Remembering John Paul Jones


By Martin Hickes

CUMBRIA and Whitehaven have close links to an American naval legend but a fugitive in the annals of British history.

To this day, John Paul Jones commands tremendous respect in the United States and is viewed as a naval hero.

But to the British (when Britain had a naval power to speak of), during the late 18th C, he was a fugitive, best remembered for attacking his home port of Whitehaven, and for a blistering naval battle off the east coast of Yorkshire.

John Paul Jones (July 6, 1747 – July 18, 1792) was a Scottish sailor and the United States's first well-known naval fighter in the American Revolution.

Although he made enemies among America's political elite, his actions in British waters during the revolution earned him an international reputation which persists to this day.

As such he is sometimes referred to as the "Father of the United States Navy" (an epithet he shares with John Barry). He later served in the Imperial Russian Navy.

During his engagement with HMS Serapis, Jones uttered, according to the later recollection of his first lieutenant, a legendary reply (to a taunt about surrender from the British captain), to wit: "I have not yet begun to fight!"

Jones was born John Paul (he added "Jones" later) on the estate of Arbigland near Kirkbean in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright on the southwest coast of Scotland.

His father, John Paul (Sr.), was a gardener at Arbigland, and his mother was named Jean McDuff (1708-1767).

His parents married on November 29, 1733 in New Abbey, Kirkcudbright and John Paul started his maritime career at the age of 13, sailing out of Whitehaven as an apprentice aboard the Friendship under Captain Benson.

Paul's older brother William Paul had married and settled in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the destination of many a sailor after the discovery and settlement of the new world.

For several years, John sailed aboard a number of different British merchant and slave ships, including the King George in 1764 as third mate, and the Two Friends as first mate in 1766.

After a short time in this business, he became disgusted with the cruelty in the slave trade, and in 1768 he abandoned his prestigious position on the profitable Two Friends while docked in Jamaica. He found his own passage back to Scotland, and eventually obtained another position.

During his next voyage aboard the brig John, which sailed from port in 1768, young John Paul’s career was quickly and unexpectedly advanced when both the captain and a ranking mate suddenly died of yellow fever.

Jones managed to navigate the ship back to a safe port and, in reward for this impressive feat, the vessel’s grateful Scottish owners made him master of the ship and its crew, giving him 10 percent of the cargo.

He then led two voyages to the West Indies before running into difficulty.

During his second voyage in 1770, John Paul viciously flogged one of his sailors, leading to accusations that his discipline was ‘unnecessarily cruel’.

While these claims were initially dismissed, his favourable reputation was destroyed when the disciplined sailor died a few weeks later.

John Paul was arrested for his involvement in the man’s death, and was imprisoned in Kirkcudbright Tolbooth but later released on bail.

Leaving Scotland, John Paul commanded a London-registered vessel, a West Indiaman mounting 22 guns, named the Betsy, for about 18 months, engaging in commercial speculation in Tobago.

This came to an end, however, when John killed a member of his crew, a mutineer, Blackton, with a sword in a dispute over wages.

Years later, in a letter to Benjamin Franklin describing this incident, he claimed it was in self-defence, but because he would not be tried in an Admiral's Court, he felt compelled to flee to Fredericksburg, Province of Virginia, leaving his fortune behind.

He went to Fredericksburg to arrange the affairs of his brother, who had died there without leaving any other family; and about this time, in addition to his original surname, he assumed the surname of Jones, and the US became:  "the country of his fond election."

It wasn't long afterwards that John Paul "Jones" joined the American navy to fight against Britain.

After some early successes against British merchant shipping in the Irish Sea, on April 17, 1778, Jones persuaded his crew to participate in an assault on Whitehaven, the town where his maritime career had begun.

On April 20, 1778, Jones learned from captured sailors that the Royal Navy man o' war HMS Drake was anchored off Carrickfergus, Ireland.

According to the diary of Ranger's surgeon, Jones's first intention was to attack the vessel in broad daylight, but his sailors were "unwilling to undertake it" (another incident omitted from the official report).

Therefore, the attack took place just after midnight, but the mate responsible for dropping the anchor to halt Ranger right alongside Drake misjudged the timing in the dark (Jones claimed in his memoirs, the man was drunk), so Jones had to cut his anchor cable and run.

