Brook Watson


Living in Boston or in Washington D.C., it is impossible for any museum aficionado to avoid being disquieted by the identical paintings of Watson and the Shark, by John Singleton Copley,

Watson and the Shark 

the first at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the second at the National Gallery, as often as one might see them. (There is a smaller third version in the Detroit Museum of Fine Arts, which I know was painted by Copley, but don’t know when or why, except that it might have been done as a study.) Each nearly life-size painting shows a Boston Whaler-type boat full of sailors having the dignity and solemnity of the Twelve Apostles, some sitting and some standing, all of their eyes focused on a young man in the water face up, naked, and soon to be have his head bitten off by a monstrously large shark that circles nearly one half of the boat. One of the men holds a boat hook in his hands to ward of the advancing shark showing his full set of teeth. Upon closer inspection, one can see that the boy in the water has had his left leg bitten off below his knee. Both paintings have plaques that give a full description of the event. One of the two versions which is now in Washington was commissioned by the man that the boy in the water became, and the second was painted by Copley for himself and then passed down to his descendants until one donated the painting to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Dr. Gordon Bendersky, a retired cardiologist, who wrote a medical analysis of ”Watson and the Shark Copley, marvels over the boy’s survival:

”Not only was the rescue an amazingly miraculous incident, but the mortality of a shark’s chewing off a foot in two attacks, the massive loss of blood expected from the anterior tibial artery, the near-drowning and the mortality rate of the subsequent amputation procedure itself and the expected post-traumatic and postoperative infections would approach 99 percent or greater.

What I love especially about history is where following a single element can lead to an awareness of people and events of whose existence I had no previous idea. My research on Brook Watson, of whom I knew nothing, except as a name on a painting, led me to explore not only Watson’s mesmerizing life, but also that of John Singleton Copley, whom I knew solely by his paintings and a statute of him in Boston’s Copley Square, and finally a remarkable and unfortunate group of people called the “Acadians,” who suffered a holocaustic deportation in eighteenth century Canada.

Inasmuch as the painting “Watson and the Shark” was the spark for this essay, I want to tell you first about Copley and the likely circumstances that led to his creation of those paintings.

John Singleton Copley by Copley 

Copley was born in Massachusetts in 1738, the son of an uneducated, Irish immigrant couple. He was never schooled in painting, but was self-taught. However, his widowed mother remarried a highly-skilled engraver in Boston named Peter Pelham. Pelham had a large stock of old master engravings that must have been a source of inspiration for the young Copley, who absorbed quickly not only their various approaches to portraiture, but also how to embellish the portraits of his colonial clients with the trappings of the English upper classes, such as columns, classical busts, rich European fabrics, hot-house flowers, fine china, and the like. The ruddy colonialists obviously enjoyed being painted with subtle and not so subtle allusions to their wealth.

Rebeccca Boylston by Copley in her negligee

Copley at thirty-five became the most sought after portraitist of the late colonial era, making trips to New York and elsewhere to satisfy his growing register of patrons. Although a number of New England families enjoyed distinguished lineage or substance in England prior to arriving in America (although clearly dukes don’t immigrate), Massachusetts had an upwardly mobile society, and the renowned and prosperous Copley was able to marry the daughter of a well-established and wealthy merchant named Richard Clarke. Clarke’s wife was a Mayflower descendant, which, until the mid-1950’s, was a pedigree that trumped any other in the America.  After his marriage, Copley purchased a 20-acre farm what is now Beacon Hill, adjoining the property of John Hancock, a Boston nob.

Clarke was one of the consignees of the East India Company tea that was destroyed in the Boston harbor, that in the 1830’s was duded the “Boston Tea Party.”

An image of the Destruction of the Tea or the Boston Tea Party

He was also a relative of William Hutchinson, the English Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, hated by the colonial Patriots, as those who became increasingly opposed to English rule were called.

