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John Paul Jones
Chapter VI - 1777


PAUL could not forget that time was flying, and controlled his impatience with difficulty, so keen was his desire to be once more at sea. Every rope, every spar he had inspected, every gun tested, for some of them had been cast in America, which was a new venture, and their worth had yet to be proved. His simple cabin bore traces of the handiwork of his feminine admirers, in those artless trifles which show such good-will and collect so much dust. The wiseacres predicted the Ranger could not weather the October gales, so top-heavy was she; advised Captain Jones to follow time-honoured precedent and cut down her masts, or Davy Jones's locker would be his portion. But the Captain had never known failure; he was young, and thirsting for adventure, as were the crew, which he describes as "the best I have ever seen, and I believe the best crew afloat; nearly all are native Americans, and the proportion of able seamen to the total is much beyond the average."

There was the usual fly in the ointment, for the United States treasury was so poor there was the greatest difficulty in getting materials for sails, and Jones complains of the heavy gales while at anchor. "The ship with difficulty rides it out, with yards and top-masts struck, and whole cable ahead. When it clears up I expect the wind from the northwest, and shall not fail to embrace it, although I have not now a spare sail, nor materials to make one. Some of those I have are made of hissings. I never had so disagreeable a service to perform as that which I have now accomplished, and of which another will claim the credit as well as the profit. However, in doing my utmost I am sensible that I have done no more than my duty." The deepest lament wrung from the unconquerable captain is, that the "best crew I ever saw" would be limited to the entirely insufficient ration of "only thirty gallons of rum for the voyage."

A large number of the crew were Portsmouth men, which deepened the interest in the venture, and the fame of Jones promised a rich harvest from the sea if all went well. There had been the usual haggling in Congress about the allotment of the prizes, and a reluctance in complying with the glowing terms offered in the handbills posted about to entice sailors to enlist. As soon as Jones arrived to take over the Ranger, he was confronted with the dissatisfaction of forty-three men, who had been enlisted there, "caught by the misstatements as to 'ship money and advances," which could not be carried out " under the regulations of Congress." Jones knew that " no such achievements are possible to an unhappy ship with a sullen crew," and instantly set about to right the grievance by addressing a letter to the men through Lieutenant Hall.

"I would not deceive any man who has entered or may enter to serve under my command. I consider myself as being under a personal obligation to these brave men who have cheerfully enlisted to serve with me, and I accept their act as proof of their good opinion of me, which I so highly value that I cannot permit it to be dampened in the least degree by misunderstanding or failure to perform engagements. If necessary, or to whatever extent it may be necessary, I will personally undertake, after exhausting my proper powers in their behalf under the regulations, to make good at my own risk any remainder. I wish all my men to be happy and contented. The conditions of the handbills will be strictly complied with."

To put matters on a satisfactory footing, Jones advanced one hundred and forty-seven guineas out of his own pocket, the repayment of which was delayed until 1782. This represented the difference between the 360 which the men should have received, at the rate of eight pounds apiece for thirty able seamen, and four pounds apiece for thirteen landsmen and boys, and the sum allowed them by Congress.

Jones impatiently awaited the despatches he was to carry to France, the contents as yet being a dark secret, though Robert Morris hinted their purport to be of immense political significance. The Marine Committee had selected the Ranger for this mission as she was a fast sailer, and their experience of her captain convinced them that if human power could achieve that end, the despatches would be safely delivered at their destination; for the vehement Paul was at last beginning to receive some recognition of his fearlessness and intrepidity from those who controlled the United States Navy. The few trial cruises Jones had made in the Ranger to "shake down his crew, set up his rigging, test the set of his sails, and find out the best trim of his ship" proved so satisfactory that, save for the lack of a good many essentials, the Captain was able to congratulate himself on the shipshapeness of the Ranger and her crew.

At last the news came that on October 17, 1777, General Bourgoyne's forces had surrendered. With incredible swiftness couriers spread the tidings over the country. From Stillwater to Portsmouth is over one hundred and forty miles as the crow flies, and a good hundred and seventy by the uncertain roads, and the news reached Portsmouth in thirty hours; brought by one courier, who ate and slept in the saddle, dismounting only to change horses."

