The Other Theater: The War for American Independence beyond the Colonies

by Patrick Spero

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, 13 September 1782, by John Singleton Copley, After the British signed the peace treaty that ended the American War for Independence in 1783, the City of London decided to commission a work of art to commemorate the conflict. The city’s representatives approached John Singleton Copley for the job. Copley, a portrait painter born and bred in Boston, had spent the war years in London trying to hone his craft while avoiding the divisiveness of politics. The City had no small task in mind for the artist. They asked Copley to paint one of the largest works of art ever commissioned in the history of Great Britain. They also had a specific subject in mind: the siege of Gibraltar.[1]

The siege of Gibraltar was the longest and largest battle of the American Revolution, although American forces were not engaged in it. It began in 1779 and did not end until the Treaty of Paris three long years later. Strategically positioned at the mouth of the Mediterranean, the Rock of Gibraltar was a prize Spain and France had long wanted to wrest from the British. In 1779, after France had allied with the United States, Spain joined France in the war effort; one of their first actions was to launch a massive joint assault on Gibraltar that turned into a siege. By all accounts, the British soldiers defending “the rock” suffered unimaginable hardships while serving with incredible valor and fortitude. The defense of Gibraltar was the singular British triumph of the war, one that helped secure the future global dominance of the British Empire. The representatives of the City of London—and, indeed, many Britons—celebrated the successful defense of Gibraltar as a way to compensate for the loss of their thirteen North American colonies.[2]

Copley delivered on the request. After seven years of work, he unveiled The Siege of Gibraltar in June 1791 in a specially designed, 84-foot pavilion in London’s Green Park. The painting is striking for its contrasts. The right half depicts British soldiers, clean and confident in their bright red uniforms, valiantly defending their post. A British officer sits atop a white steed, calmly directing British fire toward their attackers. The painting turns darker as one’s gaze shifts left, where the French and Spanish compose an undistinguishable mass of soldiers and sailors suffering from the fiery onslaught of British arms. At over 450 square feet of brightly colored canvas, for contemporary viewers Copley’s depiction conveyed British grandeur, honor, and, perhaps most important, victory on a scale never before seen.[3]

The populace loved the spectacle. More than 60,000 people streamed to the park to see it. The sheer size of the painting was surely a draw, but, in 1790, the British Empire’s power and wealth seemed ascendant once again, led by its holdings in India. Copley’s painting captured that buoyant optimism and pride. But there was more to it. The Siege of Gibraltar reminded its viewers that the British had defended their homeland from assaults throughout the American Revolution.[4]

The siege of Gibraltar, so important to Great Britain during and after the Revolutionary War, receives little attention from American historians of the conflict. When US historians do discuss the international aspects of the Revolution, they most often focus on French aid to rebels in the North American theater of war and the American mission in France spearheaded by the charismatic and colorful Benjamin Franklin. Military historians may pay slightly more attention to the war outside of North America, but even they are prone to focus on American actors and events, especially the daring exploits of John Paul Jones and the Continental Navy.[5]

The Siege of Gibraltar reveals the War for American Independence as a global war. Far from being an isolated military conflict confined to North America and affecting only those living in the rebellious colonies, the war touched the shores of Europe, the waters off India, and even the shoals of Great Britain. These engagements directed British resources away from America. And the British people, rather than sitting safe and secure an ocean away from the action, as is often assumed, were combatants who lived in fear of invasion.

Perhaps no one was more responsible for sparking that fear than John Aitken. We know very little about Aitken himself, though most Britons during the War for Independence knew him well as “John the Painter.” Born in Scotland in 1752, Aitken wandered through life. As a youth, he committed a series of crimes ranging from petty theft to rape. Eventually, in 1774, at twenty-two, he journeyed to North America as an indentured servant. Arriving at the height of the imperial crisis, he ran away from his master and traveled throughout the colonies, absorbing the spirit of revolution. He enlisted in the British army three times during his trek through North America—accepting the enlistment bonuses and then quickly deserting to continue his travels.[6]

In 1776, Aitken hatched a plot that would alter the course of his life. His plan was to travel back to England, break into a number of major naval bases, and blow them up. A decimated navy, he believed, would be unable to resupply the British army in the rebellious colonies, and force Britain to end the war. In October, he sailed to Paris, where he shared his idea with Silas Deane, the main American emissary. Deane seems to have thought Aitken crazy, but he still gave him money for passage to England. Aitken may have been crazy, but he was also determined. By December, his plan was well underway. He successfully broke into two naval yards in December and January, but his hopes for mass destruction proved overly optimistic; his explosions caused only minor damage.

While Aitken caused only light physical destruction, he inflicted great psychological harm. The British began to suspect that a massive secret network of American terrorists operated within the island nation. The British government grew so concerned about the threat that it suspended the writ of habeas corpus to restrict suspects’ access to the courts.

