Montague Dawson depicts the renowned 18th century Revenue Cutter H.M.S. KITE giving chase to the ship of notorious smuggler David "Smoker" Browning. The KITE, named for the bird of prey, would swoop down upon Browning's ship, finally ensnaring the Kingpin of the North Sea after years of his evading the King's justice.
Dawson has captured the highlight of the chase. The dawn's first light brightens the clouds in the very early midsummer morning as KITE turns her swivel guns upon the lugger she's been chasing through the night. The golden light illuminates KITE, alluding to her eventual victory and to the gallant determination of her crew.
Every man is hard at work on deck as captain and crew are trying to get every bit of speed out of KITE's sails. The tossing waves and whitecaps are superb adding significant drama. This painting is the epitome of hard driving ships in active seas which made Dawson's reputation as an artist. Dawson painted these waters along England's southern coast many times and this is one of the most exciting in color and brushwork that we have seen.
Historical records indicate that on the night of July 15th 1788, KITE sailed west from Beachy Head - a chalk headland in East Sussex, England, just east of the Seven Sisters. The cutter passed south of the Isle of Wight under cloud cover so heavy that it obscured the nearby island. The weather improved as the evening wore on and by the time they were between Peveril Point and St. Alban's Head the ship's surgeon was able to make out a vessel in the distance and alerted nearby midshipman Cornelius Quinton. Taking some bearings, Quinton estimated the other ship to be about nine miles off Peveril Point.
KITE gave chase, following the unknown vessel now heading southeast. While still at distance, the crew were able to make out that the other ship was a lugger due to the unique lug sail rigging, evolved from the square sail to improve how close the vessel can sail into the wind. The question was if she was one of the few Revenue luggers employed by the Royal Navy or a smuggler?
The answer wasn't long in coming. As KITE's crew watched the lugger set her main topsail, trying to get away. Realizing they were likely chasing a smuggler, KITE released her reefed sails and set their own gaff topsail to gain speed.
After hours giving chase, KITE was closing fast. As she approached she hoisted her signals and fired a musket shot, a well-known sign to heave to or change the position of the sails in order to slow or stop. The lugger ignored it, pressing on. Nearing the other ship again KITE turned her swivel guns on the lugger, firing several shots but the lugger evaded all fire. Eventually KITE drew within hailing distance, requesting the lugger lower her sails in the King's name but again it was ignored, so KITE's crew again fired from muskets.
After an entire night it became clear that the KITE was the superior ship. Seeing they couldn't outrun the Revenue cutter, the lugger finally gave up and lowered sails, coming around the KITE's stern. Midshipman Quintan was allowed to board the lugger and was astonished to find they had finally captured the famous David "Smoker" Browning, one of the kingpins of North Sea smuggling during the 18th century and a man with a considerable price on his head.
In the 1770's Browning's ship had been considered so well armed that she was superior to any of the Revenue cutters then in service- some even said that even two or more ships couldn't take her. Browning's ship was sighted many times from land and sea but the ship's reputation was such that none dared approach. On the day he was captured he was aboard a lesser vessel which along with his ship being caught fairly near shore, likely having just landed a cargo, led to the KITE's success in taking the celebrated smuggler after one last exciting chase.
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