As the anger against England increased, those colonials such as the Clarke family who favored England’s retention of the America colonies, known as Loyalists (who often were the “best and brightest” of colonial society,) also suffered the escalating fury of their fellow colonialists who began actively to advocate severance from England. Many of the Loyalists were attacked and beaten by the Patriots, their businesses and property desecrated, and even subjected to “tar and feathering,”

Tarring and Feathering

which was a brutal form of torture. Like many other colonials, the Loyalists arrived in America before 1650 and worked to build it prosperity. While Copley was sympathetic to and a close friend of many Patriots, such as Paul Revere, James Otis, and John Hancock, his in-laws and many of his clientele were Loyalists.

Paul Revere by Copley

Copley couldn’t abide the violence wrought by overzealous Patriots that was becoming increasingly common in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but never experienced by him. One night, Copley was woken by a raucous mob surrounding his house, which demanded to know if a certain Colonel George Watson, a colonial administrator for the English authority and a Loyalist, was staying with him. Watson was also a member of the extended Clarke family, an acquaintance if not a friend of Copley. Copley explained that indeed Watson had visited during that afternoon, but left in the afternoon as well. The mob threatened that Copley’s “blood” would be on his head if he had deceived them, or “if he entertained Watson again or any other villain.” In a letter to his brother-in-law, Issac Clarke, Copley wrote”

“What if Mr. Watson had stayed (as I pressed him to) to spend the night. I must either have given up a friend to the insult of a Mob or had my house pulled down and perhaps my family murthered.”

This encounter with its actual threat of bodily harm shook Copley to his core.

Copley had for many years been encouraged by his friend and fellow painter Benjamin West,

Benjamin West

an American who emigrated lo London to peruse his career, to join him in England. Notwithstanding Copley’s success in the America, he had a long-held grievance that painters, even himself, were deemed basically as workmen in the United States, similar to a skilled carpenter or weaver of textiles. This is a bit odd, as he had achieved so great a degree of success and a marriage into a major Boston family. Possibly, he had taken some cheap shots of snobbery from his “classy” portrait subjects on his way “up,” or perhaps he just wanted to be worshipped. West told him that this would not the case in London, where recognized artists held high status and repute as did nobles. For many years, Copley chose to remain in Boston,  because he thought that he could realize the incredibly high level of income in London that he enjoyed in Boston, as he would be an unknown.

However, fear of harm by barbarous Patriots and the possibility of achieving a higher station of life in London coincided, Copley decided to migrate to what still remained as the mother country. He took passage on a ship called Minerva, the last boat to leave America for England until the end of the War of Independence. The sea voyage began from Marblehead, Massachusetts and took roughly four weeks. Aside from rough seas, bad food and water, and cramped accommodations, the trip was, like all such voyages, at best deadly boring and at worst deadly. Travelers brooked the tedium by telling true and false stories that, at best, were wildly exaggerated over and over to fellow passengers. However, accordingly at least to one source, there was aboard the Minerva one traveler who didn’t have to falsify or embellish his amazing story of his near death as he was swimming in the harbor of Havana, Cuba when fourteen years old. This, of course, was Brook Watson,

Brook Watson

all grown up by then, with a wooden left leg. Copley was intrigued and made some sketches of the harrowing scene under the guidance of Watson, who suggested that Copley painting the gruesome scene when he arrived in London, which he, Watson, would commission. The shipboard meeting may be apocryphal (but I have not concocted it, and freely admit that I prefer that it were true). Copley and Watson did meet in London on August 17, 1794, shortly after Copley passed his first year abroad studying painting techniques in Italy, then considered the mother of art.

Copley was eager to break out of portraiture and paint a narrative history, which had always, if not exclusively, dealt with subjects of a religious, historical, or national nature, such as a major battle or a coronation. He had the temerity to paint dramatically and with a near religious overtone a recent event in the life of an ordinary mortal, and was rewarded immediately when the painting took the English art market by storm. Copley’s reputation soared to the top level of recognized artists, a status that continued for most of his life, as he remained in England. Based on this work and a portrait of his family,

The Copley Family by and with Copley

now also in the Washington National Gallery, Copley was elected to London’s prestigious Royal Academy in 1779.

