Object Image

An aerial view of Port Royal, Jamaica in 1758, showing merchantmen and other vessels in the approaches. In the early years of the 18th century Port Royal had been notorious as a den of iniquity for pirates and brigands of all kinds. In 1724 it was the scene of the execution of the famous pirate 'Calico' Jack Rackham at Gallows Point. Port Royal had been devastated by an earthquake in 1692, but was subsequently re-occupied and rebuilt as Britain's principal naval and mercantile port in the Caribbean. As a wealthy sugar island, Jamaica was a valuable colony for Britain and was also heavily involved with the slave trade, making Port Royal a principal centre for this. By the middle of the 18th century a new doctrine of the liberalization of trade was emerging, in an effort to curb the excesses of monopoly trade claims. In peacetime, a system evolved that became known as the Freedom of the Seas. This promoted the belief that every ship should have the right to expect an unhindered passage to her destination, providing she was engaged in honest trade and prepared to obey the customs laws of the country in which she hoped to sell her cargo.

The artist has distorted the perspective to achieve his effect, with a predominance of sky occupying half the picture. Port Royal lies towards the left and the flat coastal plain is encircled by mountains. The port is visible inside the harbour. Morant Bay Fort, built in 1758, is to the left of centre, at the mouth of the harbour. Small islands are depicted scattered in the foreground amongst the ships. Three British war ships are shown under way off the harbour. The one on the left shows her stern and red ensign. Those on the right of centre, broadside, and on the far right, with the bow in view, fly Union Jacks at the bow and red ensigns. Other shipping is visible at anchor on the left in the distance.

The artist started his painting career as an assistant to a ship's painter on Sir Charles Knowles's ship, and he rose to become one of the principal painters of naval actions of the 18th century.

Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

c. 1758
Oil on canvas
635.0 x 1219694.0 x 1274.0 mm
BHC1841
Image and text © Royal Museums Greenwich, 2021

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