The American Revolution, or War of Independence began in 1775 when the conflicts that had been building between the American colonies and the British government finally reached boiling point with skirmishes at Lexington Green and Concord leading to the siege of Boston by patriot forces. Despite the British victory at the battle of Bunker Hill, they were unable to break the siege. At the Continental Congress in Philadelphia that summer, representatives of the thirteen colonies joined together to appoint George Washington as commander-in-chief of the colonial forces. The war, which raged until 1781, was predominantly fought on land, as the meagre colonial navy could never hope to defeat the might of the British navy at sea. However, Britain's commercial shipping was vulnerable to attack. American merchants in privately owned vessels wreaked havoc on English trade. These privateers, as the ships and their crews were known, prowled the trade routes in search of prizes. The infamous Captain John Paul Jones, who was in command of the Bonhomme Richard at the battle of Flamborough Head, captured sixteen prizes during one particularly active six week period in 1776 on board the sloop Providence. However, very few visual records of these engagements involving privateers and merchant shipping were known to exist, until recent research shed light on the identity of this important painting by Francis Holman, probably one of the first representations of the 'Stars and Stripes' in art.
After two successful cruises during the American War of Independence, the American privateer Hampden sailed from Brest at the beginning of February 1779, leaving behind a lawsuit over one of her prizes and a dispute with John Paul Jones over the recruitment in France of American seamen. Hampden, under the command of Thomas Pickering, was armed with 22-guns and carried a crew of some 300 men intended to be used as boarders and to crew future prizes. The voyage, in company with a small armed schooner, was uneventful until mid-morning on 7th March when Pickering saw a strange sail, which he identified as an East Indiaman and made chase. The flag of the Honourable East India Company and the 'Grand Union Flag' or 'Continental Colours' of the fledgling United States of America were similar, so the East Indiaman hoisted a blue ensign to make clear her identity as British, and Pickering answered with a red ensign as a ruse de guerre. Pickering chased the stranger in fresh winds all day and all night, until the next morning at 7am. when he was close enough to begin firing upon the Indiaman.
In a letter to the New Hampshire Chronicle, one of Hampden's officers described how: "Being a beautiful large ship with two tier of cabin windows we knew her to be an East Indiaman and of much superior force, but supposing they were badly mann'd, were determined to fight her as long as we could. The engagement continued till half past ten, close alongside, when finding our three masts and bowsprit very badly wounded, our starboard main shrouds totally gone, our rigging and sails cut to pieces, our double headed shott [sic] expended, and near twenty of our men killed and wounded, were obliged to our grief to leave her a mere wreck, her masts, yards, sails and rigging cut to pieces. Having ourselves only the foresail which we could set to get off with, the sheets being cut away, were obliged to use our tacks. During the action our brave and worthy commander, Capt. Pickering, was killed, Mr. Peltier a Frenchman kill'd. Samuel Shortridge so badly wounded he died in two hours after. John Bunting, both legs shot away but liv'd nine days after. John Tanner, master's mate, left arm shot off. Micajah Blasdel, left hand shot off. Peter Derrick, his mouth shot to pieces, and twelve others wounded, but none dangerous."
Hampden "was obliged" to part from her intended victim without learning her name, but she was the Honourable East India Company's ship Bridgewater, under the command of the Cork-born Captain William Parker, returning from the East with a valuable cargo including spices from Sumatra. She carried 26-guns but was indeed poorly manned with only 84 men, many of whom were sickly. According to Parker the battle, lasted three hours until his opponent sheered off. Bridgewater was not badly hurt in the action and reached England safely two weeks later on 23rd March 1779.
A full month later Hampden reached Portsmouth, New Hampshire on 19th April 1779 and after this disastrous, third cruise she was sold off to the New Hampshire Navy, only to be captured by the British later that year during the Penobscot Expedition.
For his masterly defence of his ship, the Court of Directors of the East India Company "Resolved ... on the 10th of June 1779, that in consideration of the gallant defence made by the Officers and Seamen of the ship Bridgewater, against an American Ship of War of superior force, which after an engagement of some hours was obliged to sheer off, a gratuity of Two thousand pounds, be paid to the said Officers and Seamen, in such proportion as shall be settled by the Committee of shipping. That Captain Parker do receive the Thanks of this Court for his gallant conduct, and that he be presented with a piece of plate of one hundred guineas value, with the Company's Arms engraved thereon".
The picture shows much of the detail which Holman must have learned from the eyewitness accounts of William Parker, his officers and passengers: the presence of a third ship, the fresh wind, open sea, and the flags worn by the opposing vessels. It is highly likely therefore that the picture was a private commission by Parker to commemorate such an important event in his career. In his letter to the newspaper, the unnamed officer in Hampden wrote: "At 7am. came under her lee quarter within hail, hoisted continental colours and gave her a broadside," but Holman has relied upon Parker and has shown Hampden wearing the new-fangled, star-spangled Stars and Stripes.