We would like to thank Charles Kingzett of Frost & Reed Ltd., London for kindly authenticating this work.
Launched in 1812, the brig The Grand Turk was built in Wincasset, Maine as a privateer. She was owned by Elias Hasket Derby, the foremost maritime magnate of Salem, Massachusetts before being commissioned by President Madison to patrol the Atlantic searching out enemies of the United States. Fast and easily maneuverable privateers such as The Grand Turk had been a critical component of the United States war efforts since the Revolution and throughout the War of 1812; in comparison to the great ships of the British Royal Navy, the official American naval fleet was small yet costly to maintain. It is The Grand Turk’s most famous battle that Dawson portrays in the present work. On May 1, 1814, sailing off the Azores under the command of Captain Holton J. Breen, the brigantine encountered the British Office packet Hinchinbrook as she reached the Azores on her homeward journey from St. Thomas. According to The Grand Turk ship’s log, she hoisted English colors as a disguise while chasing after the British vessel, raising the American flag only when reaching the Hinchinbrook’s side. Dawson evocatively captures the battle day: against the sunny sky and bright blue seas, the ships clashed, and broadsides were exchanged as each crew attempted to breech the opposing vessel. Here The Grand Turk surges from the background, the Stars and Stripes flying, parallel to the Hinchinbrook’s Union Jack. A blast of red-orange cannon-fire bursts from the Hinchinbrook, while the plumed impact of a shot in the sea reveals the powerful arsenal of The Grand Turk. Neither ship appears to have a clear advantage, and indeed contemporary reports recount the skirmish lasting for hours; volleys of cannon fire were exchanged and muskets shot until, as described in The Grand Turk’s logs, “braces, bowlines, mainstay, both foretopmast stays, jib, and topgallant stays, backstays, and part of the foremast rigging were cut away, sails completely riddled having at least six hundred shots-holes through them; and foretopsail and main yards partly crippled.” As each ship survived the day, the debate continues over which was the stronger opponent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Captain Breen proudly described his heroic attempts to defend the United States against an antagonistic enemy, while the Hinchinbrook’s Captain James’ logs suggest the noble valor of his smaller crew and lightly armed ship in fending off the brute force of the American foe.
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