- 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
In order to avoid violence, and because of her inbred distaste for deception, Lady Selkirk chose to co-operate completely. She caught old Daniel trying to hide some of the silver plate in a maid’s apron, reprimanded him, and submitted all there was in the pantry to the Americans who, she later wrote, “very deliberately called for sacks to put everything up.” The Countess even gave Cullam an inventory of the house’s silver, which prompted him to demand her teapot and coffeepot. The teapot came complete with the breakfast tea leaves still in the bottom. As these transactions were going on, the Countess was impressed by the demeanor of Lieutenant Wallingford, who seemed to regret the discomfort they had caused her. She offered a glass of wine to both Americans, which they accepted. By now, however, they were anxious to get away, and with good reason, since a group of local stalwarts were on their way from Kirkcudbright to repulse the “invaders.” Carrying their small treasure, Cullam and Wallingford marched their troop back to the shore, got in the boat with Captain Jones, and rowed out to the Ranger . It was in this rather unglorious way that the United States Navy departed Scotland with the spoils of war. The whole affair had lasted about twenty minutes.
They must have been a nervous twenty minutes for the captain, who didn’t relish the prospect of being labelled a common thief. From Wallingford he extracted a full report on the scene at the house, and the story of Lady Selkirk’s aplomb inspired in Jones a great respect for her, which was to manifest itself effusively. He resolved to buy the silver with his own funds when his crew sold it as booty, and return it to this splendid female. The impetus behind this resolve was not merely a respect for private property nor the appreciative courtesy of a connoisseur of women. Ever alert for opportunities to cut a heroic figure in the eyes of persons of high station, the indefatigable captain was already hoping, we are entitled to suspect, that his ignominious robbery would open the door to an applause-winning gesture of chivalry. By the time the Ranger got back to France, Jones had spent a good deal of time in his cabin working on one of the best letters ever produced by his suave pen. He sent this letter to Lady Selkirk from Brest on May 8, the day of his arrival there.
But before Jones could employ his genius as a writer, there was the problem of proving his genius as a fighter. By noon on the day of Lord Selkirk’s nonabduction, the Ranger was sailing toward Ireland and her commander was shoving thoughts of the Lord’s wife to the back of his mind. Twice he had landed on enemy territory, but he had no military achievement to show for it. All he had done was to stir up a lot of British villagers. “There are more men under arms,” Lady Selkirk wrote to her sister on the afternoon of April 23, “than I thought there were men or arms in this quarter.” The volunteer guardsmen of Kirkcudbright had hauled a rusty old cannon to the shore, and that night they repeatedly fired salvos at what looked like a ship in the bay. According to one of Jones’s early biographers, Alexander Mackenzie:
When the day dawned, the valiant burghers were overwhelmed with mortification at discovering, that they had been venting their prowess upon an invulnerable rock which stood at no great distance from the land.
Had he known about this barrage, John Paul Jones would not have been overly amused. By now he was desperate for some real action in which he could win the recognition that the Continental Congress had so far failed to give him. He thought of H.M.S. Drake . The Ranger headed for Belfast Lough.
The sun was just coming up on April 24, 1778, when the Drake ’s lookout spotted an unfamiliar sail approaching the harbor. The Ranger was still masquerading as a merchantman, so presently the Drake ’s elderly commander, Captain John Burden, sent a boat to identify the stranger. In the meantime the animosity felt by the American crew toward their ambitious leader was boiling over; led by the vituperative Lieutenant Simpson they were below decks, debating whether they should refuse to fight. When they heard that a defenseless British boat was coming close, some of them went up to watch how Captain Jones would handle the Royal Navy’s emissary. It was a good show. The British officer commanding the rowboat lifted his spyglass again and again to get a side view of the Ranger and ascertain whether she carried cannon. But Jones tacked so skillfully as to show only the Ranger ’s stern to the spyglass; the officer had to come alongside and board in order to learn the ship’s identity. This was imparted together with the further information that he and his five oarsmen and their boat had just been captured by John Paul Jones. Those seamen of the Ranger who had watched this excellent trick performed were quick to tell their shipmates, and all hands were so pleased by Jones’s cunning that mutiny was forgotten.