John Paul Jones: turning point in Tobago

John Paul Jones was a pirate and a murderer — who became a hero of the American Revolution. Debbie Jacob dug up the story of how his fortunes changed

  • John Paul Jones. Photograph by Time Life Pictures/Getty images
  • An 18th-century battleship. Illustration by Darren Cheewah

He was a Casanova with sea legs, and he charmed politicians and ladies from Europe to the Caribbean. In the Age of Sail, when one man’s outlaw buccaneer was another man’s hero, the ambitious, hot-tempered Scot became a contemptuous pirate to the British, and a decorated hero to the Americans, during the Revolutionary War, from 1776 to 1783.

John Paul Jones had the best of luck and the worst of luck. Bad luck – including a dark secret hidden in the Caribbean island of Tobago – set the course of Jones’s swashbuckling life, which eventually led to his being dubbed a naval hero nearly 125 years after his death.

Evan Thomas and Samuel Eliot Morison have documented Jones’s colourful life. He was born on July 6, 1747, and at 13, he apprenticed himself for seven years to the captain of the brig Friendship, signing on with his birth name: John Paul. The sea offered the best opportunities for non-aristocratic boys like Paul, whose father worked as a gardener for the 1,400-acre estate of Arbigland at Kirkbean, Kirkcudbright, Scotland.

Paul had his first stroke of luck when Robert Benson, captain of the Friendship, trained him to use the octant, a navigational tool that charts a ship’s course on the trackless sea. In the wrong hands, an octant could lead to a mutiny, but the captain felt safe training a boy.

Paul crossed the Atlantic eight times in three years on the Friendship before it was sold for debts. No longer obligated to fulfil his apprenticeship, he took a job as third mate on a slaver, the King George, and sailed the Middle Passage to deliver slaves to the Caribbean. But he hated the work, and asked to be paid off in Jamaica after three years of working on a slaver.

The lucky Paul got free passage home, but during that voyage, both the captain and the first mate died of fever contracted in the West Indies. At 21, Paul became the unpopular captain of the John. He would never get along with any of his crews. On his second voyage as captain, Paul’s infamous temper surfaced. He ordered the flogging of the ship’s carpenter, Mungo Maxwell.

When the John anchored off Tobago in the summer of 1770, Maxwell filed charges of assault and unjust abuse in the Admiralty Court. The court found Paul not guilty, so Maxwell quit the John. But when, in early November, Paul sailed home, he was arrested as soon as he came ashore. In jail, he learned Maxwell had died on his return voyage to Scotland. Maxwell’s father, a prominent figure in Kirkcudbright, had Paul arrested, claiming his son had died from the beating he had received under Paul’s command.

After posting bail in the spring of 1771, Paul set off for the Caribbean to clear his name. He got a letter from the judge at the Admiralty Court in Tobago saying Maxwell’s wounds had not been life-threatening. A letter from the captain of the ship that Maxwell had sailed home on stated Maxwell had died of a fever.

Paul quickly regrouped. He loaded his ship, the Betsy, with butter and wine to take to the West Indies, then noticed the Betsy needed repairs. He contracted a fever, and by the time he recovered, the butter had turned rancid, but, though short of cash, Paul proceeded as planned and arrived in Tobago around Christmas 1773. There, however, his cantankerous crew demanded their pay, and when Paul said they’d get paid on their return to Britain, the crew’s ringleader (never identified by name) confronted him.

The only record of what happened on that fateful day comes from a letter Paul later wrote, on March 6, 1789 to American patriot Benjamin Franklin. According to Paul, “The brute, a principal in embezzling the Master’s liquors, confronted me with the grossest abuse that vulgarism could dictate.”

Always tactless and impatient with his men, Paul offered the ringleader some “frocks and trousers” from the ship’s supply of “slops”. Enraged, the man threatened to seize the ship. Paul ran into his cabin, intending, he later said, to take a board to ward off the attack, but instead snatched up his sword, which just “happened to be on the table. The ringleader having thrice my strength grabbed a cudgel. I was thunderstruck with surprise,” said Paul.

