No action of Paul Jones's chequered career has
been the theme of more controversy than the descent on St. Mary's Isle,
a beautifully wooded promontory in the river Dee, about a mile from
Kirkcudbright, belonging to the Earl of Selkirk.
Despite the ridiculous stories prevalent,
Jones had no grudge against this nobleman, whom he had never seen. He
hoped to carry off Lord Selkirk, hold him prisoner of war, and use him
as a pawn in negotiating the release and better treatment of American
prisoners. There was no ulterior motive in the whole transaction, which
he explains to Lady Selkirk in the letter which has been published far
and wide. He did not make his descent on St. Mary's Isle with intent to
plunder, and always regretted that he could not make the love of glory
greater than gain in the breasts of those who fought with him; for,
under the rules of war, he had no right to object to the seizure of Lady
Of course he had the tremendous advantage
of knowing every yard of the coast, and was his own pilot. After leaving
Whitehaven he headed for the north shore, up Solway Firth, about three
hours' sail with the wind favourable. Tie wrote Mr. Hewes, that by
making two descents, thirty or forty miles apart in so short a
time--practically the same day—he would give the idea that a large fleet
of American ships was hovering about the coast. He landed on St. Mary's
Isle with one boat and twelve men, proceeding unmolested to the castle.
Learning that Lord Selkirk was not at home, and the object of his visit
fruitless, Jones wished to retire to the Ranger, but this the men, not
having the same contempt for booty, were unwilling to do.
Out of respect to the emphatic commands
of their captain they offered no violence, mostly remaining in the hall,
while a deputation waited on Lady Selkirk, who was at breakfast,
requesting that she would deliver to them all the plate and valuables in
the establishment. This she ordered the butler to do, but the treasures
at St. Mary's were the result of centuries of collecting, and, from the
value of what they carried away, it is clearly shown that the old
retainer obeyed his mistress's order with some mental reservations of
his own. Even the tea-pot, from which the family were pouring that "cup
which cheers, not inebriates," was hastily emptied to add to the spoils;
and, it is said, on its return to the Selkirks, some years later, the
original tea-leaves still remained in the pot!
For some time after leaving St. Mary's
Isle Jones was too fully occupied to concern himself with the theft of
the plate, but, on arriving at Brest, he wrote the following explanatory
letter to Lady Selkirk-
Ranger, Brest, May 8, 1778.
"It cannot be too much lamented that in the profession of arms the
officer of fine feelings and real sensibility should be under the
necessity of winking at any action of persons under his command which
his heart cannot approve; but the reflection is doubly severe when he
finds himself obliged, in appearance, to countenance such acts by his
"This hard case was mine, when, on the
23rd of April last, I landed on St. Mary's Isle. Knowing Lord Selkirk's
interest with the King, and esteeming, as I do, his private character, I
wished to make him the happy instrument of alleviating the horrors of
hopeless captivity, when the brave are overpowered and made prisoners of
"It was, perhaps, fortunate for you,
Madame, that he was from home, for it was my intention to have taken him
on board the Ranger, and to have detained him until, through his means,
a general and fair exchange of prisoners, as well in Europe as in
America, had been effected. When I was informed by some men whom I met
at landing that his Lordship was absent, I walked back to my boat,
determined to leave the island. By the way, however, some officers, who
were with me, could not forbear expressing their discontent, observing
that, in America, no delicacy was shown by the English, who took away
all sorts of movable property, setting fire, not only to towns and to
the houses of the rich, without distinction, but not even sparing the
wretched hamlets and much-cows of the poor and helpless, at the approach
of an inclement winter. That party had been with me the same morning at
Whitehaven; some complaisance, therefore, was their due. I had but a
moment to think how I might gratify them, and at the same time do your
Ladyship the least injury. I charged the officers to permit none of the
seamen to enter the house, or to hurt anything about it; to treat you,
Madame, with the utmost respect; to accept of the plate which was
offered, and to come away without making a search, or demanding anything
I am induced to believe that I was punctually obeyed, since I am
informed that the plate which they brought away is far short of the
quantity expressed in the inventory which accompanied it. I have
gratified my men; and, when the plate is sold, I shall become the
purchaser, and will gratify my own feelings by restoring it to you by
such conveyance as you shall please to direct.
"Had the Earl been on board the Ranger
the following evening he would have seen the awful pomp and dreadful
carnage of a sea engagement, both affording ample subject for the pencil
as well as melancholy reflections for the contemplative mind. Humanity
starts back from such scenes of horror, and cannot sufficiently execrate
the vile promoters of this detestable war—
For they, 'twas they,
unsheathed the ruthless blade,
And Heaven shall ask the havoc it has made.'
The British ship-of war Drake, mounting
twenty guns, with more than her full complement of officers and men, was
Our opponent. The ships met, and the advantage was disputed with great
fortitude on each side for an hour and four minutes, when the gallant
commander of the Drake fell, and victory declared in favour of the
Ranger. The amiable lieutenant lay mortally wounded, besides near forty
of the inferior officers and crew killed and wounded--a melancholy
demonstration of the uncertainty of human prospects and of the sad
reverse of fortune which an hour can produce. I buried them in a
spacious grave, with the honours due to the memory of the brave.
