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“An Agreable Voyage”
In which John Jones, né Paul, invades both England and Scotland, despoils a countess, and defeats a British sloop—all in less than forty-eight hours
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
Captain Jones’s great expectations were limited, however, by his dissatisfaction with his ship and her crew. From Brest he had written apologetically to the French Minister of Marine: “I am, sir, ambitious of being employed in active and enterprising services; but my ship is too small a force and does not sail as fast as I could wish.” Indeed, although the Ranger was a new vessel, she had plenty of defects. For one thing, her masts were too big, having been cut for a much larger warship; this made her top-heavy, so that she would heel far over on her side even in mild winds. At Brest, Jones had ordered extensive improvements of the sloop’s poorly made sails, and the mainmast and mizzen had been moved farther aft to adjust her balance; but the fact remained that the Ranger was not the formidable warship Jones felt he deserved.
Nor did her officers measure up to the captain’s standards. All were men of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the Ranger had been built, and Jones had had very little voice in their selection. None of them had served in the Continental Navy before; they had made their reputations in the merchant marine, not in battle. The precise naval discipline that Jones sought to impose seemed silly and undemocratic to them, and the captain’s assistants were even less enamored of him than he was of them. First Lieutenant Simpson was nine years older than Jones, Second Lieutenant Hall was five years older; they were not accustomed to obeying a younger man, especially one who stood only 5 feet 5 inches tall. These rough-hewn fellows found Jones’s fine manners offensive and his Scottish background suspicious.
The crew shared the attitudes of their lieutenants, and throughout their service on the Ranger they were inclined to regard Simpson, a man of loudly voiced opinions, as their rightful leader, and Jones as an interloper. Simpson was quite willing to encourage this feeling. Finally, every man on board was there above all for prize money, not for military service. The poster printed to invite their enlistment had offered them opportunities “to distinguish themselves in the GLORIOUS CAUSE of their COUNTRY , and make their Fortunes”—but it soon became clear that most of them had dismissed the first phrase as mere rhetoric. Nor were they eager to court danger in their pursuit of profit; they had been told that the Ranger ’s mission was to be “an agreable Voyage in this pleasant Season of the Year.”
Such were the expectations of the men handling Jones’s imperfect 100-foot sloop of war as she entered the Irish Sea. They were only temporarily mollified when they made a prize of the Lord Chatham , an Irish merchant ship heading for Dublin, and sent her back to Brest under a prize crew. They performed smartly enough in the next few days as the Ranger sank two supply vessels and frightened off two small armed ships. Then, on the morning of Monday, April 20, Jones sighted an enemy warship at anchor in the harbor of Belfast Lough. A short while later four astonished Irish fishermen in a small boat were captured by the Ranger when they passed too close to the harmless-looking ship —for the Ranger was disguised as a merchantman, with red cloth draped over her gunports and a Dutch pennant and British jack flying from her masthead. When questioned by Jones, the fishermen declared that the ship he had spotted in the Lough was the Drake , a twenty-gun sloop of war that offered just about an even match for the eighteen-gun Ranger . The Royal Navy, which supposedly kept the Irish Sea as safe for British shipping as the Thames, was at last showing a representative.
Never one to hesitate when a challenge was in the air, Captain Jones “ordered the ship to be put about in order to go in and cut her out,” reported Ezra Green, the Ranger ’s surgeon, in his diary. However, Jones soon learned that his men were not in the mood for such boldness in broad daylight. Instead they agreed on a sneak attack at midnight. The belief shared by nearly everyone on board that the captain’s orders should be subject to a majority veto is apparent in Surgeon Green’s offhand explanation of this piece of insubordination: “the wind blowing fresh and the people unwilling to undertake it we stood off and on till midnight when the people consenting and the wind having lulled a little we stood into the River [the Lough]. …”
Guided through darkness by the captive fishermen, the Ranger came within a hundred feet of the Drake . However, thanks to an inebriated boatswain’s mate who failed to drop anchor until the Ranger had floated beyond her strategic position, Jones found the situation too risky and ordered the cable cut. The Ranger fled the scene of this dangerously botched job. Officers and sailors alike, numbering almost 150 altogether, were quite content to assume that the Drake would never see them again; but their captain had other ideas.