It was not until midnight of the 31st of October that the official despatches were placed in Paul Jones's hands, and before the dawn the Ranger had dropped downstream, and was clear of the Isle of Shoals, ten miles off the coast, going free, course east by south, half east, wind north-west, blowing fresh, the sea cross and choppy from an old swell of an easterly gale two days before. "I will spread this news in France in thirty days," Jones wrote on the receipt for the despatches, which the messenger took back in the "shore boat," listening enviously to the hearty cheer which rang out on the cold, clear air as the Painter was cast off, and the little boat bobbed about in the wake left by the swift-sailing Ranger.

During the last two days' run I took two prizes bound from Madeira and Malaga respectively, with wines and dried fruit, etc., for London. I sent one to Brest and convoyed the other to Nantes," he informed the Marine Committee, stating at the same time his reason for selecting a northerly course, "which would be free from the enemy's cruisers at this time of year," being aware that the great object of the voyage was to deliver the important news at the earliest moment in France; not "wishing to be chased out of my course by the enemy's frigates with the necessary accompanying risk of being captured or destroyed." His judgment was not at fault. They met with no hindrance of any sort; no ship being sighted until, two days' run west of Ushant, they "spoke a Dutch East Indiaman in the Bay of Biscay. I informed the Dutch captain of the surrender of Bourgoyne, and requested him to repeat the intelligence with my compliments to any British captain he might fall in with," he concludes, with a personal touch enlivening in a dry official despatch.

Paul Jones left no record except the Ranger's log, but Lieutenant Hall gives details, far from uninteresting, of that "terrific voyage."

"I had sailed with many ea4ins in all kinds of voyages, but I had never seen a ship crowded as Captain Jones drove the Ranger. . . . Captain Jones held to his northerly course as time was the object, though the wind was adverse, and stuck grimly to his great circle, drawn between 470 and 500 North. As the wind hung all the time between north-north-east and cast-north-east with but a few veerings outside those points, it was always forward of the beam on the true course, and often near dead ahead. Imagine, then, the situation of the Ranger's crew, with a top- heavy and crank ship under their feet, and a commander who day and night insisted on every rag she could stagger under without laying clear down!

As it was, she came close to beam ends more than once, and on one occasion righted only by letting fly sheets cut with hatchets. During all this trying work Captain Jones was his own navigating officer, keeping the deck eighteen or twenty hours out of every twenty-four, often serving extra grog to the men with his own hands, and by his example silencing all disposition to grumble. In the worst of it the watch was lap-watched so that the men would be eight hours on and four off; but no one complained."

Mr. Hall was right when he says, "It speaks well alike for commander and crew that not a man was punished, or even severely reprimanded, during this 'terrific voyage.'" It would, indeed, have kept Satan on the alert to discover those "idle hands" for which he so obligingly finds employment. Hard pressed as the crew were, they had time for an occasional "sing-song," and Midshipman Chancy Hill produced a song, on which Jones comments, "that while the text is rude in some parts and the language in one line not quite polite," was a great favourite in the fore-castle, and afterwards throughout the Revolutionary Navy. One verse, of which, alas! we have not the tune, is as follows:-

"SONG OF THE RANGER

"Carry the News to London

"So now we had him hard and fast,
Bourgoyne laid down his Arms at Last,
And that is why we brave the blast,
To carry the news to London
Heigh-ho! carry the News
Go! Carry the News to London.
Tell old King George he's undone!
Heigh-ho! carry the News!"

A truly rollicking chorus, startling the fishes from their after-dinner slumbers, as the Ranger cut through the water, bent on her mission, "To Carry the News to London."

There was only one accident, Solomon Hutchings, who had his leg broken by a "spar getting adrift." There was not a soul on the sick list throughout the voyage, and the Captain concluded his report with the information: "I shall have the honour of calling your attention more particularly to the excellent behaviour of all my officers and men in a later report. For the present suffice to say, that without exception their conduct left nothing to be desired."

The "terrific voyage" ended when the Ranger dropped anchor in the Loire, below Nantes, at sunset, on the 2nd of December, 1777, and the ambitious Scotchman felt that at last the nebulous dreams of years were about to materialise.


 


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