very first conquest; that after two repeated sieges, one lasting one hour and the second lasting two, the outcome was the happiest; that this allowed him the rare pleasure that, in spite of his extreme youth, he had been a part of such a heroic campaign, the first campaign which made the power of the flag of a new people, the Republic of North America, known and invoke respect in the western seas; in addition, that aside from the said island, the ship captured 27 other ships whilst on their subsequent crusades, and that they sold some of these ships already, sent others away to neutral ports, and recruited some of them into the State service immediately. 

That he finally arrived in Philadelphia, after having navigated all of the dangers that accompanied these glorious operations; once there, instead of receiving further protection from his commander after all of his good services, he was abandoned, and forced to enlist to depart on another journey with the same ship; however, said Gillon had also left the ship, and transferred the command to mr. John Joyner, with whom he [Botto] set sail anew with the aim to support a new crusade. 

That during this operation he, to his misery, found out that despite all of the bold and successful endeavors of before, not all operations are victorious, because his ship was assaulted by an English man of war and two frigates in the month of December 1782, and after a vicious battle of nearly 1,5 hours was forced to surrender to these infamous enemies; that this fate befell him in the northern seas near New York. 

That after this defeat he was immediately taken prisoner, together with all of the remaining crew; that despite of his incredible youth, which would normally warrant mercy in all humane courts, he was locked in iron shackles and sent to New York; once there, he ended up in a prison that was so horrific to experience that it is impossible to put it in words; that he was locked in there for a period of 24 weeks, during which he had to endure inhumane treatment, which one would never expect from civilized people; that even in such a miserable state, he was denied the minimum amount of food, and that the few clothes he had were stolen from him; that he spent his time in a dungeonous hole, from which only 75 out of the original 700 prisoners that accompanied him were released by the time the peace was achieved, as all of the others had perished through neglect or abuse. 

That he attempted to escape multiple times during his time in the prison, in an attempt to regain his natural freedom, though it was always in vain; that one time, he managed to slip past the diligent guards, rendering himself suddenly free, and nearly made it to the gates of New York with the intent to cross to Long Island from there, but that he was apprehended by the guards at the last minute, and his escape was idled; that after this he was even more horrifically abused than before, and then put in a deep, square pit that was so narrow that he could not sit down on the bottom to give his exhausted body some rest, and that the top of the pit was closed off by an iron grate. 

That he was thus buried alive, and could not think about anything else but the fact that he would soon be switching out this grave for an actual grave, without his parents every knowing that he would have died this way; however, that after having spent ten days this way, the news broke through that there had been an armistice between the motherland and her colonies, including orders to conditionally release all remaining prisoners of war; that his, at the last minute, saved him from his fast approaching death. 

That he was subsequently transferred to Long Island, where many Hollanders lived, and he submitted himself to the kindness and care of those people, because he was in a ruinous state, naked, and deprived of everything; that for seven weeks he was cared for by a farmer, who took care of him as if he were his own child; until the news came, that the release of all prisoners of war through the armistice was made official. Upon hearing this, he decided to go and find his protector and only friend in this new part of the world, Alexander Gillon, to gauge whether he would still be willing to keep up his promise, or at the very least, give him some counsel and support. 

That together with the other former prisoners of war he made his way to the English Government in New York to obtain his full statement of release, and permission to leave the British territories to go elsewhere. For this purpose, [him and] the 13 officers (the miserable remains of the 50 in total who had accompanied him to prison) of the ship The South Carolina were given an old and rickety boat to use to sail to Charleston; that the remains of the crew of the South Carolina would certainly have perished on sea if through sheer luck they had not encountered another small boat, whose captain agreed to take them in after much persuasion and pressing the immediate danger that they were in; that via this way they sailed to Charleston.

That he was very happy to have arrived there, and immediately made his way to Gillon, to finally seek said gentlemen’s aid and protection after having suffered and struggled through many adversities and dangers, and to not only appeal to his promises or personal merits, but also to detail all of the repeated dangers, suffering and torturous humiliations, the latter of which he only survived through a rare bodily endurance, and the former through sheer luck.

That moved by all of those reasons he finally found himself with his desired protector, and felt the same trust he felt when he had submitted himself to him back in Amsterdam, but that he only received his reply: “I cannot do anything for you any longer, because the state of South Carolina does not maintain any ships of her own any longer”.

That he then spent ten weeks in that town, miserable and all on his own, without having any means to support himself with regards to shelter or food; that he would again be forced to rely on the charity of compassionate others; however, that finally he was handed a certificate of the salary he earned, totaling 200 pounds sterling or 2200 Dutch guilders, and that he would be paid out said sum over the course of two years by the treasurer of the Province, with a 7% interest. 

That subsequently, per the decision of the Congress to award the naval- and land officers that had been in their service some terrain, he was also awarded 400 [?] acres of land, located far inland, behind the Apelache mountains and near the Cherakees river in North Carolina; that he transferred the direction over this terrain to said Alexander Gillon per a notarial deed, with the aim that Gillon would accept it on his behalf and send him the appropriate documentation, but that he never received such things from said Gillon, and in addition never received any of its proceeds. 

That despite it being custom among all nations, and on all warships or privateers, that all those crew and officers who partook in a capture should share in the bounty, he never received anything related to the bounty of the aforementioned 27 ships he helped to capture. 

That he spoke to commodore Gillon about this several times, but that it was always in vain, and that because of his youth and lack of friends, he found himself unable to further press on with this legitimate claim, to his utter disadvantage.

That because he was deprived of everything, and unable to get money from Congress, he saw himself forced to sell the said 200 GBP certificate, to meet his most basic needs, but that he could obtain no more than the small sum of 50 GBP for it. 

That he eventually lost all hope to advance himself or succeed in any way, and because he wanted to avoid any more misfortunes in his already destitute state, he saw no other option but to trace the best way back to the city of his birth; that for this purpose, he boarded the merchant ship The Provincie van Vlaanderen, captained by Daniel Maas and destined from Charleston to Ostend, where he arrived on the 6th of September, 1783; from there, he travelled further over land to this city [Amsterdam], where he finally reached his father’s house on the 15th of this month, alongside the very few possessions that he still had, after his miserable absence of nearly three years. 

And while all of these dispositions are truthful, barring some uncertainties about some numbers or dates, of which the witness declares he tried his best to remember, the witness declares he is willing to affirm it all under oath if necessary.

Passed in Amsterdam, in the presence of Joannes Gisius and Jacobus Donker as witnesses,

[Signatures] 

2 thoughts on “The Children’s Crusade: A Teenage Recollection of the American Revolution

  1. I highlighted this posting on my Boston 1775 blog, and a reader asked how we know Botto was put on board the Jersey. He indeed doesn’t name his prison, but he also doesn’t describe it as a ship or include any details which require it to be a ship. Did he leave that portion of the narrative vague out of trauma or because he was suppressing some information, such as less harsh treatment or even cooperation with the British Crown?

    The British National Archives holds a ledger of prisoners held on the Jersey. Now I wonder if Botto’s name appears on it.

    Like

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