Michiel Adriaenszoon De Ruyter was born in 1607 in Vlissingen (Flushing) as the son of beer porter Adriaen Michielszoon. Little is known about De Ruyter’s early life, but unofficial sources say that he was a bad student and that he was kicked out from school, after that he tried apprenticeship at a roper’s workshop but because of his temperament, he ended up kicked out from there too. What we know though is that he probably became a sailor at the age of 11. In 1622 he defended his home town as a musketeer in the Dutch army against the Spaniards. That same year he rejoined the Dutch merchant fleet and steadily worked his way up; between 1623 and 1631 he was active in Dublin as an agent for the Vlissingen-based merchant house. He would occasionally travel as supercargo to the Mediterranean or the Barbary Coast. In those years he usually referred to himself as “Machgyel Adriensoon”, his name in the Zealandic dialect he spoke; “De Ruyter” most probably was a nickname added out of respect to his grandfather who was a cavalier (in Dutch ruiter means cavalier).
In 1633 De Ruyter set sail for Jan Mayen Island serving as first mate on a fleet of five whalers. He repeated this action in 1634 and 1635. From 1637 to 1640, De Ruyter was captain of a private ship meant to hunt for raiders preying on Dutch merchant shipping. After that, he sailed for a while as the skipper of a merchant vessel named de Vlissinge, and was then contacted by the Zeeland Admiralty to become captain of the Haze, a merchant ship turned man-of-war carrying 26 guns in a fleet under admiral Gijsels fighting the Spanish. After returning home, he bought his own ship, the Salamander, and between 1642 and 1652, he mainly traded and travelled to Morocco and the West Indies to amass wealth as a merchant. During this time his esteem grew among other Dutch captains as he would regularly free Christian slaves by redeeming them at his own expense.
In this time he married 3 times: in 1631 he married a farmer’s daughter named Maayke Velders, the marriage lasted until the end of the year 1631 when Maayke died after giving birth to a daughter who followed her mother in death three weeks later. In 1636 he remarried with the daughter of a wealthy burgher named Neeltje Engels, who gave him four children, Adriaen (1637), Neeltje (1639), Aelken (1642) and Engel (1649). In 1950, his wife unexpectedly died. On 8 January 1652 he married the widow Anna van Gelder and decided the time had come to retire. He bought a house in Flushing, but his blissful family life would not last long.
De Ruyter was asked to join the expanding fleet as a subcommander of a Zealandic squadron of privately financed warships. After initially refusing and stating he wasn’t qualified enough for such a job, De Ruyter proved his worth under supreme commander Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp. This was the beginning of the Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652-74); he participated in all three of them. From this period onward, he was first a Squadron Commander or ‘Commodore,’ Vice-Admiral of Amsterdam, Fleet Commander in 1665 and in 1673, when William III of Orange became Admiral-General, the new rank of Lieutenant-Admiral-General was created especially for him in February. He fought heroically with the English, Swedish, Spanish, French and Portuguese fleets and even with Algerian pirates. Among his famous battles we could enumerate the liberation of Gdansk and Nyborg, the hard-fought victory in the Four Days Battle, the Raid on the Medway, and the strategic victories over larger Anglo-French fleets at the Battles of Solebay, Schooneveld and Texel.
In 1676 he took command of a combined Dutch-Spanish fleet to help the Spanish suppress the Messina Revolt and fought a French fleet under Duquesne. This was his 8th large battle as Admiral, he fought his first one exactly 35 years earlier against the Spanish, who were now the allies against the French.
At the Battle of Agosta he was fatally wounded when a cannonball hit his left leg, he died on the 29 April 1976. Almost one year later, on 18 March 1677 De Ruyter was given an elaborate state funeral when his body was buried in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) in Amsterdam.
De Ruyter was highly respected by his sailors and soldiers, who used the term of endearment Bestevaêr (“Granddad”) for him, both because of his disregard for hierarchy (he was himself of humble origin) and his refusal to back away from risky and bold undertakings despite his usually cautious nature. Respect also extended far beyond the borders of the Republic. On his last journey home, the late Lieutenant-Admiral-General was saluted by canon shots fired on the coasts of France by the direct orders of the French king Louis XIV. 2007 was the Michiel De Ruyter memorial year in Holland.