Friday, October 23, 2009

People: The Father of the U.S. Navy

Hero or scoundrel, Commodore or pirate? These are questions that were surely asked about today's privateer in the tumultuous era in which he lived. The answer to what John Paul Jones was is probably pretty easy for the average American to rattle off: the father of the United States Navy. No argument there. But he was a man, too, and its interesting that his career starts and ends with questionable situations that, on the face of them, are pretty deplorable. If nothing else, JPJ is still controversial and that may be why - more than so many other U.S. heroes of the waves - many people still know his name. Many of them, though, don't really know the controversy.


John Paul was born in Scotland in 1747. By 1760 he signed on aboard a merchant and by the early 1770s he had attained the rank of Captain. 1773 found him in charge of the merchant Betsy who plied her trade from the southern coast of the American colonies to the West Indies. At some point in that year, descent boiled aboard Betsy. Captain Paul claimed that an outright mutiny took place while some of his surviving men claimed that no such thing occurred. The Captain shot and killed a man and, when the ship reached the Carolinas, was accused of murder. He fled to Philadelphia, added Jones as a last name and evidently laid low.

In 1775, John Paul Jones reemerged, signing on with the newly christened Continental Navy. War was in the offing and JPJ was probably eager to get back to sea. He was immediately given a lieutenant's commission but by 1778 he was given command of the 18 gun sloop Ranger. His orders were to sail to France and from the port of Brest in Brittany harass British merchants and the Royal Navy in her own waters. Jones was so successful in his pursuits that he was promoted to Commodore the following year.

The English, of course, thought of JPJ as a criminal. One notorious action made them particularly righteous in this claim. Ranger put in at Kirkudbright on the Scottish coast during 1778 with the express intent of kidnapping and ransoming the Earl of Selkirk. When Jones and his men broke into the estate, they found only the Countess and her maids at home. Frustrated, the house was ransacked and Jones took the lady's silver service. It wasn't the act of a gentleman, the British huffed, but the doings of a Scottish pirate. They left out the fact that no one laid a finger on the women and that JPJ later sent Lady Selkirk's silver back to her.

By September of 1779 JPJ was in command of a French built frigate which he named Bonhomme Richard (after Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac). It was in this ship that his most famous engagement - and most quotable misquote - would take place.

Bonhomme Richard sailing in consort with the French Navy's Pallas, met HMS Serapis who was escorting an armed merchant ship, Countess of Scarborough off Flamborough Head on the English coast. The ships seem to have suddenly come up on each other because fighting in close quarters immediately began. Bonhomme Richard engaged Serapis and broadsides were fired with less than 50 yards between ships for nearly three hours. Both ships were torn to pieces and the dead and wounded lay scattered across equally blood soaked decks.

At some point, Captain Pearson of Serapis called across to Jones "Has your ship struck?", asking if JPJ had taken down the Stars and Stripes in surrender. Jones is quoted as replying "I have not yet begun to fight!" but witnesses say his response was: "I'll sink, but damned if I'll strike!" Eventually neither ship could carry on and Pearson, who had suffered more life lost than Jones, struck his colors and limped home to Britain. Though all surviving hands made it back to France, Bonhomme Richard sank.

With this success under his belt, JPJ was a huge hero in France where he was the "it" guest at parties and dinners and a popular song celebrated him as "the great American pirate". Good times, at least for a while.

After the war, Congress didn't have the cash to pay for a standing Navy and Jones decided to find adventure elsewhere. He joined the Russian Navy and captained ships for them in the Black Sea during their engagements with the Ottoman Turks. When that was over, JPJ took a house in St. Petersburg and the final unfortunate chapter of his life unfurled.

A local dairyman, who may himself have been of questionable morals, knew of Jones' lusty way with the ladies and may have used his daughter as bait to ring money out of the Captain. Either that or Jones was a pedophile. The daughter, who was under age, delivered the Captain's milk daily and struck up a flirtation with Jones. JPJ and the girl fell into bed at some point and when the dairyman turned to extortion the authorities got involved. Jones protested that the girl claimed to be 17 (she was probably 12 or 13 in fact and the age of consent was 15 for girls) and had encouraged his interest to the point of undressing in front of him.

All his indignity fell on deaf ears, however. Much as he had when he changed his name, Jones fled to Paris. Unfortunately, though, the rumors followed him. He died in Paris in 1792, alone and nearly forgotten. Time took care of Commodore Jones though and the Victorians - who were so fascinated with the heroism of their founding fathers - rediscovered his success at sea while ignoring all that other nonsense.

Today if you say "Oh yeah, John Paul Jones who committed statutory rape," most Americans would look at you as if you'd turned blue. "No, John Paul Jones, the father of our navy." You'd have to say both but I'll leave it to you to decide, Brethren, and I'll see you tomorrow for Sailor Mouth Saturday.

2 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! And here I thought he was just the bass player in Led Zeppelin... So, JPJ was the Roman Polanski of his day? Sorry, that's an insult to JPJ. I did not know that his famous quote was actually a misquote. Once again, you have enlightened me. Thankee, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! As I said, I don't think most people know that much about John Paul also known as Jones. Frankly, I like the real quote better especially since his ships really did sink even though he never did strike.