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FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

In this edition, from the December 1975 issue of American Shipper, FreightWaves shares the exciting story of a man regarded as a naval hero in the United States but a pirate in the United Kingdom. This is the second part of two recounting the life of John Paul Jones. You can read the first part here.

Fast ship

Unfortunately for Jones and his seniority rating, he passed over two ships offered to him before he took over the Sloop “Providence,” formerly owned by John Brown of Providence and the pride of the Rhode Island Navy. She was a good vessel and probably the fastest of any ship he commanded. In her, he had a good crew, captured many prizes and increased his reputation as a Fighting Man of the Sea. 

Jones, ever the Dandy, convened a group of naval officers in Boston to discuss uniforms. They came up with a dark blue coat with white linings and lapels, a stand-up collar; white breeches, waistcoat and stockings. One gold epaulet was added for the coat. It was quite similar to the British uniform. His officers aboard the “Bon Homme Richard” wore this uniform and his sailors, unlike any other ship’s crew, were “clean drest” in “brown jacket and round hat.” Long baggy trousers completed the attire. His selection of uniform later stood him in good stead. A British ship thought he was one of their own! 

Robert Morris, in Philadelphia, received a letter from John Hancock requesting that Jones continue his fine work on the seas. “I admire the spirited conduct of little Jones: pray push him out again.” Push him out the Marine Committee did — giving him orders to command ALFRED, COLUMBUS, CABOT, HAMDEN and the sloop, PROVIDENCE. But, lack of communication caused Commodore Hopkins to split up the ships and Jones never did get the chance to take a strategic cruise that would have caught British slavers bound for the West Indies or English sloops with the much needed brass cannon. They were also to “give them an alarm at St. Augustine,” … “— show the flag in Georgia and the Carolinas.” It was a typical foul-up. 

The ‘Ranger’

The same day that Congress deemed that the Flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen alternate red and white stripes with thirteen white stars in a blue field, Captain Jones was appointed to the command of the “Ranger,” a ship of the United States Navy — not the Continental Navy. 

The “Ranger” was one of the few ships that proved to be ready to sail, yet Jones found her not to be “ship-shape and Bristol fashion.” His ship was oversparred and too light for her guns. But, Jones, the perfectionist, soon put her to rights. Indeed, Admiral Morison in his “John Paul Jones — A Sailor’s Biography” comments, “Jones enjoyed fitting out more than anything except fighting and making love.”

“Bon Homme Richard.” It was after the “Ranger” that he was given the command of a ship that made history respect Jones as a great leader, an intrepid foe and a world famous Naval hero. The ship was the “Bon Homme Richard,” formerly the French “Due de Duras.” Jones renamed the ship after his friend, Benjamin Franklin. The vessel was a French East Indiaman, about 900 tons bought for Jones by the King of France and outfitted at His Majesty’s Expense. It was Lafayette who induced the King to put this extra effort into aiding the American cause. 

Jones, now with the courtesy rank of Commodore, had a task force that was comprised of “Bon Homme Richard,” two other frigates, “Alliance” and “La Pallas,” and a cutter, “Vengeance.” After several successful forays upon enemy shipping, Jones’ squadron stood off Flamborough Head. 

Jones’ ship was flying British colors when the “Serapis,” under the command of Captain Richard Pearson, came within hailing distance. Pearson shouted “what ship is that?” Then the British colors were struck and Jones ordered a big red, white and blue striped American ensign to be run up. 

Both ships fired almost at the same time. The “Serapis’” cannon blew up two of Jones’ 18-pound guns, causing many gunners and loaders to perish.

The “Serapis” was a new copper-bottomed frigate that carried 20 eighteen-pounders to Jones’ 6; 20 nine-pounders to Jones’ 28 12-pounders, and 10 six-pounders on the quarterdeck where the “BHR” had 6 nine-pounders.

After an exchange of broadside, Jones estimated that he had enough of that and that he must board the “Serapis.” 

Jones ran BHR’s bow into the stem of his opponent. It was then that Captain Pearson asked “Has your ship struck?” And, the immortal words of John Paul Jones came back, “I have not yet begun to fight.”

More maneuvering and the rigging of both ships become entangled, causing the BHR and “Serapis” to engage in a merry-go-round dance in the North Sea with “Alliance” sailing around them and firing broadsides, mostly hitting her Commodore’s ship, the “Bon Homme Richard!” 

For two hours they were locked in mortal embrace — sails of both ships were ablaze — fighting would stop while the crews battled the flames and then resumed action on deck. 

The battle continued and the plight of the BHR seemed hopeless to many of Jones’ officers. Then the mainmast of “Serapis” began to fall and Captain Pearson decided to surrender. He crossed to the BHR, gave his sword to Jones who promptly returned it. The “Serapis” had suffered greatly but, in appearance BHR was an object of horror. Jones wrote of the battle, “and a person must have been a Eye Witness to form a Just idea of this tremendous scene of Carneg, Wreck and ruin that Every Where appeared. Humanity cannot but recoil from the prospect of such finished horror, and Lament that War should be capable of producing such fatal Consequences.” 

