England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands found themselves at war on three occasions within twenty years in the mid-seventeenth century and despite a variety of political causes, the underlying rationale for this essentially continuous conflict was trade. The first outbreak of hostilities came in 1652 following a chance encounter between two squadrons off Dover on 29th May. More a skirmish than a battle, this merely precipitated the formal declaration of war two months later thus setting the stage for a number of full-scale fleet actions during the remainder of that year and all through 1653. In broad terms, the Dutch suffered several major defeats and, in total, lost about 1,700 vessels against English losses of only 440, even though most of these were in the form of merchantmen taken as prizes by both sides. The principal theatres of operation in this conflict were the English Channel, the Dover Straits and the waters off the Dutch coast but there was also activity in the Mediterranean where, in separate engagements, the two squadrons of the English fleet cruising there were brought to action by Captain Johan van Galen's squadron.
The first of the two actions, which was indecisive, took place off the island of Elba on 28th August 1652 whilst the second was fought off the Italian port of Leghorn on 4th March the following year. Captain Appleton, in the Leopard, in company with five armed merchantmen (Bonaventure, Samson, Mary, Peregrine and Levant Merchant), had been stranded in Leghorn unable to sail because of van Galen's blockade. Captain Badiley, commanding the vessels off Elba, therefore came to his aid and was sighted by van Galen early on the morning of 4th March. Van Galen feigned an attack on him, thereby persuading Appleton's squadron to come out, but Appleton weighed anchor too soon and the Dutch turned to engage him whilst Badiley was still too far away to intervene. In the fierce action which ensued, Bonaventure blew up, Leopard and three of the armed merchantmen were captured and only the Mary escaped the scene.
In this view of the battle, the 50-gun ship-of-war Leopard is being engaged by a Dutch vessel flying an unusual plain blue flag at her stern. This rarely painted ensign is recorded in early flag literature as "Holland's Sailing Colours" and is described in several sources, notably J. Beaumont's, The Present State of the Universe, London, 3rd edition, 1701, [flag] pl. 27, this work being the first English printed book on sea flags.
Born in Amsterdam in 1641, Smit was a pupil of Jan Blankerhoff when the van de Veldes, Bakhuizen and the Ruisdaels were all at the height of their powers and prestige. Their influence can clearly be seen in his work.