John Paul Jones
(1747-1792) - America's
greatest Revolutionary naval commander and founder of America's naval
tradition, John Paul Jones hailed from Scotland. He was born simply
John Paul on July 6, 1747 to John Paul and Jean Duff Paul on the estate of Arbigland near Kirkcudbright,
Scotland, where his father worked as a gardener.
At the age of 13, John Paul was apprenticed to a ship owner and began his career at sea. He
immediately entered into the Atlantic trade that linked England, America,
the West Indies, and Africa. Paul's older brother had married and settled in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the
destination of many of the youngster's early voyages. He was also a crew member on at least three slaving voyages to Africa and
grew to hate the traffic in human cargo.
At the age of 21, on a voyage from Jamaica to Scotland on a ship called John, he took command, when both the captain and first mate died from yellow fever.
Bringing the ship and the crew safely into port quickly advanced his
career. As a reward, the grateful Scottish owners made him captain of the ship and its crew, and gave him
ten percent of the cargo.
John Paul was well on
his way to success as a merchant sailor when he ran into difficulty. In 1773 on the island
of Tobago, mutinous sailors looking for advance pay attacked him. In
defending himself, John Paul killed one of the men. Convinced that he
could not get a fair trial on the island, he escaped to America and took
the name, John Paul Jones. He arrived in America at a time when the
conflict with Britain over taxes and self-government was reaching a
boiling point. Familiar from birth with Great Britain's harsh treatment of
the Scottish people, Jones was immediately sympathetic to America's quest
for liberty. After war broke out in 1775, Jones volunteered for service in
the brand-new Continental Navy.
Having long been
protected by the powerful British navy, America began the
Revolutionary War without naval
power of any kind. Congress acted quickly to convert merchant ships to
ships of war and to begin building new ships for the navy. With his
sea-going background and the support of a North Carolina congressman,
Jones was quick to see service. After briefly serving as second in command
of the Alfred, Jones in May 1776 took command of the sloop
Providence, which mounted 21 guns. Jones soon captured 16 British
vessels on a single cruise.
Promoted to the rank
of captain, Jones took command of the Alfred, capturing yet more
British ships. In April 1778, as captain of the Ranger, he
was cruising the waters close to Britain. Jones conceived the bold plan of
attacking the town of Whitehaven on the west coast of England. He hoped to
capture an important individual and then negotiate the exchange of
American naval prisoners being held as common criminals in English jails.
The raid on Whitehaven did little damage, but it rattled the British to
think that the American navy could reach them at home.
victory came in September, 1779, by which time, he commanded a fleet of
five ships, including his flagship, which was a 40-gun frigate. The
flagship, a converted French merchant ship, was re-named the Bonhomme
Richard, in honor of Benjamin Franklin (Bonhomme Richard being the
French translation of Franklin's Poor Richard). Jones knew that in the
fall, rich British fleets from the West Indies and the Baltic Sea returned
to England, and he planned to take one or both. On September 23rd, the 41
ships of the Baltic convoy came into view off the east coast of England.
As the merchant ships ran for safety, the two escorting British warships,
Serapis and Countess of Scarborough, squared off
against the Bonhomme Richard and another American ship, the
At that time, when
nations were at war, all of the enemy's ships, military and civilian, were
considered fair game. When warships and privately owned ships authorized
to make war, took enemy vessels, the captain and crew shared with their
government any proceeds from the sale of the captured ships and cargoes.
But, the root of the conflict with Britain was that she did not consider
America an independent nation and refused to grant America the customary
rights of a nation at war. Britain viewed sailors in the Continental Navy
as pirates and tossed them in jail as common criminals. It was this policy
that John Paul Jones sought to overturn by attacking English towns.
After three hours of
maneuvering, the Bonhomme Richard rammed the Serapis, and
Jones tied the two ships together. They poured deadly cannon fire into
each other for two hours. When the British captain, Richard Pearson, asked
if the Americans were ready to surrender, Jones roared back, "I have not
yet begun to fight!"