John Paul Jones is famous in the United States as the 'Father of the American Navy'. He was born in poverty and through his skills became a distinguished naval officer fighting for both the USA and Russia. In Britain he is rather remembered as a pirate. Indeed, Benjamin Disraeli, an early biographer, wrote that the nurses of Scotland hushed their crying charges by the whisper of his name. In Holland a Dutch song Here comes John Paul Jones, that fine fellow is still sung by schoolchildren. He was awarded a gold medal and a gold sword for his exploits but he was buried in an unmarked grave for over a century. The following explains a little about the life of this talented, charming but often prickly man.
A GARDENER'S SON
John Paul, (he added the Jones later) was born on the estate of Arbigland, south west Scotland on 6th July 1747. He was the fourth child of John Paul and Jean Duff. They had seven children in all but two died in infancy. His father was the gardener of the estate. Originally the family were from Fife but John Paul Snr was born in Leith where William Craik, the owner of Arbigland had met him and hired him to lay out his gardens.
John Paul went to Kirkbean school but spent much time at the small port of Carsethorn on the Solway Firth. In later life William Craik's son recalled that he would run to Carsethorn whenever his father would let him off, talk to the sailors and clamber over the ships; and that he taught his playmates to manoeuvre their little boats to mimic a naval battle, while he, taking his stand on the tiny cliff overlooking the roadstead, shouted shrill commands at his imaginary fleet.
It was from Carsethorn that at the age of 13 that he boarded a vessel to go to Whitehaven across the Solway where he signed up for a seven year seaman's apprenticeship. His first voyage as ships boy took him to Barbados and Fredericksburg in Virginia on the Friendship of Whitehaven. and he stayed with his older brother William, a tailor, who had emigrated there and flourished. The ship was in port for several months and he spent the time learning navigation.
SLAVING AND A MURDER TRIAL
After his return to Whitehaven he found that the Friendships' owner, John Younger was in financial difficulties. He released John Paul from his apprenticeship. At the age of seventeen he went straight into the slave trade as third mate on the King George of Whitehaven. Two years later in 1766 he transferred as first mate to the brigantine Two Friends of Kingston, Jamaica. Only 50' long with a crew of six and carrying 77 Negroes from Africa it must have been a terrible voyage. The smell from 'black-birders' as they were called could be detected for many miles. He quitted the slave traffic in disgust calling it an 'abominable trade' and was given free passage home on the 'John' of Kirkcudbright, a new ship. During the voyage the captain Samuel McAdam and the mate died of fever. Paul took command as the only qualified officer and brought the ship safely back home. The owners Currie, Beck and Co were so pleased they appointed him master and supercargo (in charge of buying and selling the cargo) for the John's next voyage to America.
John Paul had become a captain by his own merits at the age of twenty-one. He was slight and wiry in body, about 5'5" tall with a sharp, wedge shaped nose, high cheekbones and a strong cleft chin. He was known as a 'dandy skipper' and had adopted the manner of a young gentleman. He was always neatly dressed and had an eye for the ladies. He had, however, a violent temper which manifested itself throughout his career. It was while serving on the John that he was accused in Tobago by Mungo Maxwell, the ships carpenter of having flogged him excessively with the cat o nine tails. Maxwell, the son of a prominent Kirkcudbright worthy, was examined and his complaint was dismissed as frivolous. Later he died whilst returning home on the Barcelona Packet and his father complained that his son was most unmercifully, wounded on his back...and of which wounds he soon afterwards died.
Captain Paul was arrested when he returned to Kirkcudbright and charged with murder but evidence from Tobago and a declaration from the master of the Barcelona Packet that Maxwell was in perfect health when he came on board was sufficient to acquit him. Soon after he was accepted as a mason which revealed that few people in Kirkcudbright believed the charge. The story, however, dogged his entire life.
Captain John Paul took command of the Betsy, a West Indian ship and remained for some time in the West Indies in commercial business. He seems to have accumulated considerable sums. In 1773, however, he had to leave the West Indies after he killed the ringleader ( a prodigious brute of thrice my strength ) of a mutiny with his sword in a dispute over wages. Local feeling was against him and he fled to Virginia, changing his name, first to John Jones and later to John Paul Jones.