"Though I have drawn my sword in the
present generous struggle for the rights of men, yet I am not in arms as
an American, nor am I in pursuit of riches. My fortune is liberal
enough, having no wife or family, and having lived long enough to know
that riches cannot insure happiness. I profess myself a citizen of the
world, totally unfettered by the little, mean distinctions of climate or
of country, which diminish the benevolence of the heart and set bounds
to philanthropy. Before this war began I had at the early time of life
withdrawn from the sea-service in favour of 'calm contemplation and
poetic ease.' I have sacrificed not only my favourite scheme of life,
but the softer affections of the heart and my prospects of domestic
happiness, and I am ready to sacrifice my life also with cheerfulness,
if that forfeiture could restore peace and goodwill among mankind.
As the feelings of your gentle bosom
cannot but be congenial with mine, let me entreat you, Madame, to use
your persuasive art with your husband to endeavour to stop this cruel
and destructive war, in which Britain can never succeed. Heaven can
never countenance the barbarous and unmanly practice of the Britons in
America, which savages would blush at, and which, if not discontinued,
will soon be retaliated on Britain by a justly enraged people. Should
you fail in this (for I am persuaded that you will attempt it, and who
can resist the power of such an advocate?) your endeavours to effect a
general exchange of prisoners will be an act of humanity which will
afford you golden feelings on a death-bed.
I hope this cruel contest will soon be
closed; but should it continue, I will wage no war with the fair. I will
acknowledge their force and bend before it with submission. Let not,
therefore, the amiable Countess of Selkirk regard me as an enemy; I am
ambitious of her esteem and friendship, and would do anything,
consistent with my duty, to merit it.
"The honour of a line from your hand in
answer to this will lay me under a singular obligation; and if I can
render you any acceptable service in France or elsewhere I hope you will
see into my character so far as to command mc without the least grain of
I wish to know exactly the behaviour of
my people, as I am determined to punish them if they have exceeded their
liberty. I have the honour to be, with much esteem and with profound
respect, Madame, etc., etc.,
"JOHN PAUL JONES.
To the Countess of Selkirk."
The correspondence occasioned by the
seizure of the Selkirk plate became voluminous, lasting several years.
Paul Jones had pledged his personal honour to restore the plate, "which
was very old, and fashion of it not worth a straw, especially in France,
where none such was used," hut, once in the harpy claws of commissaries
and prize agents, it required all his disinterestedness to wrest the
plate from them, even by paying, lie says, "more than the value," which
was something between £140 and £150, showing that a very small part of
the Selkirk plate really left the castle. It was valued and re-valued,
and occasioned more trouble and expense than it was intrinsically worth,
had not Jones considered his honour pledged for its safe restoration.
Father John, an Irish priest, chaplain to
Comte d'Orvillers, then commanding a fleet lying off Brest, helped him
greatly in the matter, the delay of which exasperated the Captain. So
justly provoked was he about this affair, and the sordid spirit of the
that in the very temper of Hotspur we
find him exclaiming: ' I will not abate the thousandth part of a sot of
the three twentieths of prizes, which no man in America ever presumed to
dispute as being my just and proper right, and which no rascal in Europe
shall presume to dispute with impunity! To whom, since I was myself
Commander-in--Chief, would this old fool decree the three twentieths?
Perhaps to his dear self, who is puffed up with the idea of his right to
secure the 'property of captures.' "
Dr. Franklin approved Jones's stand,
saying that it "was a gallant letter, which must give her ladyship a
high opinion of his generosity and nobleness of mind." Lord Selkirk
answered the letter, saying he would accept the plate if returned by
order of Congress, but not "if redeemed by individual generosity."
Through a chain of circumstances this letter never reached Jones, being
detained several months in the General Post Office in London, and
finally returned to the writer. Immediately Selkirk asked a friend to
tell Dr. Franklin the contents, as this seemed the easiest way to ensure
his reply reaching Paul Jones.
In 1780 the latter got possession of the
plate, but it was not until four years later he was able to restore it
to the owners. In a letter to Lady Selkirk, under the date of March 1,
1780, he alludes to the information conveyed to him by Lord Selkirk's
friend, Mr. Alexander, as to the non-arrival of the letter, also that he
had been for the greater part of the time absent from the kingdom. He.
has "the great satisfaction to inform her that Congress has relinquished
their real or supposed interest in the plate, and, for my own part, I
scorn to add to my fortune by such an acquisition. As for the part
claimed by the few men who landed with me on St. Mary's Isle it is of
little consequence, and they are already satisfied. Thus you see,
Madame, the objection is removed."
