John Paul Jones at Whitehaven Coast


John Paul Jones at Whitehaven

Neil Oliver discovers why a delegation from the US Navy is sent over to the port of Whitehaven every year to honour the Scot John Paul Jones.


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Every year a delegation from the US Navy visits the town of Whitehaven.

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These American sailors come to honour a Scot - a man from my home patch, Dumfriesshire.

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His name, John Paul Jones.

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In November 1777, with the War of Independence in its second year,

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emigre Scot John Paul Jones set sail from Portsmouth, New Hampshire with an outrageous plan -

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to attack the British Empire on its home ground.

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His objective was the town of Whitehaven, then an important trading port.

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It was a place he knew well, serving his sailing apprenticeship there before leaving for the colonies.

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In the early hours of April 23rd, 1778, John Paul Jones was back.

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With his ship anchored off the coast, the plan was to row into the harbour and wreak havoc in the town.

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The group split into two teams. The first, led by John Paul Jones,

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headed south to disable the town's armoury of cannons.

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The second headed north.

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Their mission, to set fire to the town's entire fleet of boats.

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With daybreak, the town of Whitehaven awoke to find it had been invaded by the American Navy.

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And, ever since, arguments have raged about what actually happened that night over 200 years ago.

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Local historian Gerard Richardson has his version.

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Jones took his boat down to the south end of the harbour,

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-probably landed on the beach.

-On that beach that we see now?

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And then he took his crew and physically climbed

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into the fort itself, to spike the cannons, to prevent anybody firing.

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The second vessel came along into the harbour itself.

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Legend has it they came up the harbour steps which are just below us.

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The intention of those guys was to actually set fire to all the colliers that were in harbour.

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There was a full trading fleet moored in Whitehaven that night -

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wooden sailing ships laden with coal.

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The entire harbour was a tinderbox and John Paul Jones's men had the matches.

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It would take only one good spark for the fire to take hold, creating an inferno.

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In the words of Jones himself,

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"Not a single ship of more than 200 could have escaped,

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"and the whole world would not have been able to save the town."

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But none of this actually happened.

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And why not depends on your point of view.

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I have an account here, the Lloyd's Evening Post,

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and it says that John Paul Jones's men proceeded to Nick Allison's,

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a public house on the old quay, and they made very free with the liquor.

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Nicholas Allison's is below us, this old cottage-looking building.

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Doesn't sound like the behaviour of men intent on invasion.

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-No, it doesn't.

-Of course, the Americans see it differently.

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The raid on Whitehaven was not a tactical victory,

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in large part because of the Cumbrian weather.

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A torrential rain, which is not all that unusual here, doused their matches,

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put out their fires, you could not have lit a cigarette.

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The strategic value of the raid on Whitehaven was that it moved 40 ships of the Royal Navy away

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from the eastern seaboard of the United States to the home waters,

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to counter the fear and anxiety that rebels were right over the horizon.

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That raid was a spectacular failure, an international drunken shambles.

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It achieved absolutely nothing.

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So let it be known to all men that all grievances

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in connection with this daring raid on this port have been dropped against John Paul Jones

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and his men and we do welcome, for all time, the Navy of the United States, together with their citizens.

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In terms of the UK, John Paul Jones's largely unknown

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and yet, in Whitehaven, we have taken him completely to heart.

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He is a rogue, a lovable rogue, he is our rogue.

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And he single-handedly launched an entire tourist attraction.

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Thank you, John Paul!

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It looks like whoever writes history owns it.

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And what is written on one side of the ocean may be very different on the other.

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