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France invaded Jersey on 5 January 1781. The governor surrendered the island after the fall of its capital, St Helier. A twenty-four-year-old garrison commander, Major Peirson, rejected the surrender and led a successful counter-attack. Peirson was in fact killed shortly before the battle, but Copley shows him dying at the moment of British victory, beneath the Union flag.The officers in the painting were said to be portraits, as was the image of Peirson’s black servant, who is avenging his master’s death. Peirson became a national hero and the painting drew crowds when it was first exhibited.

May 2007