In February 1784 Paul explains to Lord
Selkirk that the plate is "lodged in the hands of Messrs. Gourlade and
Moylan," mentioning a letter from Mr. Nesbitt, who had been informed by
Selkirk's son, Lord Daer, "that Lord Selkirk had agreed to its being
restored, and forwarded to the care of your sister-in- law, the Countess
of Morton, in London," which all seems simple and easy, though there was
a lot of red tape to be untied before the family tea-pot--with the
leaves still in it—was once again seen upon the breakfast table.
Paul received a very flattering letter
from M. de Calonne, who alluded to one Paul had written, asking
permission "to transport by land from l'Orient to Calais, the plate of
Lady Selkirk, which you had permitted to be taken by your people during
the late war, and which you afterwards purchased to return to her
That action, sir, is worthy of the
reputation which you acquired by your conduct, and proves that true
valour perfectly agrees with humanity and generosity."
De Calonne tells Paul that he has "given
orders to the Farmers General to permit the transportation of the plate
from l'Orient to Calais, free of duty, and you may write to your
correspondent at l'Orient to deliver it to the director of the posts,
who will take upon himself the care of having it transported to Calais,
and to fulfil all the necessary formalities. The Duke of Dorset has been
so obliging as to write to the Custom House at Dover, requesting them to
let it pass to London without being opened." So, at last, the plate
seemed to be in a fair way to be restored to its rightful owners.
Jones wrote apologetically to Lord
Selkirk for the length of time the plate had been detained, and alludes
to his motive for wishing to take him prisoner.
You observed to Mr. Alexander, 'that my
idea was a mistaken one, because you were not (as I had supposed) in
favour with the British government, Who knew you favoured in the cause
of liberty.' On that account I am glad that you were absent from your
estate when I landed there, as I bore you no personal enmity, but the
contrary towards you.
"As I have endeavoured to serve the cause
of liberty, through every stage of the American Revolution, and
sacrificed to it my private ease, a part of my fortune, and some of my
blood, I could have no selfish motive in permitting my people to demand
and carry off your plate. My sole inducement was to turn their attention
and stop their rage from breaking out, and retaliating on your home and
effects the wanton burnings and desolation that had been committed
against their relations and fellow-citizens in America by the British;
of which I assure you, you would have felt the severe consequences had I
not fallen on an expedient to prevent it, and hurried my people away
before they had time for further reflection. As you were so obliging as
to say to Mr. Alexander that 'my People behaved with great decency at
your house,' I ask the favour of you to announce that circumstance to
the public. . I am, etc."
So many slurs have been east on Paul
Jones over this incident, that it is but just to quote Lord Selkirk's
reply, the tone of which proves there was no grudge in his personal
feelings toward the Commander, who had merely acted in accordance with
the customs of war—
London, August 4, 1789.
"MONSIEUR LE CHEVALIER PAUL JONES, A
"I have received the letter you wrote me at the time you sent off my
plate, in order for restoring it. Had I known where to direct a letter
to you, at the time it arrived in Scotland, I would have then wrote to
you; but not knowing it, nor finding that any of my acquaintance at
Edinburgh knew it, I was obliged to delay writing till I came here;
when, by means of a gentleman connected with America, I was told that M.
le Grand was your banker at Paris, and would take proper care of a
letter for you; therefore I enclose this to him.
"Notwithstanding all the precautions you
took for the easy and uninterrupted conveyance of the plate, yet it met
with considerable delays, first at Calais, next at Dover, then at
London. However, it at last arrived at Dumfries, and, I dare say, quite
safe, though as yet I have not seen it, being then at Edinburgh.
"I intended to have put an article in the
newspapers about your having returned it; but before I was informed of
its being arrived some of your friends, I suppose, had it put in the
Dumfries newspaper, whence it was immediately copied into the Edinburgh
papers, and thence into the London ones.
"Since that time I have mentioned it to
many people of fashion; and on all occasions, sir, both now and
formerly, I have done you the justice to tell that you made an offer of
returning the plate very soon after your return to Brest, and although
you yourself were not at my house, but remained at the shore with your
boat, that yet you had your officers and men in such extraordinary good
discipline, that you having given them the strictest orders to behave
well, to do no injury of any kind, to make no search, but only to bring
off what plate was given them; that in reality they did exactly as
ordered, and that not one man offered to stir from his post on the
outside of the house, nor entered the doors, nor said an uncivil word;
that the two officers stood not a quarter of an hour in the parlour and
butler's pantry while the butler got the plate together; behaved
politely, and asked for nothing but the plate, and instantly marched
their men off in regular order; and that both officers and men behaved
in all respects so well, that it would have done credit to the best
disciplined troops whatever.
Some of the English newspapers at that
time having put in confused accounts of your expedition to Whitehaven
and Scotland, I ordered a proper one of what happened in Scotland to be
put in the London newspapers, by a gentleman who was then at my house,
by which the good conduct and civil behaviour of your officers and men
were done justice to, and attributed to your orders and the good
discipline you maintained over your people.
"I am, Sir, your most humble servant,