This atmospheric scene depicts an English East Indiamen, port quarter view flying the red ensign fighting against a gale whilst an enemy vessel with French and Spanish pennants attempts to draw closer. The deep brooding swell of the ocean reflecting the rolling storm clouds over head lends an air of impending danger which contrasts well with the emerging brighter blue patches of sky.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the British economy depended on its ability to trade with the British Empire, particularly the valuable colonies in British India. The intercontinental trade was conducted by the governors of India, the Honourable East India Company, using their fleet of large, well-armed merchant vessels known as East Indiamen. Meant as defense against pirates, privateers and small warships they were not, however, capable under normal circumstances of fighting off an enemy frigate or ship of the line. Their guns were usually of inferior design and their crew smaller and less well trained than those on a naval ship. The East Indiamen sought to ensure the safety of their cargo and passengers, not defeat enemy warships in battle. Despite these disadvantages, the size of East Indiamen meant that from a distance they appeared quite similar to a small ship of the line, a deception usually augmented by paintwork and dummy cannon. At the Bali Strait Incident of 28th January 1797 an unescorted convoy of East Indiamen had used this similarity to intimidate a powerful French frigate squadron into withdrawing without a fight. Equally in February 1799 an attack by a combined French-Spanish squadron on the assembled convoy at Macau was driven off without combat by the small Royal Navy escort squadron.
Charles Brooking (1723-1759) was the finest British marine painter of his day. Little is known of his short career, but in his early years he was evidently employed in some capacity at Deptford dockyard and had an intimate knowledge of the ships he painted. Equally adept at calm or rough seas he fairly dominated the trade in this type of picture during the middle years of the 18th century. Given his popularity many painters continued his tradition – he was a major influence on Dominic Serres, who knew him well, and his work was admired by Samuel Scott and by Nicholas Pocock, who made copies of his pictures.