The wind having shifted, Ranger re-crossed the Irish Sea to make another attempt at raiding Whitehaven.

Jones led the assault with two boats of fifteen men on April 23, 1778, just after midnight, hoping to set fire to and sink all Whitehaven’s ships anchored in harbour (numbering between 200 to 400 wooden vessels), which consisted of a full merchant fleet and many coal transporters.

They also hoped to terrorize the townspeople by lighting further fires.

As it happened, the journey to shore was slowed by the still-shifting wind, as well as a strong ebb tide.

The spiking of the town's big defensive guns to prevent them being fired was accomplished successfully, but lighting fires proved difficult, as the lanterns in both boats had run out of fuel.

To remedy this, some of the party were therefore sent to raid a public house on the quayside, but the temptation to stop for a quick drink led to a further delay.

By the time they returned, arson attacks had begun began, and as dawn was fast approaching, efforts were concentrated on a single ship, the coal ship Thompson, in the hope that the flames would spread to adjacent vessels.

However, in the twilight, one of the crew slipped away and alerted residents on a harbourside street.

A fire alert was sounded, and large numbers of people came running to the quay, forcing the Americans to retreat, and extinguishing the flames with the town's two fire-engines.

Crossing the Solway Firth from Whitehaven to Scotland, Jones hoped to hold for ransom the Earl of Selkirk, who lived on St Mary's Isle near Kirkcudbright.

The Earl, Jones reasoned, could be exchanged for American sailors impressed into the Royal Navy.

When the Earl was discovered to be absent from his estate, Jones claims he intended to return directly to his ship and continue seeking prizes elsewhere, but his crew wished to ‘pillage, burn, and plunder all they could.’

Ultimately, Jones allowed the crew to seize a silver plate set adorned with the family’s emblem to placate their desires.

Jones bought the plate himself when it was later sold off in France, and returned it to the Earl of Selkirk after the War.

Although their effect on British morale and allocation of defense resources was significant, the attacks on St. Mary's Isle and Whitehaven resulted in no prizes or profits which under normal circumstances would be shared with the crew.

Throughout the mission, the crew, led by Jones's second-in-command Lieutenant Thomas Simpson, acted as if they were aboard a privateer, not a warship.

In 1779, Captain Jones took command of the 42-gun Bonhomme Richard (or as he preferred it, Bon Homme Richard), a merchant ship rebuilt and given to America by the French shipping magnate, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray.

On August 14, as a vast French and Spanish invasion fleet approached England, he provided a diversion by heading for Ireland at the head of a five ship squadron including the 36-gun Alliance, 32-gun Pallas, 12-gun Vengeance, and Le Cerf, also accompanied by two privateers, Monsieur and Granville.

When the squadron was only a few days out of Groix, Monsieur separated due to a disagreement between her captain and Jones.

Several Royal Navy warships were sent towards Ireland in pursuit of Jones, but on this occasion, he continued right around the north of Scotland into the North Sea, creating near-panic all along Britain's east coast as far south as the Humber estuary.

On September 23, 1779, the squadron met a large merchant convoy off the coast of Flamborough Head, east Yorkshire.

The 50-gun British frigate HMS Serapis and the 22-gun hired ship Countess of Scarborough placed themselves between the convoy and Jones's squadron, allowing the merchants to escape.

Shortly after 7 p.m. the Battle of Flamborough Head began.

The Serapis engaged the Bonhomme Richard, and soon afterwards, the Alliance fired, from a considerable distance, at the Countess.

Quickly recognizing that he could not win a battle of big guns, and with the wind dying, Jones made every effort to lock Richard and Serapis together (his famous quotation, "I have not yet begun to fight!" was uttered in reply to a cheerful British taunt during an odd stalemate in this phase of the battle), finally succeeding after about an hour, following which his deck guns and his Marine marksmen in the rigging began clearing the British decks.

Alliance sailed past and fired a broadside, doing at least as much damage to the Richard as to the Serapis.

Meanwhile, the Countess of Scarborough had enticed the Pallas downwind of the main battle, beginning a separate engagement.

