The Celtic Music Radio Album of the Week commencing Saturday 16 September is from Alan Reid with Rob van Sante with their new
Gordon Hotchkiss talks to Alan about the new album which is a unique folk album that catalogues the life of the fascinating Dumfriesshire born sailor who achieved fame and notoriety during the American War of Independence and became known as the “Father of the American Navy”.
The story of John Paul Jones is one of sea battles, intrigue and scandal (and perhaps even murder?)
Alan Reid has written all the songs and music, composing pieces in the folk styles of all the different countries Jones spent time in.
The duo are joined on the album by John Martin (fiddles, mandolin), Wendy Weatherby (cello), Ian Fairbairn, late of Jack the Lad (fiddle), Mark Chillington (drums) and brothers Eric and Nicholas Hueber from Mulhouse in France (flute, bombarde, accordion, fiddle).
(click “Read More” below to see more info)
John Paul (birth name) was born on Scotland’s Solway coast in 1747, son of the gardener to the local Laird. By all accounts he was fascinated by the sea from an early age and at the age of 13 was taken across the Solway Firth to be engaged as a cabin boy on a ship out of Whitehaven (at that time an important port for trade to the Colonies).
For several years he made voyages back and forth to the West Indies, also spending time with his brother, a tailor in Fredericksburg Virginia. He displayed great enthusiasm and navigational skills and through a series of events rose to be a master by age 21. This put great responsibility on his young shoulders, fitting out the ship, engaging a crew, safety at sea and the buying and selling as well as the delivery of cargo. He made numerous trips back and forward from Kirkcudbright to Tobago and proved to be an exacting commander and hard disciplinarian, attributes which brought him trouble. One crew member, Mungo Maxwell, (son of a prominent Dumfries businessman) was flogged and set down in Jamaica. On his way home Maxwell died of a fever and when his father heard of this had John Paul arrested and flung in Kirkcudbright jail on his return from the West Indies. John Paul had influential friends in Tobago who petitioned in his favour and he was eventually exonerated. However, later a much more serious incident occurred. A voyage to Tobago had been beset by delays and when Paul’s ship eventually arrived there the crew, mostly local, wanted to go ashore, naturally enough with money in their pockets. Paul refused, claiming all the money was needed to buy cargo for the return trip.
A stand off ensued, resulting in an enraged crewman rushing at Paul on deck. Paul drew his sword and according to his account (the only one in existence) the sailor slipped and impaled himself on the sword. Instead of giving himself up to the authorities and relying on his rich friends in Tobago Paul panicked and fled the island. John Paul’s whereabouts for the next 20 months are a mystery but we know that he eventually turned up in Virginia. He discovered his brother had died and turned to Masonic contacts in Virginia and North Carolina to try to obtain another sea commission. Having no success John Jones, as he had been calling himself, ended up in Philadelphia and found himself caught up in the fevered atmosphere that presaged the Revolutionary War. It was then that he threw in his lot with the Colonists and changed his name to John Paul Jones. The fledgling Continental Navy, a rag tag of ships, faced a much superior British force who were blockading the Eastern Seaboard ports. Jones quickly gained a reputation for daring exploits at sea and his record in engaging British warships and catching prizes between the West Indies and the Newfoundland Grand Banks is probably without peer. But he quickly made enemies, as well as finding himself caught between rival North and Southern interests.
He was bypassed on the captain’s list by politicking on both sides. Currying favour and making alliances was a facility he never mastered. Instead he harangued people like John Adams, denigrated other captains, and bombarded the authorities with letters of complaint. This is probably one reason why he was dispatched to France to have Ben Franklin put his mischief to good use as well as having him out of their hair. He had the added incentive of the promise of the captaincy of a new ship in Europe. The ship never materialised but eventually, after much toing and froing between Paris and Brittany, another ship was procured. During this period he found time to embark on various dalliances and affairs with married women. At last, after many setbacks, he set off with his predominantly New England crew to attack Britain. His plan was to attack a port he knew well, Whitehaven. He landed at dawn and set fire to ships in the harbour. However one of his British crewmen raised the alarm and, coupled with a sudden downpour which doused the fires, the attack was aborted. Undaunted, he sailed across the Solway to St. Mary’s Isle (the promontory to the south of Kirkcudbright) with the intention of capturing the Earl of Selkirk and holding him to ransom (Americans were angry that prisoners taken by the British were put in jails and treated as common criminals rather than as prisoners of war). Unfortunately for Jones the Earl was absent. Jones stayed on his ship while some of his crew marched up to the Earl’s house, and finding only the Lady of the house, some women and children plus a butler, were reluctant to leave empty handed. They came back on board with a silver coffee set, much to Jones’ embarrassment.
