This painting shows the Spanish preparations before the siege. Havana had one of the finest deep water harbours in the West Indies, as well as major shipyards capable of building first rate men-of-war, making it a vitally important strategic target as both the capital of Spanish Cuba and Spain’s principal naval base in the Caribbean. On 6th
June 1762 the British fleet was spotted approaching the city from the North, to the windward side of the island, having sailed through a treacherous stretch of sea known as the Old Bahama Channel. The Spanish garrison at Havana had expected an attack from the West, from the British naval base at Port Royal on Jamaica, and the unexpected sighting of the fleet in the North created panic among the city’s defenders. A council of war was held by the Spanish governor, Juan de Prado Mayera Portocarrero y Luna (1716–1770), at which it was decided to sink three large ships across the narrow mouth of the harbour to block the British from entering but also trapping the Spanish fleet inside. To the left of the painting can be seen the Castillo de los Tres Reyes de Morro, known to the British as the Morro Castle, on the rocky Cavannos Ridge guarding the mouth of the harbour. On the right is the entrance to the narrow channel that gave access to the harbour itself, blocked by the sunken ships and a floating boom defence strung across its mouth, whilst men and supplies are loaded into the fort. A cannon is being hoisted up the cliff face above the Shepherd's Battery and in the centre can be seen the well-fortified, star-shaped Apostles' Battery (so named for its twelve embrasures) immediately to the right. The large cloud of smoke rising from behind the fort indicates that the British bombardment from the landward side has begun.
The composition of this painting is entirely unique. It does not relate to any of Osbridge's prints and nor is it found in any later versions by Serres. Its quality and condition are exceptional and, as Alan Russett has commented, the picture is remarkable for its ‘masterly handling of the wide view and the intensity of the action, striking a careful balance between the mass of the fortified promontory, the figures at its foot and the small boat activity in the foreground’.1 The composition and handling of the staffage, as well as the quality of the architectural detail, demonstrate the strong influence of Canaletto, who had come to England at about the same time as Serres and worked in London for nearly a decade. Indeed, so deep has Serres drunk from the well of Canaletto's inspiration that this painting is ‘worth of comparison with the panoramic views of Bernardo Bellotto’,2 Canaletto's own nephew and pupil.
1. Russett 2001, p. 57.
2. Russett 2001, p. 57.