Black Loyalists in New Brunswick, 1783-1854: 'The Death of Major Peirson', John Singleton Copley

'The Death of Major Peirson', John Singleton Copley Zoom

The Death of Major Peirson

(oil on canvas)
John Singleton Copley
Image © Tate, London 2008.

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), a Massachusetts Loyalist, completed painting The Death of Major Peirson in London in 1784. The painting commemorates the 1781 death of Major Francis Peirson at the Battle of Jersey in the Channel Islands. Many art historians believe that Benjamin West’s portrayal of The Death of General Wolfe influenced Copley’s work. West, an associate of Copley, introduced a non-existent Native American into the foreground of his famous painting. Copley, likewise, painted a black soldier not present at the battle, wearing the uniform of a Royal Ethiopian, into his work. During the American Revolutionary War, the British promised enslaved people their freedom if they ran away from their masters and fought in the British Army. Some of the men who escaped joined all black regiments in the British Army, such as the Royal Ethiopians. Copley knew of the Royal Ethiopian Regiment before his loyalty forced him to flee Boston. It is telling that he chose to include a Royal Ethiopian soldier in a battle at which the regiment never fought.

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