When the law finally caught up with Aitken, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The court used his hanging as an opportunity to send a message to would-be invaders and to reassure a fearful British public. The presses churned out details of his crimes and his trial. A crowd of more than 20,000 spectators watched Aitken swing in the Portsmouth dockyard, the site of his first attack, from the largest gallows ever constructed in British history. The British authorities left his body hanging, and London newspapers continued their coverage by reporting on the state of his slowly decomposing body. In the decades that followed, newspapers continued to recount John the Painter’s story. His body was finally taken down sometime in the nineteenth century.[7]

Aitken’s plan was only one of many attempts to disrupt the British war effort by bringing the war to the British Isles. The exploits of John Paul Jones and the Continental Navy as well as the fleet of privateers that harassed British ships and ports throughout the war are the most famous. But the most serious of these potential invasions was an episode called “The Other Armada” in 1779, in which a joint French-Spanish naval operation nearly invaded the southern shores of Great Britain.[8]

France, after entering the fray on the side of the Americans in 1778, turned to its southern neighbor, Spain, and encouraged it to join them in the fight against Great Britain. Spain refused at first, but in 1779 it agreed to an alliance, in part because France promised to make the capture of Gibraltar a war aim. In the summer of 1779, the two countries amassed a fleet off the Spanish coast and then headed toward the English Channel with a plan to launch an invasion. They hoped to strike a decisive blow that would force England into a quick capitulation.[9]

The ships remained off the coast of Great Britain for several weeks. They encountered British fleets and their presence—sometimes visible from shore—sent shockwaves throughout the English countryside. The government began reinforcing its coastal ports and towns, and invasion seemed imminent to most Britons. But poor weather prevented the 100-ship armada from launching the assault, and finally rampant shipboard illness forced the commanders of the fleet to abandon the planned invasion. They then turned their attention toward Gibraltar.[10]

British control of Gibraltar had always troubled Continental interests, especially Spain’s. The British captured the Rock from Spain in 1704 at the end of Queen Anne’s War and kept it as a war prize. Spain has tried to reacquire the territory ever since, and the War for American Independence presented an opportunity to do so.

The assault on Gibraltar began at about the same time that the naval battalions were amassing for the invasion of England. After a series of initial attacks, the confrontation settled into a stalemate. A joint Spanish and French naval blockade tried to starve the British at Gibraltar into submission, while the British merchant marine deployed smaller and faster boats to break through the embargo and deliver supplies to their troops. As time wore on, the French tried to blast the British out by transforming some of their frigates into floating batteries, but the British used fire shot to decimate the slow-moving gunships. The British also carved a tunnel network throughout the rock that provided protection from bombardments; this is now a popular tourist attraction. In September 1782, as the war ended in North America, the French and Spanish launched one final push to capture Gibraltar in a maneuver called “The Grand Attack.” Reportedly, 80,000 Spaniards lined the countryside around Gibraltar to witness the assault that most assumed would dislodge the British from the Rock. It failed, and the British retained control.[11]

As these events make clear, North America was not the only theater of war during the American Revolution. While engagements beyond the shores of the United States may not have mattered much to the rebels—in fact, there seemed to be almost no knowledge of any of these events within America—they mattered a great deal to Europeans, especially the British whose interests and nation seemed under constant threat. Indeed, the decision by British officials to reallocate resources to fight battles in Europe may have contributed to the American success at home. The persistent fear of invasion may also explain Britons’ growing weariness with the war.

This fear was not a fleeting concern. In the decades that followed the cessation of hostilities, popular prints continued to reference John the Painter, demonstrating editors’ assumptions that their readers knew Aitken’s story and what it meant. A London theater even produced a play that mocked John the Painter. Gibraltar remained even more prominent in Britain’s consciousness. Publishing houses went through multiple printings of journals kept by British officers during the siege because the British people were hungry to read their courageous stories, and Britons recited poems and odes that celebrated the defense of Gibraltar. This long-ignored British perspective of the American Revolution reveals the conflict as a global war that reached far beyond North American shores and directly affected the lives and politics of Britons and Europeans.

[1] For a biography of Copley, see James Thomas Flexner, John Singleton Copley (Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948). See page 93 for details on his commission to paint the Siege of Gibraltar. See also Emily Ballew Neff, “John Singleton Copley,” American National Biography Online, Feb. 2000, The best study of Copley’s work on the painting is John Bonehill, “Exhibiting War: John Singleton Copley’s The Siege of Gibraltar and the Staging of History,” in Conflicting Visions: War and Visual Culture in Britain and France, c. 1700–1830, ed. John Bonehill and Geoff Quilley (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005), 139–168.

[2] There have been few studies on the siege itself. The best is Tom Henderson McGuffie, The Siege of Gibraltar, 1779–1783 (London: Batsford, 1965). See also Rene Chartrand, Gibraltar 1779–83: The Great Siege (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006).

[3] See Bonehill, “Exhibiting War.”

[4] Flexner, John Singleton Copley, 93.

[5] An exception to this oversight is Richard Van Alstyne, Empire and Independence: The International History of the American Revolution (New York: Wiley, 1965). A forthcoming book by Andrew O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013) offers a fresh approach to the British perspective on the American Revolution.

[6] For accounts of John Aitken, a.k.a. “John the Painter,” see Jessica Warner, John the Painter: Terrorist of the American Revolution (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004) and Thomas J. Schaeper, Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Author, Spy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 76–80.

[7] Warner, John the Painter, 220 and 241–244.

[8] A. Temple Patterson, The Other Armada: The Franco-Spanish Attempt to Invade Britain in 1779 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1960) is the only account of this maneuver.

[9] Patterson, The Other Armada, 107.

[10] Patterson, The Other Armada, 210.

[11] McGuffie, The Siege of Gibraltar, see especially 139–167 and Chartrand, Gibraltar 1779–83, 65–83.

Patrick Spero is assistant professor of history and leadership studies at Williams College and a member of the Board of Trustees at the David Library of the American Revolution, a research center dedicated to the study of the American Revolution. He has published essays and reviews on early American print culture, revolutionary politics, frontier life, and education. He most recently authored a twelve-part series for on the presidency from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln, which included video campaign ads produced by his students.


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