Maritime Art

Situation of His Majesty’s Frigate Java… Action with the American Frigate Constitution… rendered totally unmanageable

By R. Havell and D. Havell after N. Pocock, (1814)

This detailed and accurate hand-coloured aquatint is based on a painting by Nicholas Pocock, one of the most celebrated marine artists of the period. It shows a key moment in the war of 1812 when, on 29 December, the immensely powerful frigate USS Constitution engaged the British frigate HMS Java. The battle continued for three hours, an unusually long period of time for a naval battle. This print is one of three showing how the battle unfolded. Java is shown on the left, heavily damaged. Her entire foremast has gone with just a stump remaining on the foredeck. Canvas and rigging from the fallen mast now hangs over the starboard bow. Both ships have numerous holes in their sails. Although both vessels were nominally frigates the discrepancy in size is clearly visible. The crew of the Java is massed on the foredeck and bowsprit, poised to board the Constitution, a last ditch attempt to bring the battle to the American ship; it was at this moment that the foremast fell, her fighting tops crashing down through two decks. Soon afterwards, the Java surrendered, the third British warship to surrender to the Americans in just three months; a seismic shift in the expectation and performance of sea power in the Age of Sail.

The Society has published numerous articles on this important period.

The Ships of the American Navy in the War of 1812 argues that the American navy had been neglected and therefore there were few ships available to it at the outbreak of war. The author gives a list of these, then discusses in detail their readiness for action, dimensions, armament, and complement. The sailing quality of several smaller ships was spoilt by overloading. American heavy frigate design appears to be based on a French frigate acquired in the early 1780s. American losses were considerable but, as the war continued, they built or acquired more ships and captured a few. For comparing the size of American warships with their British counterparts, dimensions, rather than tonnage, are used. The difference between the British and American ways of measuring the length of frigates is explained.

The Action between the Shannon and the Chesapeake explores how the USS Chesapeake left Boston on the 1 June 1813, with orders to sail for Canada. HMS Shannon was now the only blockading ship in her way. The two ships closed and opened fire in the late afternoon. Ten minutes later, the Chesapeake’s rigging was badly damaged, it could not avoid being blown onto the Shannon stern first and was carried by the Shannon’s boarders. The author exposes inaccuracies in accounts of the action, both in descriptions of the ships’ movements and in assessments of the competence of Chesapeake’s crew.

British Naval Problems at Halifax During the War of 1812 offers a reappraisal of the maritime war of 1812. At the outset of war, in 1811, the Royal Navy’s Halifax squadron was beset with problems including the ships being in a state of disrepair and a severe shortage of both manpower and naval stores. Mediocre leadership and faulty intelligence on the part of the Americans saved the British squadron from destruction. Following the appointment of Admiral Alexander Cochrane to the Halifax squadron the tide turned and the British won a number of encounters with the Americans. However the Americans too won a number of victories and at the end of the war the situation was the same as it had been at the beginning.

The Third Alan Villiers Memorial Lecture 2013: The Naval War of 1812 in International Perspective provided an overview of scholarship as it stood as bicentenary celebrations were just beginning in 2012. At that point there remained a notable difference between American, British and Canadian historical interpretations about why this war was fought, what the effects were of military and naval operations, and to what extent such operations affected the ultimate political results. The lecture pointed out that the war was caused by long-term underlying irritations on both the British and American sides and that the results of military and naval operations during the war resulted in a stalemate that was eventually resolved by public opinion during the peace negotiations.

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