Now, l will turn to Brook Watson, who in his middle years became Lord Major of London, a founder and chairman of the still extant international insurance company, Lloyd’s of London, as well as a rich and respected man whose life could have ended as food in the belly of a shark. All of these and other business aspects of Watson’s life are, of course, laudable. However, for me, what he did in his life before reaching those commercial heights are what makes him so remarkable for me.

A significant part of Watson’s history would have been lost had not a volume of papers covering the history of the Nova Scotia region of Canada from 1790 to 1815, some written and all compiled by Reverend Andrew Brown, including letters from Brook Watson, had not been saved from annihilation by an astute agent of the British Museum, named Grosart He was in cheese shop in Scotland and noticed that Brown’s papers were being used to wrap up cheese and butter. He purchased them from the shopkeeper, and they were deposited in the National Collection in London.

Watson was born in England as the son of a substantial merchant. When Watson was under 10 years old, probably six to eight years old, his parents died; and, he was sent to a distant relative, possibly named Levens, who was also a prosperous ship merchant in Massachusetts. Can you imagine a recently-orphaned boy of eight going on a small wooden sailing ship across the Atlantic Ocean, a voyage of nearly thirty days, without a relative or other acquaintance? And what did he find when he arrived there, probably not Mr. Levens who probably sent some lackey to pick up the boy form the dock.

At fourteen years of age, Watson was taken on one of Leven’s ships as a cabin boy, which wasn’t uncommon at the time, even for younger boys. When the ship was anchored in the Havana harbor by Moro Castle,

Moro Castle, Havanna

the lad dove off the boat for a swim. This is when the shark attack occurred that took off his lower left leg. Actually, the shark attacked twice and both times took Watson under the water. He was miraculously saved by his shipmates before the beast could finish the meal. Watson spent three months in Cuba, being treated by Spanish doctors, healing from his wound, and having a wooden leg made.

When Watson returned to Boston and entered his guardian’s house, he was accosted by a woman, who apparently then owned the building and ran it as an inn or worse. She told him that Leven was bankrupt, disappeared, and possibly that Levens owed her money above what the house was worth. A letter to the Rev. Andrew Brown describes the salty discourse, which is worth repeating here:

“La Brook,” exclaimed the oddity, ” is this you, with a wooden leg, too? Your friend Levens has been so unlucky, has done so-and-so and now he is gone the Lord knows where. But there is nothing for you here; I can see nothing for you but to have you bound out to be a saylor. I believe I shall send immediately for the select men and was all with them in the business.” She was suggesting that she could get additional money owing to her from Levens, as a bounty from consigning Watson on an outgoing ship; ship owners of the time used all sorts of devices to attract unwilling working hands, including kidnapping. “The Lord help me,” says poor Brook, “for I wish the shark had finished the business he began.”

The woman spoke so loudly that she was overheard by a ship captain named John Huston who was sitting in an adjacent room. He came into the room where Watson was being abused, and the woman was about to resume her tirade, when he Mr. Huston interrupted her and told her to say no more on that subject. He said that he would pay any balance owing her from Watson’s guardian, which he did and took the boy with him when he left Boston. Huston was obviously impressed by the young Watson, to pay for his freedom for his guardian’s debt as well as bring him into Huston’s family as one of his own children.

In one of the letters that would have served to preserve butter or cheese, there is the following statement about Watson that served as a confirmation on the value of my tracking his life;

“It is an observation made by Plutarch — that as the small features about the eyes are the most expressive and do most to distinguish the complexion of the individual, so the little incidents of life are of great account in making up a judgment of a person’s real character. In great actions persons may out-do themselves, but in little actions they act themselves. With this observation I shall introduce an instance or two of the manliness and capacity of young Watson:—“

During the French and Indian War in Canada, which was part if the Seven Years’ War between the English and French were carrying on in Europe, at one point the English forces controlled one side if a river and the French were on the other side. Several cattle belonging to the English one day crossed the river at low tide and were foraging on the French side. This wasn’t noticed until the high tide and one other than Watson said he would attempt to bring them back. He swam over the river-side and was driving the cattle towards the river when a French officer leading a small troop called Watson to halt, and said to him:

“Young man, what have you to do upon the King of France’s land?”  Watson replied that his “present concern was neither with the King of France, nor about his land, but he meant take care of the English cattle.” The French officer was amused by this snappy come back, and ordered his men to allow Watson taking away the cattle. This boldness on Watson’s part “gained him not a little credit” by the English when he returned with the cattle, both he and the cattle intact.