An angry crew gathered to watch the fight. The Betsy rocked and creaked. Paul backed away until his heel hit the edge of the hatchway, and his opponent tried to seize this chance.

“The assailant raised his arm high, and threw his body forward to reach the Master’s head with the descending blow, the fatal and unavoidable consequence of which was his rushing upon the sword,” wrote Paul.

The ringleader was dead. Paul claimed he fled the scene to find a justice of the peace and turn himself in, but was informed that he couldn’t because no charges had been laid. He couldn’t go before the Admiralty Court because the Admiralty judge was not on the island. So he hopped on a horse and galloped from Scarborough to Courland Bay, where he caught a ship.

From there, Paul disappeared, travelling incognito, as friends had advised, for fear of being extradited to Tobago to stand trial. In the winter of 1774, he surfaced as John Paul Jones in Virginia, where he had once visited his brother, who was now dead.

Alone, Jones hooked up with two radicals, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, who talked of freedom for the American colonies. Jones courted southern belles, joined the Masons – and then joined the American Revolution. On December 7, 1775, he was commissioned first lieutenant in the Continental Navy, serving aboard Esek Hopkins’ flagship the Alfred. He got command of the Ranger on November 1, 1777. But the fledgling US navy was no match for the mighty British, and Jones was never able to get a decent ship. When the Continental Congress of the newly formed US sent Jones and other representatives to France to woo French support, Jones had hoped for a sleek ship. He waited in vain, busying himself with trysts that he had to be rescued from by American diplomats.

Early in 1779, the French gave Jones a battered old East Indiaman, the Duc de Duras. Jones spruced up the ship and dubbed it the Bonhomme Richard, the French for “Little Richard”, a publication by his mentor, Benjamin Franklin. Commanding four other ships and two French privateers, Jones sailed on August 14, 1779. His plan: to raid the English coast. This proved difficult because his crew, privateers by nature, were more interested in loot than any mission to burn English ships. But Jones craved fame.

On September 23, 1779, in the dark of night off Flamborough Head, in the cold and treacherous North Sea, Jones engaged England’s HMS Serapis. With jagged 450-foot cliffs as a backdrop, the Bonhomme Richard cornered the Serapis, a far superior ship. The Serapis fought relentlessly. The Bonhomme Richard survived three hits from Captain Landais of the Alliance, a ship in Jones’s squadron. Jones appeared to be doomed, but when asked to surrender he supposedly shouted, “I have not yet begun to fight!” For this, he was later immortalised in American history books. With the aid of superb French marksmen, Jones captured the Serapis. Captain Pearson surrendered – and the battered Bonhomme Richard sank the next day, after its only encounter. This was the legendary battle that defined Jones’s career.

By now the British had deemed Jones a pirate. After the American Revolution, Jones offered plans to build the American navy, but he was ignored. With Congress’s blessings, Jones fed his insatiable ego by serving as a rear admiral in the service of Russia’s Empress Catherine. Her cronies constantly undermined Jones’s efforts and took credit for his victories, so he retired to Paris in 1790.

He died alone, aged 45, on July 18, 1792, and was buried without fanfare. Shortly after his death, a message arrived from the US government. It wanted Jones to deal with the Barbary pirates who had seized American ships.

After that, Jones was forgotten until US President Theodore Roosevelt decided to build the greatest navy in the world. Roosevelt needed a symbol, and Jones fitted the bill. In April 1905, anthropologists located Jones’s grave in the abandoned St Louis Cemetery, which had become a site for low-income housing. Jones was given a coffin similar to Napoleon’s and a huge parade through the streets of Paris. Four cruisers brought Jones’s body back to the US, and seven battleships escorted him up Chesapeake Bay. On January 26, 1913, John Paul Jones was laid to rest in the crypt of the US Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Maryland. All this for a man whom the US Continental Congress had ranked 18th in a list of captains.

There is no doubt that the events that took place in Tobago determined Jones’s destiny. Had it not been for that “unfortunate incident”, as he always called the murder he committed, Jones might have settled in Tobago, where he had investments. Instead, his misfortune turned to good luck, and he became, through legend more than accomplishment, the father of the US navy.

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