In 1614 the Dutch East India Company (VOC), aided by the States-General, dispatched a small fleet under Joris van Spilbergen to the west coast of South America to harry the Spanish and promote Dutch trading interests in the East Indies. After a difficult passage through the Straits of Magellan Van Spilbergen found the Spaniards lying in wait for him near Callao, the port of Lima.
The Spanish armada of eight ships launched an attack on the night of 17 July 1615, and a furious battle broke out which continued into the next day after a brief disengagement at dawn. Although badly outnumbered and outgunned, the Dutch used their heavy cannon to good effect, inflicting severe damage on several of the Spanish ships and sinking two of them. The Spaniards took flight, leaving the seas to the Dutch ships, which had suffered little damage or loss of life.
The painting shows the Iesus Maria, the Spanish flagship, coming to the aid of the vice-admiral on board the Santa Anna, which is under heavy fire from the Maan, the Dutch vice-admiral’s ship, supported by Joris van Spilbergen in the Zon(left) and the Aeolus (right, behind the Iesus Maria). In the background the remaining Spanish ships are fleeing from the scene. The Santa Maria was eventually sunk, and her crew were taken aboard the Iesus Maria, which managed to escape in the gathering darkness.
In 1619 Joris van Spilbergen published a journal of the expedition with a detailed description of the battle. This painting may have been commissioned by Vice-Admiral Claes Maartensz. Thoveling, whose ship the Maan has a prominent place in the composition. Thoveling seems to have been the only person to do reasonably well out of the expedition. He received a sum of 2,400 guilders. He was appointed Director of the Rotterdam chamber of the East India Company (VOC) in 1619 and died in 1629.