Saturday, December 29, 2012

Today in History: Constitution Victorious Again

Post by Brian Dunnigan, Associate Director and Curator of Maps

For many years now, two oil paintings have looked down on the supervisor’s desk in the Clements Library reading room.  They depict two phases of a battle at sea between a pair of warships, one British the other American.  In one scene the fully functioning American vessel pounds the partially dismasted Britisher.  In the second, the US ship sails away while her defeated adversary slips beneath the waves as her magazine violently explodes.  They are a reminder that the Clements has always been strong in visual and documentary material relating to maritime and naval affairs prior to 1900.

Oil painting of the Constitution and Java, by Nicholas Pocock

The two paintings depict the victory of the US Frigate Constitution over the Royal Navy’s Java on December 29, 1812, two hundred years ago this month.  Only four months earlier Constitution had defeated HMS Guerriere in  the North Atlantic.  The action of December 29 was fought in milder waters off the coast of Brazil.  The American frigate had refitted following her August battle and, under a new commanding officer, William Bainbridge (1774-1833), went to cruise the South Atlantic.  On December 29 the much larger and more heavily armed Constitution encountered HMS Java.

Portrait of Captain William Bainbridge

Although Java was much less powerful than the American ship, British Captain Henry Lambert (d. 1813) gamely confronted  his adversary  and fought for two and one-half hours before the dismasted and crippled Java was forced to surrender.  Constitution continued to be a lucky ship, suffering only 34 casualties to Java’s 124.  Captain Lambert was among the wounded, and Java was so badly damaged that she had to be scuttled,

British artist Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821) depicted the action in four oil paintings, each showing a different stage of the battle.  His paintings were engraved and produced as a set of four prints.  The Clements holds two of the oils and a complete set of the prints.  Interestingly, the engraver seems to have made Java smaller in the prints than in the paintings, perhaps in an effort to minimize the British defeat.

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