“An Agreable Voyage”

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As if Captain Jones did not have enough problems with drunken and mutinous assistants, he also had an out-and-out traitor trying to sabotage the raid. No sooner had David Freeman got out of Jones’s sight than he broke away from his party and went dashing along the streets nearest the waterfront, shouting at the top of his lungs that “pirates” were on the beach. The sleepy townfolk at first regarded this English version of Paul Revere as a crazy man, but after a few minutes the alarm was spreading faster than the fire that Jones had hoped to start.

That fire, in fact, had yet to be kindled. Jones was unaware of Freeman’s performance, but he saw the townsfolk gathering near the wharves. Undaunted, he picked out one of the 150 or more ships grounded on the beach, a coal carrier named Thompson , and sent a man aboard her with a torch, having gotten a light in a house nearby. Jones’s account of the scene is typically well phrased:

I should have kindled fires in other places if the time had permitted; as it did not, our care was to prevent the one kindled from being easily extinguished. After some search a barrel of tar was found, and poured into the flames, which now ascended from all the hatchways. The inhabitants began to appear in thousands, and individuals ran hastily towards us. I stood between them and the ship on fire, with a pistol in my hand, and ordered them to retire, which they did with precipitation. The flames had already caught in the rigging, and began to ascend the mainmast; the sun was a full hour’s march above the horizon, and as sleep no longer ruled the world, it was time to retire.

Jones took care to make his escape appear as fearless as his arrival. True to his word, the captain was the last man into the boat, delaying a few moments “to observe at my leisure the terror, panic, and stupidity of the inhabitants.” Jones might have omitted this piece of bravado had he known that it was only due to the unflinching loyalty of Lieutenant Meijer that his crew had not rowed away without him.

On their way out of the harbor the boats were fired on by a few cannons that the raiders had neglected to spike. But the shooting was so pitifully wide of the mark that Jones’s men found it amusing rather than frightening, and returned the “salute” with a few good-natured pistol shots. The Ranger had sailed closer, and the boats reached her about 6 A.M. Jones had freed all the prisoners taken at the forts except three, whom he kept “as a sample .”

Thus concluded America’s brief invasion of England, if such it may be called. Of course, Jones never contemplated marching inland at the head of his tiny “army.” But on the morning of April 23, 1778, and for months thereafter, few natives of Whitehaven could believe that their town had not been invaded by an invincible force commanded by an evil genius named John Paul Jones. The London Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser commented sarcastically:

The people of Whitehaven, it is thought, can never recover from their fright; two thirds of the people are bordering on insanity ; the remainder on idiotism ; the defence of the harbour is left to the care of the old women, who declare that had they been called into power earlier, they would have preserved the town with their mopsticks and cut off the retreat of the rebels.

The fire on the Thompson had been brought under control quickly enough to keep it from spreading to other ships, but the panic that Jones had inspired, and that he took such pleasure in observing, was not so easily extinguished. It swept along the British coast and set thousands of villagers to scanning the horizon daily; insurance rates increased 300 per cent on shipping to Ireland. Moreover, the Royal Navy was sorely embarrassed by charges of extreme negligence. And the name of the “provincial privateer” who had caused all the furor was on its way to fame.

As he returned to his ship, however, Jones was not congratulating himself on winning notoriety. In his view the Whitehaven operation had been a fiasco. There had been no conflagration, and now every English seaport would be on the lookout. And the disaffection of his crew did not bode well for future operations. Ignorant of David Freeman’s contribution to the night’s events, Jones could only blame the failure on the lateness of the landing and “the backwardness of some persons under my command.” In his report to Congress, Jones expressed nostalgia for the reliable officers who had served him in his two earlier Navy commands, the Providence and the Alfred : “had they been with me in the Ranger 250 or 300 sail of large ships at Whitehaven would have been laid in ashes.”