Interesting bits of history are often discovered in unusual places. In the early 1940s, I had occasion to visit Saint James Episcopal Church in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina. I believe my visit was in connection with an organized school tour of historic sites in the area. Saint James Parish was established by the Church of England 1729, and church services were originally held in the courthouse at the intersection of Front and Market Streets. The first church sanctuary was authorized in 1751 and completed in 1770, but the church building as it now stands was consecrated on March 29, 1840.
As the tour guide directed us through the church, he called our attention to a painting entitled Ecce Homo, “Behold the Man.” It is an unknown artist’s interpretation of that moment when Christ stood before Pilate and was about to be turned over for execution. The guide said that the painting had been seized from a Spanish ship that raided Wilmington in the mid-18th Century.
As someone who loves history, I was eager to learn the facts.
The journey of that painting to Saint James began with the so-called “War of Jenkins’ Ear”, a conflict that began in 1739 and gradually was subsumed into the War of the Austrian Succession. Nearly all major European powers were pulled into the conflict.
During the war, the Spanish government officially sanctioned private ships to raid and pillage settlements along the southeastern coast of English America. The port of Brunswick Town on the lower Cape Fear River was one of the targets. The more recently established settlement of Wilmington was about ten to fifteen miles up-river. Brunswick Town was first settled in 1722, but neither it nor Wilmington was as yet well populated.
Lower Cape Fear River
On September 3, 1748, two Spanish privateers, La Fortuna and La Loretta, sailed up the Cape Fear and anchored off Brunswick Town. The townspeople fled into the surrounding woods, and the Spanish began raiding the town for anything of value. The attackers confined their attentions to Brunswick Town and did not venture further up river to Wilmington or to nearby Orton Plantation..
On September 5 Captain William Dry III, merchant and militia officer, rallied a group of around 67 men armed with muskets and pistols to take back the town. The counterattack began on September 6, and the Spanish were surprised and attempted to flee to their ships. Ten of the Spanish privateers were killed and thirty were captured. During the fighting the La Fortuna was boarded, and the ship burst into flames. A number of the townspeople were wounded, but only one was killed when a small cannon exploded. The La Fortuna being lost, the second ship, La Loretta, surrendered on the condition that it would be able to leave.
Late that afternoon or on the following day, more than a hundred militia reinforcements arrived from Wilmington, but the fighting was over. The militiamen searched the damaged La Fortuna for anything valuable and were able to bring ashore guns, anchors, and items stolen from the town or elsewhere. Among the items confiscated from the ship was the painting Ecce Homo, taken from the Spanish captain’s cabin. The painting was given to Saint James Church in Wilmington and remains there to this day.
It’s a rather fascinating historical tidbit.
Post Script: Brunswick Town gradually lost its preeminence as a port to nearby Wilmington. The old town was destroyed by the British during the American Revolution and never rebuilt. Confederate Fort Anderson was erected on the site during the American Civil War and was captured by Union Troops in February 1865 following the fall of Fort Fisher.
Old Brunswick Town
Brunswick Town Ruins