See P. Conner, The China Trade, 1600-1860, p.32 for an explanation of this trial: it was held in the great hall of the old English factory on 9th April 1807, following a brawl involving British sailors in which a Chinese man was killed. Five Chinese officials sit at three tables, on which judgement vases have been placed. The figure at the centre presiding over the trial is the Prefect of Canton. The British representatives, including Captain Robert Rolles and Sir George Thomas Staunton, are seated to the left and the Hong merchants are seated to the right. The fifty-two sailors from the Neptune, who were ashore at Canton on the day of the incident, were brought into the court in groups of five. Although all the sailors claimed their innocence, when Edward Sheen, the most riotous of the sailors, was handed over to the Chinese authorities, the British ships were then allowed to leave China. Sheen received a small fine but Mowqua, the Hong merchant responsible for the Neptune was taken prisoner by the Cantonese government and probably obliged to pay a large sum, so that the affair could be brought to an honourable conclusion.
This composition is a companion to one depicting the front of the Hongs at Canton. The latter painting shows the activities in the square in front of the Hongs before the trial took place, with a sailor at the gate of the English factory, and the Chinese officials about to converge on the building. See P. Conner, ibid. pls. 26 and 27, pp.32 and 33 for the pair of paintings in the National Maritime Museum, London; and C. L. Crossman, op.cit., col.pls.35 and 36, pp.108 and 109 for the Trial painting in the Peabody Museum, Salem and the Hong painting in the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Delaware. Crossman discusses the great attention to detail in the paintings and suggests that they were executed by an artist also pursuing portraiture. He adds that since Spoilum ceased painting in 1805 or 1806, an immediate follower is most likely, possibly Lamqua who may be Spoilum's son. Another version of the Trial scene, from his own collection, is illustrated by M. Beurdeley, op.cit., p.19, fig.8.