John Paul Jones

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John Paul Jones : biography

July 6, 1747 – July 18, 1792

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, but nothing else. 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.

Return to France

Nevertheless, Jones now led Ranger back across the Irish Sea, hoping to make another attempt at the Drake, still anchored off Carrickfergus. This time, late in the afternoon of April 24, 1778, the ships, roughly equal in firepower, engaged in combat. Earlier in the day, the Americans had captured the crew of a reconnaissance boat, and learned that Drake had taken on dozens of soldiers, with the intention of grappling and boarding Ranger, so Jones made sure that did not happen, capturing the Drake after an hour-long gun battle which cost the British captain his life. Lieutenant Simpson was given command of Drake for the return journey to Brest. The ships separated during the return journey as Ranger chased another prize, leading to a conflict between Simpson and Jones. Both ships arrived at port safely, but Jones filed for a court-martial of Simpson, keeping him detained on the ship.

Partly through the influence of John Adams, who was still serving as a commissioner in France, Simpson was released from Jones’s accusation. Adams implies in his memoirs that the overwhelming majority of the evidence supported Simpson’s claims. Adams seemed to believe Jones was hoping to monopolize the mission’s glory, especially by detaining Simpson on board while he celebrated the capture with numerous important European dignitaries.

Even with the wealth of perspectives, including the commander’s, it is difficult if not impossible to tell exactly what occurred. It is clear, however, that the crew felt alienated by their commander, who might well have been motivated by his pride. Jones believed his intentions were honorable, and his actions were strategically essential to the Revolution. Regardless of any controversy surrounding the mission, Ranger’s capture of Drake was one of the Continental Navy’s few significant military victories during the Revolution, and was of immense symbolic importance, demonstrating as it did that the Royal Navy was far from invincible. By overcoming such odds, Ranger’s victory became an important symbol of the American spirit and served as an inspiration for the permanent establishment of the United States Navy after the revolution.

Bonhomme Richard

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. Jones’s main problems, as on his previous voyage, resulted from insubordination, particularly by Pierre Landais, captain of the Alliance. 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.