His victory over the “Serapis” was the only important Allied success at sea in 1779. The French King, Louis XVI, invested him with the Order of Military Merit, and bestowed an even greater honor, by presenting to the valiant Captain Jones a gold-hilted sword and calling him the “Vindicator of the Freedom of the Seas.” (It is presently near his Tomb at the U.S. Naval Academy.)

Bronze statue of Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones in West Potomac Park in Washington, DC by sculptor Charles H. Niehaus in 1912. (Photo: eurobanks/Shutterstock)

Catherine of Russia

Catherine of Russia was an attractive woman of 62, German by birth, with the remarkable vitality of a woman many years her junior and a sexual appetite that was controlled, in part, by the Royal Palace Guards. 

Whether Her Imperial Majesty wanted the sendees of John Paul Jones, as the Admiral of her Fleet to pull together the many foreign officers in her service, or whether she wanted to add another star in her diadem of conquest has left many historians in doubt, but not Admiral Morison. 

Catherine was an able ruler but her morals left a lot to be desired. Married to Emperor Peter III, she had him killed and proclaimed herself Empress Catherine II.

Jones must have thought a lot about this “liberated woman.” He wrote, “with the character of a very great man, she will always be adored as the most amiable and captivating of the fair sex.” 

Catherine’s lover was Count Potemkin and from the start Potemkin was the fly in Jones’ Russian ointment. Morison claims it was the flag rank that attracted Jones, not the beguiling Catherine. Having scanned some of Jones’ past performances in the boudoirs of many French ladies, it is quite easy to side with Potemkin in this jealousy bit. But, accept the position of Rear Admiral in the Imperial Russian Navy is what Jones did. The title of Admiral was Jones’ greatest desire.

If the transplanted Scotsman thought he had trouble in the American colonies, those matters were insignificant compared to his problems in Russia. 

The British officers in the Russian Navy hated Jones — a Greek officer, who expected to have Jones’ job, was another, Potemkin had three Rear Admirals in the Black Sea and as the overall military commander tossed Jones in with the rest. Prince Nassau-Siegen, a Hollander, was most unfriendly.

The campaign on the Liman against the Turkish fleet was a case of having other officers working against and not with Jones. He wrote “in my whole life, I have never suffered so much vexation as in this Campaign of the Liman which was nearly the death of me.” 

One thing that stands out from Jones’ Russian service is that not one Russian officer can be counted among those who participated in an overall conspiracy against this famous sailor. The Russians who served under him had nothing but respect and loyalty for him. But not Potemkin. 

Kontradmiral Pavel Ivanovich Jones subsequently was relieved of his command and departed the Flagship “Vladimir.” It was on a three day journey to Kherson that Jones came down with pneumonia.

The illness was not Jones’ only trouble in the Land of the Steppes. A charge of rape was made against him that was obviously a frame. 


A young girl came to Jones’ apartment selling butter or asking if he had lace or linen that needed mending. As soon as she left his front door, the girl tore her sleeves and screamed “rape.” Her mother happened to be conveniently nearby. Who framed Jones? Was it Potemkin? Was it Prince Nassau-Siegen? It certainly wasn’t the British officers. They would never resort to such a device.

The scandal was enough to cause Jones to be a social outcast. Even the Empress, far from being an example of virtue, took a dim view of the Admiral who had served her so well. 

En route to Paris, Jones stopped at an Inn in Harwich, attired in his uniform of a Russian admiral. The people of the town surrounded the place and Jones fearing bodily harm, retreated to London. Whether it was because he raided the English seacoast or the charge of rape that raised their ire is not known. 

His death

In May of 1790, he returned to Paris, a city much loved by Jones. Here he became interested in the plight of the American seamen captured by the Barbary Coast pirates. Without a Navy to protect them, merchant ships were fair game for the pirates.

Thomas Jefferson saw eye to eye with Jones on the imprisonment of the American seamen. At that time, the Congress of the United States did not care about the seamen, much like the liberal representatives in Washington today.

Finally, President Washington acted. On June 1, 1792, he appointed John Paul Jones “a commissioner with full powers to negotiate with the Dey of Algiers concerning the ransom of American citizens in captivity, and to conclude and sign a Convention thereupon.” 

Jefferson gave the documents and some $27,000 to Thomas Pinckney, who was going to London as the American minister. He sailed for England in mid July and again Jones lost. The gallant skipper died of pneumonia, July 18. Jones was buried two days later with French grenadiers leading the cortege to a grave that was lost to America for almost a hundred years. 

On April 7, 1905, the grave of Jones was found in an ancient Paris cemetery. The corpse was remarkably well-preserved in alcohol. Probably brandy for which France is so rightly famous. 

President Teddy Roosevelt, a supporter of a strong Navy, ordered four cruisers to return the body of Jones back to America. The man who was a merchant skipper and a great Naval hero was finally in the kind of a squadron he hoped America might someday have. 

His final resting place was the U.S. Naval Academy where young Americans prepare to be gallant skippers like Jones. They will always have his words to inspire them — “I have not yet begun to fight.”

Click here to read the rest of the December 1975 issue.

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