Events were working up to the American Revolution. From his letters it can be seen that he was strongly on the colonists side. When Congress formed a 'Continental Navy' Paul Jones offered his services and he was commissioned as first lieutenant on 7th December 1775. His first ship was the Alfred. The American Navy at this time consisted of the ships Alfred and Columbus, the brigantines Andrew Doria and Cabot and the sloop Providence. Thirteen frigates were ordered to be built. As lieutenant of the Alfred and later a captain of the Providence, Jones gained useful experience of naval warfare. His reputation rose rapidly and he advised Congress on the drawing up of Navy regulations. In November 1777 he sailed in the 'Ranger' for France where he struck up a rapport with the American Commissioner in Paris, Benjamin Franklin and, at Quiberon, forced the French to salute the American Flag - the first time it had been hoisted in a foreign harbour.
On 10 April 1778, Jones sailed from Brest on a cruise to the Irish Sea capturing and destroying small vessels. Despite a near mutinous crew he carried out a hit and run raid on Whitehaven. A shore party of two boats landed at midnight in calm weather. There were two forts guarding the harbour and the plan was for each boat to capture one. Jones' boat did so bloodlessly and spiked the fort's cannon but when he went to the other fort he discovered that the other boat's crew had gone to the pub instead. He knocked out the other fort, set fire to some colliers and managed to get all the raiding party safely back to the ship.
ST MARY'S ISLE
Four hours later at 10am, Jones reached Kirkcudbright Bay, more familiar territory to him. His plan was to capture the Earl of Selkirk who lived on St Mary's Isle to exchange him for captured American sailors. When they landed they met the head gardener and told him that they were a British press gang. Word of this spread and caused the locals to flee! They learned, however, that the Earl was absent. Jones wished to leave immediately but his crew insisted on looting the mansion as they had returned empty handed from Whitehaven. He agreed to let them take the family silver only. The Countess had just finished breakfast when she saw some horrid looking wretches surrounding the house. The butler tried to hide the plate but was discovered and to be certain of taking the lot the senior officer asked for an inventory of the silver. When it was counted it was noticed that the coffee and teapot were missing. These were produced with the teapot still full of wet leaves from the breakfast. A friend of the Countess, Mrs Elliot took the opporturnity to ask them 'a thousand questions' about America and she afterwards reported that they behaved with great civility.
When Jones heard that the Countess had acted with great dignity he was filled with admiration for her. He purchased the silver himself and returned it after the war was over with a letter of apology.Letter from John Paul Jones to the Earl of Selkirk and letter from the Earl of Selkirk to John Paul Jones
After leaving Kirkcudbright he spotted HMS Drake, a 20 gun sloop, near Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland. Both vessels were well matched and the battle lasted just over an hour. Captain Burden of the Drake was killed and his second in command Lieutenant Dobbs was mortally wounded. The Drake surrendered.
The cruise was over and it made Jones' name a household word throughout Britain; a squadron of ships was ordered to seek him out and militia units were mobilized along the coast in case of raids.
Returning to Brest he was given command of the Duc de Duras, a French East Indiaman which he had converted as a warship. He renamed her Bonhomme Richard in honour of Benjamin Franklin, whose book 'Poor Richards Almanac' had been translated into French with the title 'Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard'. On 14th August 1779 he set sail on another cruise of Britain as commodore of a squadron of seven ships. The plan was to destroy British commerce in the North Sea and Jones sailed round Ireland and Scotland entering Leith harbour on 16th September. He intended to capture it and extract a ransom of Â£50,000 but he was thwarted when a gale sprung up and blew him out of the Firth of Forth.
Just before that one of the most amazing incidents of the voyage took place. Sir John Anstruther who owned a mansion on the north shore of the Firth of Forth was worried that the American "pirate" might attack. He had a cannon and shot to protect himself but no powder so he sent his yacht out to borrow a barrel of gunpowder from H.M.S.'Romney' which was nearby. The yacht mistook the 'Bonhomme Richard' for the 'Romney'. In return for information on coastal defences innocently given by the boatman, ironically Jones gave him the gunpowder!