Huston was the captain of a ship that supplied provisions to the British army in Nova Scotia. Watson’s apparent abilities were recognized by the English command serviced by Huston, and he was made a commissary in 1755 to the British forces. I read that three years later he was sent to supervise the “expulsion of the Acadians” from Nova Scotia. Those words caught my eye. Who in blazes were the Acadians? I first I thought they must have been a feckless Native American tribe sent on another, earlier “trail of tears.” That was not the case. If you are familiar with Nova Scotia or the Bay of Fundy in Canada or come from New Orleans, Louisiana, you most likely know who the Acadians were. But I never have, and they were a new name to me.

A Portrait of the Acadians looking to burst into a “Sound of Music” number 

In a letter to the Rev, Andrew Brown, Watson supplies a very complimentary answer to the identity of the Acadians, in a letter he wrote to the Rev. Brown, one of the documents that avoided obliteration by cheese. He states that Acadie, or Acady, now Nova Scotia on the eastern shore of Canada, was first settled by people from Normandy. Indeed, they were French people, mostly from Normandy, but they arrived in Canada in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries rather than in the sixteenth. They were placed under the French government of Canada, but so remote from the capital of Quebec, that little communication could be held with them. They were, therefore, able to enjoy this extensive and fertile country with little or no control. Their chief settlements were made on the borders of navigable rivers emptying into the Bay of Fundy, where marsh, or interval, lands abounded, and which, when dyked to keep off the water occasioned by high tides, produced excellent pastures, and without manure abundance of fine grain and pulse. Hence the country soon became plentifully stocked with neat cattle, horses, sheep, hogs, and poultry of all sorts. The people were left to themselves, without burthens on their property, or restraints on their industry, increased rapidly, possessing the means essential to substantial happiness. Luxuries they did not covet, to ambition they were strangers.

All in all, Watson describes Acadie as a second Eden, even to the degree that he claims that adultery was unknown. His only slightly negative comment was that “bigoted Catholics they were, no doubt, governed by their priests, but these were few in number and moderate in their views.” However, a similar view of the Acadians is expressed in another of Rev. Andrew Brown’s papers:

“Their wants and other wishes were few, and their deficiencies and disputes were still fewer. They had no courts of law — because they had no need of them. If any difference arose it was soon allayed and settled by the interference and counsel of two or three of the most judicious and best respected in the neighborhood.”

Sadly, this remarkable, if slightly improbably good people got caught in the French and English wars, if not eternal, then in the conflicts of the French and English, which were eternal.

In 1713 Nova Scotia was ceded to the crown of Great Britain by France, together with its inhabitants, including the Acadians. Those who chose not to remain were free to leave, provided they left within 12 months. Those remaining, which was the majority of the Acadians,  became subjects of Great Britain. In 1720, a new Governor was appointed and the Acadians were required to take the oath of allegiance, but many declared they would not take arms against the French. The British reassured those that took the oath of allegiance and “behaved peaceably” would not be required to bear arms against the French. In the meantime, they enjoyed the free exercises of their religion; had priests in every district, and were permitted to govern themselves by their own usages and customs were suffered to govern themselves by their own usages and customs.

The French and Indian War brought more suspicion against the Acadians, some of which was justified by their siding with the Native Americans against the British; and the continuing settlement of English farmers in the region brought envy against the skilled husbandry of the Acadians by the new settlers. It wasn’t long before envy and fear of the Acadians as a fifth column in the English midst gave rise to a variation on a “final solution” to obliterate the imagined threat that these people posed to their British overlords.


To be continued in next week’s post of SoRandom: HistoricalSnapshots.


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