Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Jones, John Paul

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JONES, JOHN PAUL (1747–1792), naval adventurer, youngest son of John Paul, a gardener, was born in Kirkbean, Kirkcudbrightshire, on 6 July 1747. At the age of twelve he was bound apprentice to a Whitehaven shipowner engaged in the American trade, and on the failure of his employer, some three or four years later, became third mate on board a Whitehaven slaver. He continued engaged in the slave-trade for about five years, gradually rising to be first mate. He then quitted that employment, and took a passage home in the John of Kirkcudbright. It so happened that the master and the mate both died, and young Paul, as the only competent man on board, took command. This introduced him to the owners, in whose service he made two voyages to the West Indies. He was then engaged for a year or two in smuggling between the Isle of Man and the Solway Firth; afterwards he commanded the Betsy of London in the West India trade, and later on was trading at Tobago on his own account. In 1773 an elder brother who had settled in Virginia died, leaving, it was said, a considerable property. Paul took charge of this, and seems to have spent the next two years in America. In December 1775, under the assumed name of Jones, he offered himself for a commission in the American continental navy, and was appointed first lieutenant of the Alfred, a 30-gun frigate, the flagship of Commodore Ezekiel Hopkins. He afterwards commanded the Providence sloop, cruised with some success against the English trade, and in September 1776 escaped, by a bit of splendid seamanship, from the Solebay, an English frigate, which chased him for some time. In June 1777 he was appointed to command the Ranger, a new frigate-built ship of 26 guns, ordered to cross over to France. It was found, however, that she could not carry her full armament, and she finally sailed on 1 Nov. with only 18 guns. After refitting at Brest, she sailed on 10 April 1778 for a cruise in the Irish Sea; and on the 21st, when off the entrance of Belfast Lough, having learnt that the Drake sloop-of-war was at anchor inside, Jones boldly ran in in the dark and let go his anchor on top of the Drake's, intending to swing down across her bow, and board. It was a cold, dark night, blowing fresh, and the Ranger, having too much way on, did not bring up till she had passed astern of the Drake. Jones immediately cut the cable, and stretched out to seaward, intending to make a second attempt, but a strong gale rendered that impossible. In the very early morning of the 23rd he entered Whitehaven harbour with two boats. Jones himself landed with a few men, clambered over the rampart of a half-ruined battery supposed to defend the harbour, spiked the old guns with which it was armed, and captured the pensioners who garrisoned it, still asleep in their beds. There were some three hundred ships in the harbour, all aground at low water, and he had ordered his lieutenant to set them on fire, but this had not been done. It was now daylight; the alarm had been given, and the townsmen were gathering in numbers that might be dangerous, so that Jones, after another hurried and futile effort to set the ships in a blaze, was obliged to retreat. An hour or two later the Ranger anchored in Kirkcudbright Bay, and Jones, with a party of men, landed on St. Mary's Isle, intending to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk and hold him as a hostage. The earl was absent; Jones's men insisted on their right to plunder, and his lieutenants backed up the men. Unable to restrain them, he allowed them to go up to the house, where the officers seized some silver-plate to the value of about 100l., though report absurdly magnified it. Jones afterwards bought the articles and returned them to Lady Selkirk.

The next morning (24 April) the Ranger was again off Carrickfergus. The Drake, hearing of the Ranger's presence on the coast, came outside the lough in the evening. Jones at once brought her to action, and captured her after a contest of little over the hour. The Americans have naturally boasted of their success, for the two ships were nominally of equal force. But, in reality, the Drake was no match for the Ranger; and at this time her crew was mainly composed of newly raised men without any officers except her captain and the registering lieutenant of the district, who came on board at the last moment as a volunteer (cf. Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. xii. 107). She had no gunner, no cartridges filled, and no preparation for handing the powder (Minutes of the Court Martial). The captain and the lieutenant were both killed. The Ranger had, however, received so much damage that Jones made the best of his way to Brest, where he arrived on 8 May. There his difficulties were serious. He had no money, the American commissioners in Paris had none either; and the French government would not advance any. To obtain provisions he had to sell some small prizes. The men mutinied, and were joined by the first lieutenant, to whom the command had been promised; for a much larger vessel (the Indienne), intended for Jones, was in course of building in Holland. Though the pressure put by the English on the Dutch had prevented the Indienne's being delivered or even got ready, it was found necessary to supersede Jones from the command of the Ranger, and to send her back to America.

It was proposed to provide for Jones by giving him a French ship to cruise under the American flag; but when, in July, open war broke out between France and England, and French ships sailed under the French flag, there was no longer any room for an adventurer like Jones, especially when he had no money. In the following spring he obtained authority to fit out, under the American flag, an old East Indiaman, the Duc de Duras, then lying at L'Orient, and said to be capable of mounting forty guns. But when ready for sea, with her name changed to Le Bonhomme Richard, ship and guns and crew were all of the most makeshift character. The ship, a converted merchantman, was a dull sailer, old, and rotten; her guns were of various calibres, and were worn out; her men were loafers and outcasts from every nation, with a backbone of about 150 French peasants, tempted from their fields by promises of bounty and booty. The Bonhomme Richard sailed from L'Orient on 14 Aug. 1779. With her were associated for the cruise four other vessels, one of which, the Alliance of 36 guns, was an American-built frigate and manned by Americans, but commanded by a Frenchman, Pierre Landais; the other three, Pallas, Cerf, and Vengeance, were French. They were all under the American flag, but sailed under French instructions.