Eight days later, on the night of 23rd September 1779, he fought his most famous battle when he engaged H.M.S. 'Serapis' and the 'Countess of Scarborough' off Flamborough Head.
The 'Serapis' had superior fire power and Jones had to manoeuvre skilfully
to bring his ship alongside and lash her to the 'Serapis'. During the dreadful
3 1/2 hour fight on a millpond sea, the 'Alliance', part of Jones' squadron,
fired at the 'Bonhomme Richard,' holing her so badly that she later sank.
Over half of the crews of the two ships, including Jones himself, were
either killed or wounded and many men were horribly burned. It was during
this battle when asked if he wished to surrender that Jones gave the reply
I have not yet begun to fight. Jones had to transfer his crew to
the 'Serapis' and together with her sister ship the 'Pallas' which had
captured the 'Scarborough' he sailed to the Texel in Holland with over
Report on the Battle by John Paul Jones
FATHER OF THE AMERICAN NAVY
Later he received a gold sword and the Order of Military Merit from Louis XVI. He became the toast of Paris and a bust of him was commissioned. Jones had another 20 made to send to his friends. In 1781 he returned to America in the 'Ariel' and Congress passed a vote of thanks to him for the way he had sustained the honour of the American fleet and in 1787 awarded him a gold medal. He was to be given command of the 'America' which was still under construction and was to be the largest ship in the American navy but eventually this was denied him and he spent the remaining years of the war advising on the establishment of the navy and the training of naval officers.
A RUSSIAN ADMIRAL
When peace came Jones returned to Paris to collect prize money for the officers and men of the 'Bonhomme Richard'. He took another mistress Mrs Townsend, the French widow of an Englishman who probably bore him a son. Nothing is known of his fate. Whilst there, Thomas Jefferson, the new American Ambassador, recommended him for service with Russia. In 1788 he was made a Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy by the Empress Catherine II, a rank higher than he had received in the United States. As Kontradmiral check Pavel Ivanovich Jones he served with distinction under Prince Potemkin against the Turks in the Black Sea campaign. At the Battle of Liman he reconnoitred the Turkish Fleet in a rowboat during the night;repulsed the Turkish attacks killing about 3000 Turks,destroying 15 vessels and taking over 1600 prisoners at a cost to his squadron of one frigate and 18 killed. He wrote "I am delighted with the courage of the Russians, which is more glorious because it is without show-off." He was falsely charged with molesting a 10 year old butter seller, Katerina,the daughter of a German immigrant whilst living in St. Petersberg. The charge was dropped but in 1789 after a brief audience with Catherine, Jones left Russia never to return.
RUE DE TOURNON PARIS
After a brief trip to England where he narrowly escaped escaped being murdered on landing at Harwich, he returned to Paris in May 1790 taking an apartment at 52 Rue de Tournon. His health was failing and he spent his final years writing letters to Catherine, to his two married sisters in Scotland, who were not on speaking terms, begging them to make up, and to the French Minister of Marine to pay arrears of salaries due to the men of the 'Bonhomme Richard'.
On the 18th July 1792, sitting in an easy chair, sick in body but of sound mind, he dictated his will to Governour Morris, the American to France. Morris then left for an important dinner engagement and when he returned at 8p.m. Jones had already died. Alone he had walked to his chamber and had laid himself face down on the bed. Morris found him in this position. He had nephritis and jaundice but pneumonia had hastened his end. He was 45 years old.
His body lay in an alcohol filled coffin in an unmarked grave in a cemetary for foreign Protestants for over a century. The turn of this century was a time of great American naval expansion, encouraged by the President Teddy Roosevelt , and an intensive search was made to find his body. In 1905 it was rediscovered. Amid great ceremony it was brought back to the United States in USS Brooklyn accompanied by three other cruisers. Seven battleships met them off The American coast and as a single column sailed into Chesapeake Bay. There the first four battleships peeled off firing 15 gun salutes while the Brooklyn sailed on to Annapolis.
In 1913 his body was finally laid to rest in a magnificent marble sarcophagus, modelled on the tomb of Napoleon, in the chapel crypt of Annapolis Naval Academy; a far cry from his humble beginnings in Scotland.
Text copyright John Paul Jones Museum.
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Last revised: 9th January 2017