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 28 th 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 four men-of-war 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 Bonaventura blew up, Leopard and three of the armed merchantmen were captured, and only the Mary escaped the scene to join Badiley's fleet. 150 men out of 200 were killed or wounded before Appleton surrendered his ship. As a consequence of the battle the Dutch were left in command of the Mediterranean.
In this depiction of the action the Dutch ship Zon, 40-guns, with the emblem of the sun carved on its stern, is seen firing broadsides at two English men-of-war, the left of which is likely to be Appleton's Leopard, which is also being engaged at close quarter's by Van Galen's flagship. In the distance to the left of the canvas Bradiley's fleet appear to be engaging in a few shots with some of the Dutch, with the increased number of English ships appearing to make the Dutch victory all the more significant.
Another version of the subject by Nooms is in the National Collection at Greenwich. The artist Reinier Nooms, also known as Zeeman, was born and died in Amsterdam. This pseudonym reflects the artist's early life spent at sea. He painted in the Dutch realist style with a lively palette.