- Historic Sites
“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
And so, on the morning of April 23, this uncommon commander felt a need to strike again, to offset the negative results of the past night; and he knew there was little time before news of his attack would spread. Moreover, he was anxious to do something about the matter of prisoner exchanges. So he turned the Ranger northwest, toward St. Mary’s Isle, with a very unorthodox end in view.
Just four hours after leaving Whitehaven the Americans arrived at Kirkcudbright Bay. Taking fourteen men, Jones got into the Ranger ’s cutter and guided it through the shallow channel that he had learned to follow as a twelve-year-old sailor and as a twenty-one-year-old trader. By about 11 A.M. the cutter pulled up on the nearest shore of the tiny peninsula that was St. Mary’s Isle. Accompanied by crew master David Cullam, Lieuenant Wallingford, and the seamen, all equipped with pistol and cutlass, Captain Jones strode up the path through the woods toward the Earl of Selkirk’s mansion. On the way the group met and questioned a few of the Earl’s hired hands, brusquely announcing themselves to be a Royal Navy press gang hunting for “volunteers.” The effect of this news was to send all the able-bodied workers of the estate hurrying off to Kirkcudbright, since none of them was eager to swab the decks of a British frigate. One of the gardeners, however, gave Jones a piece of news in return that was even less happily received: “The Earl is not at home.” On hearing this the captain glumly turned his steps back toward his boat. For the temerarious aim of his visit had been to kidnap the Earl and hold him as a hostage for the release of American naval prisoners.
This outlandish scheme has given rise to much speculation and mythmaking about Jones’s “real” purpose in going after Lord Selkirk. The latter may have been the foremost citizen of his area, but he had nothing whatever to do with London’s war policy; King George barely knew he existed. Thus Jones’s mythologizers have cast about to discover a clue to the would-be kidnapper’s ulterior motive, and many have claimed to find it in the doubts that persist about John Paul’s parentage. There is no real evidence that he was not the son of John Paul, Sr., gardener of the estate of Arbigland. But many writers have been eager to believe that John Paul was a bastard son of Lord Selkirk, or at least that he believed himself to be, and that he came to St. Mary’s to get revenge on the father who had abandoned him. Like many other legends, this one is founded solely on the lack of absolute proof that it is false. The most plausible explanation of Jones’s rather foolish kidnapping plan is that the importance of Lord Selkirk had been vastly exaggerated in John Paul’s youthful mind and that in his absence from Britain Jones had never relieved himself of this illusion.
No wonder, then, that the captain was crestfallen when he heard that the Earl was away, and was anxious to leave the scene of his second disappointment of the morning. But now Cullam and Wallingford interrupted his thoughts, saying it was crazy to pass up the chance to rob a defenseless mansion belonging to the enemy. They reminded Jones of the crew’s resentment over his refusal to make plunder the chief object of the voyage; they also complained that “in America, no delicacy was shown by the English, who took away all sorts of movable property.”
Hoping no doubt to win some sorely needed popularity with his men, Jones agreed to let the two officers enter the mansion and take the family silver, on condition that they leave the sailors outdoors, injure no one, and satisfy themselves with whatever valuables were freely turned over to them. Cullam and Wallingford agreed and led the sailors toward the house while Jones returned to the cutter to wait.
The house that the two officers directed the sailors to surround was not a castle, as some wishful writers have called it, but a handsome old mansion with a high roof and wide yards. Inside there were no men of the family to meet the two strangers at the door; there were only the Countess, her children, servants, and four female guests. But it soon became clear that the Countess needed no one to help her handle the intruders. She acted throughout as if she knew that her conduct would some day be described by historians. When Cullam, a hard-bitten rogue, demanded the silver and growled, “It is needless to resist,” she answered calmly, “I am very sensible of that.”