He raided the fleet but gave back the teapot

TODAY is the anniversary of an extraordinary day in British and American maritime history. It was on April 23 in 1778 that John Paul Jones, the founder of the American Navy, carried out one of his most daring feats, the invasion of the English port of Whitehaven, followed by a raid on the Scottish coast near Kirkcudbright. That was the last time the British mainland was invaded. John Paul (the Jones was added later) was born on July 6, 1747, in a cottage in Arbegland near Kirkbean, Kirkcudbrightshire. At age 13 he went to Whitehaven, just across the Solway estuary, and became apprenticed to a shipowner there.

His first voyage from Whitehaven was to Virginia; later he became third mate on another Whitehaven ship engaged in the American trade. In 1773 he made America his home, and during the American War of Independence he had a number of commands in the infant American Navy.

On June 14, 1777, he was given command of the Ranger and obtained a commission from Benjamin Franklin, American ambassador in Paris, to do as much damage as he could to the shipping around Britain. Jones decided that the best way to demonstrate that America was a force to be reckoned with was to attack an English harbor and set fire to the ships. He chose Whitehaven because he knew it very well and it was then one of England's busiest ports.

Jones arrived off Whitehaven on the night of April 22, 1778, and at dawn led a raiding party in two boats. He landed in the south quay, put out of action a small fort and battery, spiking 36 cannon, and then set fire to a large ship called the Thompson. As there were more than 200 ships in the harbor, the situation for the British would have been very serious had the fire taken hold. But the alarm was raised by a deserter from the raiding party, they returned to their boats, and the fire was put out before it spread.

The local newspaper, the Cumberland Pacquet, in an ``Extraordinary'' edition printed the same day reported that ``all the shipping in the port was in the most imminent danger'' and that, before the fire was out, ``the scene was too horrible to admit of any further description''!

The material damage of the raid was in fact small, but the moral effect was immense. The Pacquet reported a few hours later that dispatches had already been sent to all the other main seaports in the kingdom warning about the raid and urging that every precaution be taken ``that the present alarming affair could suggest.'' The whole nation was stirred by an attack that had exposed such serious flaws in its defenses, and seacoast towns clamored for protection.

But while people were still waking up in Whitehaven on the morning of the 23rd, Jones had already embarked on another adventure. He set sail from Whitehaven for the Kirkcudbright coast, just 20 miles away, with the aim of capturing the earl of Selkirk at his house on St. Mary's Isle peninsula and using him as a hostage to get better conditions for American prisoners.

However, when he got there at 11 a.m., the earl was away. Jones was all for leaving, but his men insisted on some booty from the day and demanded the family silver. Not wanting trouble, the countess collected it up and gave them all of it, including the silver teapot, which still had tea leaves in it from breakfast.

Jones was so impressed with the countess that on May 8 he wrote a letter to her apologizing for the raid.

After the war he had the silver valued, paid the men their share out of his own pocket, and returned the silver to the Selkirks. It survived intact until 1941, when most was lost in a fire at St. Mary's Isle. But the teapot, which was not in the house, was spared and is today kept safe in a Kirkcudbright bank vault by Sir David Hope-Dunbar, a descendant of the earl.

``We have used it -- it's a good pouring pot,'' Sir David told me, as he got it out of the vault. ``But we don't use it now, because of all of the interest in it.''

Also still surviving from that April day 209 years ago is a gun called ``Long Tom,'' which is believed to have been one of those spiked by Jones at White-haven; this was recovered from the beach there in 1963 and now stands on a special site on the quay. The watchtower where he set fire to the Thompson can still be seen, and the whole center of the town, laid out in the mid-18th century, looks very much as it did then.

Now there is even an inn in Whiteha-ven called the Paul Jones Tavern, and a permanent exhibition on Jones in the Whitehaven Museum. So the name of John Paul Jones is certainly remembered in Whitehaven and Kirkcudbright -- if not exactly revered.

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