John Paul Jones: American hero or Scottish scoundrel?

John Paul Jones, with his ship flying the flag of the rebellious colonists of North America

“The greatest miscreant under the canopy of heaven; the more dangerous indeed because he is a villain of abilities”

Stuart Littlewood writes:

Every American, I imagine, knows about John Paul Jones, one of the founders of their navy.

I live in Old Kirkcudbright-shire (pronounced kir-coo-bree), south-west Scotland. The other day while taking snaps of Southerness lighthouse I got to thinking about John Paul who, as a lad, knew it well. He was born and grew up just a mile away at Kirkbean where his father was head gardener at the Arbigland estate.

John Paul (he added “Jones” later to confuse the law) spent much of his young life at the nearby small port of Carsethorn listening to sailors’ yarns and playing on their boats. Southerness lighthouse would have been newly built – and a very unusual structure – at that time. It was commissioned in 1748 by Dumfries Town Council as a navigation marker at the mouth of the River Nith to safeguard the booming trade with Virginia and ranks as the third oldest purpose-built beacon in Scotland. It’s now an iconic landmark on the Solway coast with its square-plan design, originally 30 ft high.

Southerness Lighthouse

Southerness Lighthouse

In 1837 one of Robert Stevenson’s “Bell Rock” team inspected the lighthouse and suggested improvements. At that point the light had two reflectors and was visible up to 9 miles away, but with only a narrow angle towards the Irish Sea. In 1842, the Nith Navigation Commission agreed to heighten the tower and install new reflectors with a wider arc and this work was completed in 1844. The lighthouse was finally decommissioned in 1936.

John Paul went to sea at the age of 13 when he boarded a vessel for Whitehaven, a few miles to the south on the Cumbria coast, signed on as an apprentice and sailed as cabin boy on the Friendship to the West Indies and Frederickburgh, where he stayed with his brother who had settled there. Whilst at Fredericksburg he learned navigation. Back at Whitehaven Friendship’sowner was in financial trouble and released John Paul from his apprenticeship, whereupon the boy joined the slaver King George of Whitehaven as third mate.

Lady Luck sailed with the “villain”

The turning point came when, in 1766, he switched to a bigantine Two Friendsas first mate. This vessel was only 50 ft long yet carried 77 negroes from Africa. The stench was so appalling that he quit the slave business, calling it an abominable trade, and was given free passage home on a new ship, the Johnof Kirkcudbright. As luck would have it, the captain and mate both died of fever on the trip and John Paul, as the only qualified officer, brought the ship safely to port. In appreciation the owners appointed him master for John’s next voyage to America. So there he was, a captain at twenty-one.

But he had a nasty temper and it got the better of him on one of John’s voyages when he allegedly flogged the ship’s carpenter, Mungo Maxwell, excessively and accusations were brought against him in Tobago. The complaint was dismissed, but unfortunately Maxwell died on the way home on another ship. And doubly unfortunately Maxwell was from a prominent Kirkcudbright family who weren’t going to let the matter drop. John Paul was arrested in Kirkcudbright on a charge of murder and imprisoned in the town’s tollbooth. However, the evidence from Tobago was flimsy and he was eventually acquitted, but the whiff of this unsavoury affair remained.

Kirkcudbright Tollbooth

Kirkcudbright Tollbooth

After that he made himself scarce in Scotland and spent time in the West Indies captaining the Betsy and making money. But in 1773 he fled to Virginia after running the ringleader of a mutiny through with his sword. That is when he changed his name to John Paul Jones.

When the Revolution began for real in 1775, he found himself in Philadelphia and was commissioned as first lieutenant on the Alfred, a ship of the new Continental Navy. Serving on this vessel he was the first to hoist the Grand Union flag on a Continental warship. Jones soon demonstrated that he was a capable officer in action. In 1776 he was in command of the Providence in the North Atlantic and sent home eight prizes, sinking and burning eight more. Then, in charge of the Alfred, he returned to port towing several more prizes.

In 1777 he was sent by Congress to France as captain of the Ranger with orders to attack enemy commerce in British waters. On this mission two spectacular failures nevertheless left the British panic stricken. The first was Jones’s botched night raid on Whitehaven in April 1778 where up to 400 ships were expected to be moored. The idea was to burn the ships and the warehouses after spiking the guns at the harbour’s two forts. But the escapade was doomed as soon as it took three hours for the raiding party to row ashore against the tide. Then they found that they’d either forgotten to bring matches or the heavy rain had made them useless. By the time they got their act together it was nearly daylight. They managed to set fire to the main target, a coal ship, from which, it was hoped, the blaze would spread.

