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John Paul Jones – the Scot who founded the American Navy

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Revolution, Ships, War on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

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This edited article about John Paul Jones originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 163 published on 27 February 1965.

John Paul Jones, picture, image, illustration

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

It was July in the year 1792, and they had just buried John Paul Jones in an unmarked grave in the St. Louis cemetery in Paris. He was only forty-five when he died – an almost forgotten man in the city where he had once been hailed as a hero.

He had been a slave trader, and a man who had been on trial for murder. He had fought against his own country, and for good measure he had also been a Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy. From all this one might assume with some cause that John Paul Jones was something of a scoundrel, a man willing to sell his sword and soul to the highest bidder.

This assumption would be quite wrong. Today, John Paul Jones is one of America’s national heroes.

His story, as must be already obvious, is a strange one.

He was born plain John Paul (the Jones came later) on July 6, 1747, in the parish of Kirkbean, on the coast of the Solway Firth, Scotland. This fact, in itself, was to have an important bearing on his life.

Sent to sea at the age of twelve, he made several voyages to America before he eventually landed up as chief mate on a Jamaica-owned slaver-brigantine.

Several years later he turned up in America, under the name of John Paul Jones, and almost immediately embraced the cause of the revolutionaries, who were engaged in the War of Independence against the British rule there.

Why was Jones, a Scotsman, willing to fight against his own countrymen? The answer was that he believed wholeheartedly in the principle of liberty, and the right of a nation to determine its destiny without interference from a foreign power. So, when the American Congress resolved to fit out a naval force he enlisted immediately as a senior lieutenant.

In the space of two years, Jones was commander of his own ship, and already famous for his courageous exploits, which had culminated in a daring raid on Whitehaven, on the Solway Firth, where he landed at night with 31 volunteers and calmly spiked the cannons of the two forts there.

From the records that exist, it does not appear that Jones even thought it strange that fate should decree that he should land and fight in Whitehaven, the town in which he had spent so many happy childhood days.

But Jones was no longer interested in making nuisance raids. What he wanted now was a resounding victory at sea, which would destroy for ever the myth of the invincibility of the British navy.

His chance came a year later on September 23, 1779, while he was prowling the waters near Flamborough Head in his ship, the Bonhomme Richard. His squadron had already been sighted, and the warning drums of the militia were throbbing along the coast at Leigh and Edinburgh and Sunderland. Strained and tense, the inhabitants of the coastal towns mustered on the quays, armed with whatever weapons they had been able to find, to combat the expected invasion.

But Jones had no thoughts of an invasion in his mind. It was the Baltic fleet he was after – 23 merchantmen, their holds crammed with wood and cordage for the British navy, who were already in sight.

As soon as the Bonhomme Richard hoisted the signal for the general chase, the two British men o’ war, escorting the convoy, tried to herd their charges under the protection of the guns of Scarborough Castle. Immediately, the Bonhomme Richard went forward under a full press of sail to intercept the larger of the two men o’ war, the Serapis. At seven o’clock, under a rising moon, the battle that was to make naval history began.

The cannons of both ships belched fire almost simultaneously. When the smoke cleared, Jones saw with dismay that the first salvo from the Serapis had destroyed two of his cannon and swept a number of his master gunners to oblivion. It was not an auspicious beginning.

Worse was to come. The British eighteen-pounder continued to strike home with deadly efficiency, raking the carcase of the Bonhomme Richard from stem to stern, until it was little more than a riddled hulk. Outgunned and outmanoeuvred, Jones knew that he had only one chance to survive. Somehow he had to get muzzle to muzzle with the enemy, so that he could grapple with her.

As if to answer his prayers, a strong breeze sprang up suddenly, carrying the Bonhomme Richard into the Serapis, which had been trying to cross her bows. The grappling irons were flung out, and the Bonhomme Richard was secure, a monstrous mass of shattered timbers and sails, clinging like an expiring but still ferocious fox locked in the jaws of a huntsman’s dog.

Locked together in a deadly embrace, the two ships poured cannonade after cannonade into each other. It was a young sailor on the yardarm of the Bonhomme Richard who ended the battle with a hand grenade that exploded in one of the hatches where the powder and open cartridges were kept.

A volcanic explosion erupted the deck of the Serapis, driving the hitherto brave British sailors into a blind panic. The hysterical cry of “Quarters” began to mingle with the dying echo of the explosion, and the captain of the Serapis knew that his men could fight no more. Reluctantly, and with a heavy heart, he struck his colours.

But now the Bonhomme Richard was a blazing hulk, with at least five feet of water in her hold. Desperately, Jones tried to keep her afloat with the pumps, but the water continued to rise. Finally forced to abandon her he boarded the limping Serapis and became a prisoner of war. It was John Paul Jones’s last major engagement.

When a peace treaty was signed between America and Britain in 1783, Jones found himself a lonely man.

He had made enemies in high places because of a long and bitter argument about the prize monies due to him, and as a sailor he was more or less redundant now that the war was over. There seemed to him only one course left open to him, if he were to continue with his naval career, and that was to accept an offer he had received from Catherine of Russia to enter her navy as a Rear Admiral.

The venture was a mistake. His fellow officers, who resented him because he was not a Russian, flouted his orders whenever they could, and finally Catherine herself took an intense dislike to him. Dismissed by her, he went to Paris where he lived in semi-obscurity until he died there on July 18, 1792.

He died an almost forgotten man because the American War of Independence had been over for ten years, and America was more concerned with looking forward to the future than with looking after the heroes of yesterday. In the case of John Paul Jones this omission was redressed a little more than a century later, when his body was found, taken back to America and interred in a crypt at the United States Academy at Annapolis, where his grave is now a national shrine.

Although he plays an important part in American history, John Paul Jones’s name has been perpetuated in another way. The popular ballroom dance, the Paul Jones, in which partners are changed at frequent intervals, is named after him. It was introduced into the English ballroom during the first World War by Americans, and it is thought to have its origin in John Paul Jones’s habit of taking on anything that crossed his path.

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