While Serres is perhaps best known for his epic depicitions of naval battles, he also employed his keen documentary vision in scenes of harbor life or ship trade. In the present work, Serres fills his long, low horizon line with a multitude of ships of the British East India Company, their flags flying, wind in their sails as they approach or depart from the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Such a busy scene belies the area's remote location, midway between South America and Africa. First discovered by the Portuguese on St. Helena's Day, May 21, 1502, the island was then held by the Dutch before the British East India Company settled there in 1651. Due to its central and safe location, especially in comparison with the hostile coast of Southwest Africa, St. Helena was of critical strategic importance on the route to India and ships were often required to transport reinforcements to the garrison there. Soon after the close of the Anglo-Dutch wars, on December 12, 1673, King Charles II permitted the company control of the island as a port-of-call for homebound ships. As depicted by Serres, St. Helena's flat and barren appearance, a slim gray line on the horizon when approached by the sea, was in marked contrast to the luxuriance of its many deep valleys, the town and anchorage for the Company’s ships being situated below St. James’ valley at the northern end of the leeward side of the island. Apart from drinking water and the obvious shelter from the weather, the island regularly supplied ships with beef and lemons (to combat scurvy) and in return the Company provided St. Helena with grain which would not grow there. The island also provided a welcome place of rest where sailors could exchange news of their travels. The importance of the island was a clear demonstration of the East India Company's success and dominance of trade routes in the eighteenth century. While it is unknown exactly who may have commissioned Serres' work, it is conceivable that a member of the Company was responsible. Like Serres' predecessors Monamy and Scott, he often secured commissions from the East India Company's officers, who promoted their success on the high seas by hanging marine paintings in their home offices.
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