A depiction of an action during the war with Spain, 1718–1720. In 1717, to strengthen the Treaty of Utrecht, Britain, France and Austria contemplated ceding Sicily to the Emperor. This arrangement displeased Spain, who wanted to recover the island. Admiral Sir George Byng was accordingly sent to the Mediterranean. Early August found Byng's fleet at anchor in the Bay of Naples. On 6 August, he sailed for Messina, the only place in Sicily that had not fallen to the Spaniards.
On approaching, he heard that the Spanish fleet was close by and he soon sighted the Spanish, who retreated before him in line of battle all that day and night. To ensure that he did not lose them in the darkness he sent ahead his fastest ships, who kept close to the enemy, carrying lights to guide the rest of the fleet.
The morning of 11 August found Byng close to his enemy and to windward of him off Cape Passaro, the south-eastern tip of Sicily. Spain and England were not formally at war at this time, since the war did not officially break out until December 1718, but once the Spanish fired on the nearest English ships, this gave Byng his excuse to attack. The English were superior in numbers and some of the Spanish ships were taken in the main action and some taken or burnt by their crews, who fled to the coast of Sicily. This included the Spanish Commander-in-Chief, Vice-Admiral Don Antonio Castaneta, and Rear-Admiral Don Fernando Chacon, along with 13 out of the 20 larger ships of war.
In this painting, created half a century after the event, the action is shown at about 4pm. Byng's flagship the 'Barfleur', 90 guns, is prominently depicted firing her starboard broadside, in starboard-bow view left of centre, into the 'San Luis', 60 guns.