John Paul Jones, the ‘father’ of the American navy, died on the 18th of July, 1792.
Fêted in the United States and loathed as a pirate in the United Kingdom, John Paul Jones became a swashbuckling hero in the style worthy of a blockbuster movie. Born in poverty in Scotland, he rose to become a distinguished officer of the Continental Navy of the American Revolution and an American naval hero. As a resident in Virginia, Jones volunteered to serve in his adopted country’s infant navy in the War of Independence. He was famous for daring raids on British ships off the coast of England and fought for both the United States and Russia. Jones is remembered for his indomitable will and his unwillingness to surrender whilst the slightest hope of victory remained. He is also considered to be the ‘father’ of the American navy, which he undoubtedly helped to establish. His stirring declaration, “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way”, serves as inspiration to all American sailors to this day.
John Paul (he added the Jones later) was born in a humble gardener’s cottage on the estate of Arbigland, in Kirkbean, south west Scotland, on the 6th of July, 1747. He went to Kirkbean School, but spent much of his time at the small port of Carsethorn on the Solway Firth. At the age of thirteen, Paul boarded a vessel at Carsethorn 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’. Whilst there, he stayed with his older brother William, who had previously emigrated, and spent the time learning navigation.
Paul’s rise to captain’s rank was rapid and circumstantial, although by no means unmerited. By the time of his return to Whitehaven, he was seventeen, when he went into the slave trade. He was third mate on the ‘King George’, and two years later, in 1766, he had become first mate on the brigantine ‘Two Friends’ out of Kingston, Jamaica. He didn’t like slaving, calling it “an abominable trade”, and some time later, quitting in disgust, he was given free passage home on a new ship, the 'John' out of Kirkcudbright. During that voyage, the captain and first mate died of fever and so Paul took command. He brought the ship back home safely and as a result, Currie, Beck and Co. appointed him master and supercargo. John Paul was only twenty-one.
Once, in Tobago, Paul was accused by Mungo Maxwell, his ships carpenter, of flogging him unmercifully. When Maxwell died, Paul was arrested and charged with murder. However, a declaration from the master of the ship returning Maxwell to Scotland that Maxwell had been in perfect health when he came on board, was sufficient to acquit him. Paul did have a reputation for being a hard man and this was somewhat well earned, and borne out by his later exploits. In 1773, he killed the ringleader of a mutiny over wages, by using his sword. Ill feeling led to him fleeing to Virginia, which is when he changed his name, first to John Jones and later to John Paul Jones.
With the Revolutionary War brewing, Congress formed a 'Continental Navy' under Esek Hopkins and John Paul Jones offered his services. He was commissioned as first lieutenant on the 7th of December, 1775, aboard the ‘Alfred’, one of only five vessels in the Navy at that time. He was later promoted to captain of the ‘Providence’ and his naval reputation rose to such extent that he became an advisor to Congress on the drawing up of Navy regulations and a friend of Benjamin Franklin.
At Quiberon, in November, 1777, he forced the French to salute the American Flag; the first time it had been hoisted in a foreign harbour. Then, the following year, after capturing and destroying some vessels in the Irish Sea, he raided the port of Whitehaven. Despite his crew’s incompetence, Jones was able to spike the fort’s cannon and set fire to some property. Later that night, he made an abortive attempt to capture the Earl of Selkirk, who lived on St Mary's Isle. Fortunately for the Earl, he was absent and so the Americans resorted to stealing the family silver. He later purchased the silver and returned it after the war, with a letter of apology.
His first proper battle took place in the Irish Sea, near Carrickfergus. In an engagement of just over an hour, the ‘Drake’ surrendered to Jones. He became notorious in Britain and was sought by squadrons of ships. His next command was the ‘Duc de Duras’, which he had converted as a warship and renamed ‘Bonhomme Richard’ in honour of Benjamin Franklin via his book, which had been translated into French with the title 'Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard'. He was now Commodore of a squadron of seven ships and, in 1779, cruising the coast of Britain looking for merchant victims.
His most famous battle was fought on the night of the 23rd of September, 1779, when his squadron engaged H.M.S. 'Serapis' and several other vessels in a fight lasting over three and a half hours, off Flamborough Head. The 'Serapis' had superior fire power and Jones had to manoeuvre skilfully to bring his ship alongside. During the fight, the 'Bonhomme Richard’ was holed so badly that she later sank and over half the crews of the two ships were either killed or wounded, and many men horribly burned. At one point, the British commander of the escort ship 'Serapis' asked Jones if he had struck his flag. Jones’ reply is legendary; "I have not yet begun to fight!" he retorted. In the end, it was Jones who compelled the 'Serapis' to surrender, after which he transferred his crew and sailed to the Netherlands with over five hundred prisoners.
He returned to America to a vote of thanks and a gold medal from Congress, awarded in 1787. He spent the remaining war years as a naval advisor on the training of naval officers and, when peace came, he went back to Paris. Whilst there, Thomas Jefferson recommended him for service with Russia and, in 1788, he was made a Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy. As Kontradmiral Pavel Ivanovich Jones, he served with distinction under Prince Potemkin in the Black Sea campaign against the Turks.
He returned to Paris once more, in May, 1790, but by this time his health was failing and on the 18th of July, 1792, he passed away. He had nephritis and jaundice but pneumonia had hastened his end. He was buried in an alcohol filled coffin in an unmarked grave for over a century, before, by the encouragement of President Teddy Roosevelt, his body was brought back to the United States amid great ceremony. He was finally laid to rest, in 1913, in a magnificent marble sarcophagus in the chapel crypt of Annapolis Naval Academy, a far cry from his humble beginnings in Scotland.