There are reports that some of Jones’s raiders called in at the quayside pub for firelighters and took the opportunity to sample the refreshments. In the meantime an Irishman, David Freeman, who was unhappy with Jones’s leadership, slipped away to warn townspeople of what was happening. The town’s fire engines promptly rushed to the scene and put out the flames before they could do any lasting damage.

The raiding party made it back to the ship safely and without bloodshed, and that same morning landed at St Mary’s Isle in Kirkcudbright Bay on the Scottish side of the Solway. The plan was to capture the Earl of Selkirk who lived there and exchange him for captured American sailors. The raiding party this time was disguised as a British press gang, which caused huge consternation among the locals. The Earl was absent and the raiders were received by the Countess. Jones’s crew, after returning from Whitehaven empty-handed, insisted on looting the house and Jones agreed that they should take only the family silver. The butler was discovered trying to hide it so Jones’s senior officer asked for an inventory to make sure they got the lot. The teapot they carried away was still warm from breakfast. A friend of the Countess asked the men “a thousand questions” about America and afterwards reported that they behaved with great civility.

When Jones, who was waiting back at the boat, heard that the Countess had acted with dignity he purchased the silver himself and returned it after the war with a letter of apology. Lord Selkirk, replying, wrote:

Since that time I have mentioned it to many people of fashion; and on all occasions, Sir, both now and formerly, I have done you the justice to tell that you made an offer of returning the plate very soon after your return to Brest; and although you yourself were not at my house, but remained at the shore with your boat, that yet you had your officers and men in such extraordinary good discipline, that you having given them the strictest orders to behave well, to do no injury or any kind, to make no search, but only to bring off what plate was given to them; that in reality they did exactly as ordered, and that not one man offered to stir from his post on the outside of the house, nor entered the doors, nor said an uncivil word; that the two officers stood not a quarter of an hour in the parlour and butler’s pantry while the butler got the plate together; behaved politely, and asked for nothing but the plate, and instantly marched their men off in regular order; and that both officers and men behaved in all respects so well that it would have done credit to the best disciplined troops whatever. Some of the English newspapers at that time having put in confused accounts of your expedition to Whitehaven and Scotland, I ordered a proper one of what happened in Scotland to be put in the London newspapers by a gentleman who was then at my house, by which the good conduct and civil behaviour of your officers and men were done justice to, and attributed to your orders and the good discipline you maintained over your people.

I am, Sir, your most humble servant, Selkirk.

So, a nice compliment to the American mariners and to Jones himself. War in those days could be conducted against non-combatants with good manners, face to face, not with extreme rudeness from 30,000 feet or by a couldn’t-care-less armchair drone jockey well out of harm’s way himself.

The raids on Whitehaven and St Mary’s Isle, reading about them now, verge on high comedy. But they had the desired effect as exaggerated reports struck fear into the populace and reduced the authorities around the British coast to jitters. Opinion of Jones hit rock bottom in Kirkcudbright after his attempt to kidnap the Earl. A letter from Kircudbright arrived at Whitehaven saying “there is great reason to believe that this John Paul Jones is the same person with a John Paul who commanded a brig in the West India trade, belonging to Kirkcudbright, in the years 1769 and 1770, a native of this Stewartry, and the greatest miscreant under the canopy of heaven; the more dangerous indeed because he is a villain of abilities. He has committed two or three murders, for one of which he narrowly escaped the gallows in the West Indies”.

Jones claimed to have spiked 30 cannon at the two batteries at Whitehaven. A month later a third battery was added. By September the number of batteries had risen to 6 with the number of guns up to 98. Similar increases in men and resources were deployed elsewhere around the coast to defend the realm against the piratical John Paul Jones. When he arrived at Brest in May 1778 he was hailed as a hero by the French, who gave him an old East Indiaman which he refitted and rearmed and renamed Bonhomme Richard. The following year he set sail as commodore of a seven-ship squadron to cause havoc in the North Sea.

