“An Agreable Voyage”

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Gale-force winds came up on Tuesday, the twenty-first, and dashed Jones’s hopes of an immediate return to the Drake . The seamen spent the day battling the wind and growing more and more displeased with their leader’s strategy, which clearly was not designed to make them rich. Meanwhile, Jones made up his mind to strike at Britain herself, instead of just one of her warships. Now he would put his childhood memories to use.

It was from Whitehaven, the busy port on the English coast just below Solway Firth, that thirteen-year-old John Paul had first sailed for America as ship’s boy on the brig Friendship . And it was Whitehaven that he chose now as his target, because he knew the entry to the harbor as well as he knew his own real name. But when he announced his plan, he found that his enthusiasm had not infected his officers. As the Ranger made her way slowly east in a weakening wind, Jones called for volunteers. Lieutenants Simpson and Hall promptly declined on grounds of exhaustion. Some of the officers protested that there was no military excuse for “burning poor people’s property.” It was true that most of the shipping at Whitehaven consisted of trading vessels and fishing boats. Setting fire to them would not weaken the Royal Navy. But in Jones’s eyes the attack would surely justify itself by its propaganda value.

Despite the mutterings of Simpson and Hall and their admirers, Jones was able to muster a party of forty raiders, who would make the landing in two boats. The men volunteered for various reasons, some for adventure, some hoping for plunder, perhaps a few out of loyalty to their captain. One of the volunteers was a twenty-two-year-old sailor who was listed on the ship’s roll as David Smith but whose real name was David Freeman. Like his captain, Freeman had been born in the British Isles; but while John Paul Jones had felt no qualms in transferring his allegiance to America, for Freeman this had proved impossible.

 

The captain himself was to command the first landing boat, with Lieutenant Meijer as his mate. Meijer was a volunteer from the Swedish Army who distinguished himself among these Americans as the only officer completely loyal to Jones. Lieutenant Wallingford, who headed the Ranger ’s contingent of marines, would be in charge of the second boat. Each of the raiders was armed with pistol and cutlass. Jones addressed them briefly before they embarked, promising that he would be “the first who landed and the last who left the shore.” It was already midnight when the boats left the Ranger , and thanks to weak winds the harbor was still several miles away. The tide was going out, and it was only after three hours of rowing that the Americans stepped onto the English beach. The first pallor of dawn already appeared in the east.

In the meantime the guards stationed in the more southerly of the two forts of Whitehaven, which defended the north and south sides of the harbor, were dozing in the guardhouse. The night was chilly, and they were sure there was no point in standing watch outside. Suddenly they found themselves awake, surrounded by a ring of tough-looking sailors—pirates, the guards must have assumed—with pistols trained on their foreheads. Was it a dream?

Minutes earlier Captain Jones and most of the men of his boat had scaled the walls of the southern fort “by mounting upon the shoulders of our largest and strongest men,” as Jones reported. He himself had been the first of the attackers. The English guards “were secured without being hurt,” and the Americans quickly spiked all the cannon of the fort. Jones then ran the quarter of a mile to the northern fort and spiked its guns as well, accompanied only by one midshipman. But when the intrepid commander got back to the beach he found that the other raiders had failed to emulate him. He had sent Wallingford’s party to burn the vessels on the north side of the harbor, but instead they “had broken into a convenient alehouse and helped themselves liberally to its wares. Their explanation as to why they had set fire to nothing other than their own throats was that their torch had burned out. In his official report Jones describes his disappointment with a remarkable lack of rancor:

On my return from this business [spiking the guns], I naturally expected to see the fire of the ships on the north side, as well as to find my own party with every thing in readiness to set fire to the shipping on the south; instead of this, I found the boat under the direction of Mr. Hill and Mr. Wallingford returned, and the party in some confusion, their light having burnt out at the instant when it became necessary. By the strangest fatality, my own party were in the same situation, the candles being all burnt out. The day too came on apace, yet I would by no means retract while any hopes of success remained.