When Alliance approached this contest, about an hour after it had begun, the badly damaged Countess surrendered.

With Bonhomme Richard burning and sinking, it seems that her ensign was shot away; when one of the officers, apparently believing his captain to be dead, shouted a surrender,the British commander asked, seriously this time, if they had struck their colours.

Jones later remembered saying something like "I am determined to make you strike", but the words allegedly heard by crew-members and reported in newspapers a few days later were more like: "I may sink, but I'll be damned if I strike."

An attempt by the British to board Bonhomme Richard was thwarted, and a grenade caused the explosion of a large quantity of gunpowder on Serapis's lower gun-deck.

Alliance then returned to the main battle, firing two broadsides.

Again, these did at least as much damage to Richard as to Serapis, but the tactic worked to the extent that, unable to move, and with Alliance keeping well out of the line of his own great guns, Captain Pearson of Serapis accepted that prolonging the battle could achieve nothing, so he surrendered.

Most of Bonhomme Richard's crew immediately transferred to other vessels, and after a day and a half of frantic repair efforts, it was decided that the ship could not be saved, so it was allowed to sink, and Jones took command of Serapis for the trip to neutral (but American-sympathizing) Holland.

In the following year, the King of France honoured Jones with the title "Chevalier".

Jones accepted the honor, and desired the title to be used thereafter: when the Continental Congress in 1787 resolved that a medal of gold be struck in commemoration of his "valour and brilliant services" it was to be presented to "Chevalier John Paul Jones".

He also received from Louis a decoration of "l'Institution du Mérite Militaire" and a sword. By contrast, in Britain at this time, he was usually denigrated as a pirate.


To date, the Americans have mounted numerous expeditions to try to find JPJ’s lost flagship.

One expedition, led by the Connecticut-based Ocean Technology Foundation, believe they have come tantalisingly close to identifying the ship - and they have mounted numerous expeditions since the mid 2000s, with efforts ongoing in the 2013 season.

British enthusiasts themselves have, for years, been trying to identify the whereabouts of the Bonhomme Richard, which is held in the United States with as much regard as the British have for HMS Victory.

Melissa Ryan, from the US-based Ocean Technology Foundation (OTF), is co-ordinator of the expedition off the Yorkshire coast.

Ms Ryan says: "We will probably have to put a lot of separate clues together to determine the wreck's identity. For example, we might find a cannon which would be marked with the manufacturer's information, and then we might locate a button from a crewman's uniform and be able to trace it to what they wore during the late 1700s.

"It will be the sum of the clues that will tell us if we've found the BHR.

"This is not just looking for a shipwreck. There's much more to it than that," she says.

"The project has a strong educational component for students and the public, which increases awareness and appreciation for America's proud maritime heritage.

"Jones gave the American people a hero when they needed one and showed the world that the young continental navy was a force to be reckoned with."

The battle was a major turning point in the war, because it convinced France to loan the US more resources to maintain its fight against the British.

"Regardless of his nationality, it is Jones's spirit, courage and tenacity that has really left an imprint on our naval forces for the past few centuries.

"I don't think the word 'surrender' was part of his vocabulary and he serves as an example and inspiration for our Navy today."

But a rival British team, from Filey, have been exploring another possible wreck since 1975 and maintain the "real" Bonhomme Richard lies much closer to the shore.

They claim it was originally discovered in 1975 by local diver John Adams, while recovering a fouled trawl net.

In 2002, a detailed report by an American underwater archaeologist concluded that there was a strong possibility of this wreck being the actual Bonhomme Richard.

But if the Americans do find the wreck, will they be taking it home?

Jones's last act of defiance might be to keep his flagship hidden. Although it's unlikely the Americans will give up until the sea finally surrenders its historic secret.

·         More updates on JPJ and further expeditions can be found at:

·         Since 2007 numerous further expeditions to find the Bonhomme Richard have been made, by numerous American teams including the OTF – see the link for latest news.

·         In the summer of 2013, the OTF group explored its most promising site yet, a debris field that includes an anchor, buried wooden planks and encrusted iron.

·         Melissa Ryan, the group's project manager, said that of all the targets explored since 2006, none have had characteristics that even came close to the latest site.