“An Agreable Voyage”

On the morning of April 23, 1778, the Countess of Selkirk, granddaughter to the Earl of Haddington and wife of the fourth Earl of Selkirk, was lingering over breakfast in the Selkirk mansion on St. Mary’s Isle—actually a small peninsula in Kirkcudbright Bay on the Scottish coast. She had no idea that she was presently to earn a colorful place in the history of the American Revolution. Had she known this she probably would not have been pleased; for although her husband the Earl disapproved of King George’s war against the colonists, she felt little doubt that they were generally uncouth people unfit to associate with nobility. The Countess, who was soon to give birth to a child, had better things to think about than war. Neither she nor proper old Daniel, the butler, who busied himself clearing away the breakfast silver, was aware that America’s first and only invasion of England had taken place this morning, just twenty miles away. Daniel poured the Countess a bit more tea from her shiny silver teapot. Perhaps he wondered when the Earl would return home from Buxton in Derbyshire.…

Two weeks earlier, on April 9, 1778, a man with considerably more ambition than old Daniel had set sail from Brest, France, in command of an eighteen-gun sloop of war, the U.S.S. Ranger . It was now almost thirty-one years since the Ranger ’s captain had been born in a stone cottage at Arbigland in the parish of Kirkbean, less than thirty-five miles from the Selkirk mansion, and christened John Paul, after his father. And it had been over six years since he had last seen his Scottish homeland.

At that time young John Paul had already put in four years as master of a brig in the West Indies trade. He had also been in trouble. A carpenter whom he had flogged for disrespectful conduct later died of fever, and John Paul was accused of having caused the man’s demise. The young captain cleared himself of the charge but carried away from the episode a dislike for the Scottish authorities who had beleaguered him. Throughout his career John Paul was to mystify people by being alternately, or even simultaneously, gentle and harsh. The log of a later command records that one Midshipman Potter was “ordered in irons by the Capt. for a thermometer being broke in his Cabbin.” Yet when the Ranger was in France “the Capt.” had paid advance wages with his own money and had gone out of his way to acquire plenty of brandy to raise the men’s spirits. His habitual concern for his sailors’ welfare throws doubt on the charge that he was tyrannical; but there can be no doubt that this captain was highly temperamental.


A year after John Paul extricated himself from the affair of the carpenter, in 1773, he got into a brawl with mutineers and ended it by killing their leader with his sword. This incident led him to adopt a pseudonym and flee the threat of another murder trial, arriving in Virginia in 1774 to find a new career. His new last name was to be Jones, and along with this name he adopted a brand-new nation. Both John Paul Jones and America were starting out afresh, and each was to be of great service to the other. In the summer of 1775 Jones went to Philadelphia unemployed; by December he had impressed enough congressmen with his sea experience to be commissioned as a first lieutenant in the fledgling United States Navy.


But now, in 1778, Captain Jones had not forgotten his life as John Paul. The contours of the Scottish coasts that had posed his first problems of navigation were still clear in his memory, and he was determined to use his knowledge in fulfilling the Ranger ’s mission. He could hardly have felt less fettered by his orders. The American representatives in Paris had freed him to proceed “in the manner you shall judge best for distressing the Enemies of the United States, by sea or otherwise, consistent with the laws of war.” In 1778 the American Navy was struggling to become a moderately effective fighting force; it boasted only a few frigates to challenge the huge and renowned Royal Navy. With such limited striking capacity, Captain Jones had always argued, the Navy’s proper role was not to exchange broadsides with bigger British ships; nor was it merely to harass enemy supply vessels. Instead the Navy should do what privateers seeking booty would never do: prevent England from bringing her full weight to bear on the seas by hitting her at home. As he directed the Ranger northward between Ireland and Wales, Jones was eager to make the first trial of this strategy.

In addition, he hoped to find some way of pressuring the British government into recognizing the rights of American seamen taken prisoner. So far the enemy, while acknowledging that Washington’s soldiers were part of a legitimate army, had insisted on calling all American ships privateers and jailing our Navy men as sea bandits. Such a policy was bound to rankle in the mind of a man whose future depended on whether or not the Continental Navy would win respect on the seas. “This circumstance more than any other,” he wrote, “rendered me the avowed enemy of Great Britain.” Thus the mission of the Ranger was twofold: to interfere with the British war effort at its source, and to promote the exchange of American naval prisoners.