Off Cape Clear twenty men and one of the lieutenants of the Richard took the opportunity of a calm and fog to desert with two of the ship's boats. The Cerf also parted company, and did not rejoin. The others, having made some prizes, passed up the west coast of Ireland, met off Cape Wrath, where the Alliance again lost sight of them, and so down the east coast of Scotland. On 14 Sept. they were off the Forth; the wind was fair up the firth, and Jones conceived that he might lay Leith and Edinburgh under a heavy contribution. But the captains of the Pallas and Vengeance, whom Jones was obliged by his instructions to consult, would not consent, and it was late at night before they could be won over. The next morning the wind was foul, and so continued through the 16th and 17th, during which the little squadron was beating up the firth. Its character had been recognised, and the whole country round was in a state of excitement and alarm. Effective defence there could be none, and the ships were almost within gunshot of Leith when the wind in a fierce squall drove them back and out of the firth. Jones now wished to destroy the shipping in the Tyne, but his colleagues would not consent, and he unwillingly pursued his voyage towards the south.

On the morning of the 23rd they fell in with the Alliance, and a few hours later sighted a large fleet of merchant ships, which their pilot pronounced to be the trade from the Baltic. Jones had already information that this was under the convoy of two ships of war, the Serapis of 44 guns and the Countess of Scarborough, a hired ship of 20 guns. During the day boats from the shore gave Captain Pearson of the Serapis an account of the Richard and her consorts; and thus when, about half-past seven in the evening, the Serapis and the Richard came within hail, each answered the other with a broadside. The Pallas engaged the Countess of Scarborough, and captured her after a very creditable resistance. The Alliance kept aloof, and contented herself with firing wild. The real contest lay between the Serapis and the Bonhomme Richard. And of these two, the Serapis was beyond question far the superior, not only as a ship, but in guns and in men. Jones, finding that the Serapis's guns were too heavy for him, managed to close, and lashed the Serapis's bowsprit to the Richard's mizen-mast. Pearson, ignorant of this, let go an anchor, and so the two ships swung together and tailed off to the tide. The well-served 18-pounders of the Serapis completely destroyed the sides of the Richard, whose upper deck remained as an open platform. On the other hand, the Richard's musketry swept the upper deck of the Serapis, and so completely cleared it that a seaman, laying out on the Richard's main-yard with a bucketful of hand-grenades, was able to throw them deliberately into the Serapis. One fell down the hatchway, ignited on the lower deck, and exploded a number of cartridges which had been carelessly placed there. Many men were killed and wounded, and the rest so disheartened, that Pearson presently struck the colours. It was, at the time, almost a question of chance, for the Richard had lost as many men as the Serapis, and the ship was sinking. The gunner, in a panic, rushed to the stern, and bellowed for quarter till Jones knocked him down with the butt of a pistol. About one hundred prisoners that were confined below were let loose, and rushed on deck; Jones, undismayed, set them to the pumps, and kept them there for nearly an hour. The pumps were kept going through the night; the next morning the men were transferred to the Serapis, and the Richard sank about ten o'clock [see Pearson, Sir Richard].

The convoy had meantime made good its escape, and Jones, with his prizes, put into the Texel. There he found the Dutch unable to recognise the American flag; the prizes and the other ships were ordered to fly the French ensign, and Jones, taking command of the Alliance, broke through the blockade, and made good his escape to L'Orient. There Landais reclaimed his ship, and the commissioners in Paris decided in his favour. He took her back to America, and Jones, after hanging about Paris for nearly a year, was ordered to follow in the Ariel, a 20-gun ship lately captured from the English. He arrived at Philadelphia on 18 Feb. 1781.

This was the end of his service in the American navy, for though he was appointed to the America, a 74-gun ship then building, she was presented to France as soon as she was launched. In 1782 Jones joined the French ship Triomphant, bearing the flag of the Marquis de Vaudreuil, and seems to have stayed in her till the peace. Two years later he was sent to France to reclaim the value of his prizes, which had not been paid, and which he did not recover without much difficulty. He was afterwards sent to Denmark on a similar business, but the court of Denmark, finding it inconvenient to pay, bought Jones off with the patent of a pension to himself. He then went on to St. Petersburg, where the empress conferred on him the rank of rear-admiral in the Russian navy, and sent him to join Potemkin in the Black Sea. In the very decisive battle in the Liman, on 7 June 1788 [see Bentham, Sir Samuel], he was present in command of a division of the fleet, but had no active share. Before long he quarrelled with Potemkin, who ordered him back to St. Petersburg. There society looked coldly on him, and the empress gave him permission to leave the country. He retired to Amsterdam, and seems to have entertained the idea of entering the service of Sweden. The negotiation, however, fell through; so also did his endeavours to return to Russia. In the course of 1790 he went to Paris, where, on 18 July 1792, he died of dropsy, induced or aggravated by disease of the liver. Jones was a man of distinguished talent and originality, a thorough seaman, and of the most determined and tenacious courage. His faults were due to defective training. Excessive vanity, and a desire for ‘glory,’ which was, as he wrote, ‘infinite,’ and recognised no obstacles, made him a traitor to his country, as it made him quarrelsome, mean, and selfish.

[Sherburne's Life of Paul Jones; Memoirs of Rear-admiral Paul Jones, now first compiled from his original Journals and Correspondence (in the possession of his niece, Mrs. Janet Taylor), Edinburgh, 1830. These two are original works drawn, the first from American official documents, and the second from Jones's private papers; unfortunately, Jones's statements, when not otherwise corroborated, cannot be trusted. [Robert Sands's] Life and Correspondence of John Paul Jones, New York, 1830, is based on the Edinburgh life, with the American colouring intensified. Mémoires de Paul Jones … écrits par lui-même en Anglais, et traduits sous les yeux par le citoyen André (An. vi. 1798); they may be based on his conversation; in any case they have no value, and are certainly not his work. Slidell-Mackenzie's Life of Paul Jones; Fenimore Cooper's Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers, p. 1; Laughton's Studies in Naval History, p. 363.]

J. K. L.