The ship then was obliged to make haste and sail away.
After taking several small prizes and engaging a battleship in Belfast Lough, killing its Captain, Jones’ ship sailed round the west coast of Ireland and back to Brittany. No great military advantage was achieved but the psychological effect on Britain was enormous and in effecting this brazen attack on its coastline John Paul Jones instantly became a household name in Britain. His second attack on Britain was his most daring exploit to date. With three ships he set about sailing round the British coast to cause as much havoc as possible.
He created the desired effect (though not helped by his partner ships) and his reputation was sealed when he defeated, after a desperate battle, a much larger Royal Navy warship off the Yorkshire coast. His own ship was destroyed but he took over the defeated ‘Serapis’ and managed to limp across to neutral Holland, somehow evading the frantic Royal Navy search for him. Jones spent a few months in Holland between the island of Texel and Amsterdam, where he was feted as a celebrity, much to the chagrin of the British who blockaded the Dutch ports waiting to capture him . When the ‘Serapis’ was repaired Jones took advantage of a storm to slip away and sail under the very noses of the British through the English Channel to the safety of France. And a hero’s welcome. After a summer of celebration Jones was ordered by Franklin to take much needed supplies for the war effort back to the U.S. There followed further honours and celebration but soon after the British surrendered at Yorktown and Jones found himself sidelined as the Continental Navy was all but disbanded. Jones petitioned Congress to send him back to France to negotiate back pay for him and his crews. He spent several years increasingly frustrated by the inertia and reluctance of French bureaucracy to give him money or to employ him in their navy.
Desperate for action he began hawking himself around Europe as a sailor for hire. However, out of the blue a request came from the Russian Court for his help in expelling the Turks from Russia’s southern border at the Black Sea. Jones hired a boat in Sweden but instead of a leisurely cruise the startled crew found themselves being forced to take him across the Baltic Sea at gunpoint to Talinn (then called Reval) from where he made his way to the court at St. Petersburg. His ego was boosted by being elevated to Rear Admiral by Empress Catherine under the overall command of Field Marshall Potemkin. However Jones quickly found out there were several other Admirals appointed, with each commander seemingly more interested in glory for himself rather than working as a team under a transparent chain of command.
Jones was instrumental in the victory of Leman which put an end to Turkish ambitions in the Crimea but got no credit for it at the time. He found himself isolated as his relations with Potemkin and the other commanders fell apart. He was recalled to St. Petersburg and given the cold shoulder by the Empress and eventually paid off. This was partly due to an episode in which a 13 year old girl accused him of molesting her. Jones denied the charge and claimed he had been framed by his enemies but the end result was that his reputation was sullied and it became clear he had no future in Russia.
There then followed months of almost aimless wandering round Europe, eventually settling in Paris, a much changed city. The Revolution had turned it into a tense and frightened place and almost all Jones’ influential friends had either fled or been arrested, the most notable being King Louis himself. The Russian winter had affected Jones’ health and he cut a depressing and morose figure moping around his old haunts. Jones expired in 1792 ironically just before a letter arrived from Thomas Jefferson authorising him to go to Africa and negotiate the release of Americans held prisoner by Barbary pirates. His funeral, his burial, the loss of the coffin, its exhumation 100 years later preserved in alcohol, and its voyage by naval escort to the naval academy in Annapolis is an amazing story in itself.
John Paul Jones‘ influence on the U.S navy was great. Years after his death many of the ideas he propounded were taken up and formalised. To this day new recruits are obliged to memorise words he wrote on the behaviour required of officers and sailors. He knew many famous people of his time, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Hancock, the Marquis de Lafayette, Louis 16th, Empress Catherine, Potemkin to name a few. He was somewhat demonised by the British authorities but yet admired by many ordinary people. He is largely a forgotten figure today though recognised lately by Russia for his part in the Leman campaign. John Paul Jones was an egotistic and impatient little man, a brilliant sailor and tactician, and ultimately, a loner.
Album of the Week, Saturdays at 12 noon, 12 midnight and Mondays at 6.00pm.