About This Artifact
Lore has it that it was British Sea Dogs Francis Drake and John Hawkins who first used the fire ship in their contests with Phillip II’s “Enterprise of England” or, as we know it, The Spanish Armada, in 1588. Therefore, the irony of Washington’s colonial forces using this same tactic unsuccessfully against the fourth rate ship of the line HMS Experiment and her supporters reminds us that the American Revolution really was, as historian Kevin Phillips called it, “The Cousins’ War.”
Faced with overwhelming odds in engaging the world’s largest and most formidable naval force, Washington knew he must use stealth and ingenuity if he had any serious intention of even partially neutralizing the Royal Navy. Just as earlier English sailors had employed the fire ship against the Spanish Armada because they were “outmanned and out gunned,” Washington and his tiny navy needed to reconstruct such strategies almost two hundred years later.
In this painting, you see American fire ships attacking the British men of war on their way to bombard New York City in July of 1776. The fire ship attack failed, however, and the British ships were able to attack New York with some success. The Colonists had been afraid of the British navy from the start of the Revolution, and it was incidents like this that encouraged America to build her own navy.
Dominic Serres was born in France in 1722, but spent most of his life painting in England. Serres specialized in maritime and naval art and was one of the founders of the Royal Art Academy in 1768. He was selected as “Marine Painter” to Britain’s King George III in 1780 for works mainly produced during the American Revolution.
Questions for Further Thought
- Fire ships were a dangerous weapon for even the user, because an ill wind could turn them back into your face. Are there some weapons that are just too dangerous to use?
- Why did the control of America's rivers matter to both sides in the colonial conflict? What uses did the rivers have?
- When would it be considered a good idea to destroy one of your own ships (or planes, trains, tanks, etc.) in war? Why?