He entered Leith harbour on 16 September with the idea of capturing it and extracting a huge ransom, but gale force winds blew him and his force out of the Firth of Forth. Sailing down the east coast Jones’s squadron intercepted a large Baltic merchant fleet escorted by the Serpis and the 20-gun Countess of Scarborough off Flamborough Head. Serapis was a brand-new 44-gun British warship and superior in every way to Bonhomme Richard. An extraordinary sea battle followed in which Serapis and Bonhomme Richard were locked together blasting each other with broadsides at point blank range until both vessels were practically blown to smithereens. Bonhomme Richard was sunk and Serapisand the Countess captured. What seemed a certain defeat at one stage turned into a stunning victory for John Paul Jones and a huge boost to his fame.

During the carnage Captain Pearson of the Serapis, noticing the absence of the American flag, which had been shot away, shouted across to Jones: “Have you struck?” (meaning his colours). Jones is reported to have replied: “I have not yet thought of it, but I am determined to make you strike.” The conversation was hard to hear above the din and another version had him saying: “I have not even begun to fight.” Both quotes have passed into heroic naval history. Jones won by ensuring his enemy’s deck was cleared by positioning sharpshooters and grenade throwers in the rigging, thus enabling him eventually to board Serapis and take her, which was just as well because Bonhomme Richard,fatally holed, was sinking beneath him. Valiant efforts were made to save her but she went down next day. Captain Pearson surrendered but had achieved his purpose of ensuring the convoy escaped Jones’s clutches and reached safety. He was exonerated from losing his ship and knighted for his efforts.

After making hurried repairs to Serapis at Texel in neutral (but immensely sympathetic) Holland, Jones managed to give waiting British warships the slip and sail his prizes back to France. This was the high-point of a colourful career. He had become the toast of Europe, the French adored him and Louis XVI honoured him with the title Chevalier, which the Continental Congress afterwards used when awarding John Paul Jones a gold medal commemorating his “valor and brilliant services”.

Forgiveness and reconciliation

By 1787 the War of Independence was over. This left Jones virtually unemployed so he joined the Russian navy. He saw action against the Turks as a rear admiral but fell out with his superiors and especially the former British naval officers in Russian service who refused to speak to him on account of his reputation in England as a renegade and pirate. He found himself with few friends so left Russia in 1788 feeling somewhat bitter. After visiting Poland he returned to Paris in 1790 and lived there in retirement until his death two years later, a discarded hero. He was only 45

The people of Whitehaven these days claim a special relationship with America. In 1999 they officially pardoned Jones for frightening the life out of them on 23 April 1778 and signed a peace treaty with the US Navy. An honour guard of US marines attended the ceremony at which the Navy was given the freedom of the harbour, allowing one US Navy ship to enter it each year.

There are no hard feelings on the other side of the Solway in Kirkcudbright either. In 1947, to mark the bi-centenary of John Paul’s birth within the Old Stewartry, the ancient royal burgh received a visit by Cadets of the US Navy under the command of Commander Robert Macpherson. They presented the Provost with a gold medallion as a memento of the occasion. The die was originally made to commemorate the famous victory of Jones’s ship Bonhomme Richard and only three medallions had been struck from it and distributed – one to President Truman, one to Admiral Holloway, and one to the burgh of Kirkcudbright. In return the visitors were treated to a display of the silver plate which John Paul Jones and the crew of Ranger plundered from the Earl of Selkirk and gallantly returned intact.

Jones may have been considered a “villainous miscreant” at the time, but thanks to his exploits the people of Galloway nowadays feel they have a special bond with America’s navy, if not its politicians.

And what about the Palestinians’ War of Independence?

Looking at Southerness lighthouse through the viewfinder I wondered what John Paul Jones, who laid his life on the line for American independence, would have thought of Trump today, who has perversely gifted Jerusalem to the Israelis thus denying the Palestinians – Muslim and Chrstian – their independence for the foreseeable future, and the Congressmen who, in 1995, passed into law the “tool” for Trump to do it.

It was an unworthy move. The United Nations does not recognize Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital. There have been six UN Security Council resolutions passed on the subject including 478 which says that the Basic Jerusalem Law enacted by Israel declaring unified Jerusalem as its “eternal and indivisible” capital is a violation of international law. The UN regards East Jerusalem (including the Old City) as occupied Palestinian territory and subject to the provisions and safeguards of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and so does the International Court of Justice.

So what right have the US Congress and Trump to override international law? Shouldn’t they uphold it and behave evenhandedly, showing proper respect for those oppressed peoples, like the Palestinians, who still struggle today for freedom and self-determination just as Americans did in the 1770s and 1780s?

As Nelson Mandela put it: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” A pity Trump and his unpleasant crew occupying the White House don’t get it.

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