Sunday, July 6, 2008

1747 - John Paul Jones

Docked at Fort Adams, near The Museum of Yachting, the fiberglass reconstruction of the Continental Sloop Providence ("Sloop Prov E. Prov") was one of my first experiences of sailing on a ship model. Sometime in the Nineteen-Eighties, when I was known as "a Newport RI personality" (at least in Newport This Week), I volunteered to teach kids about historic sailing.
And so, I spent a few afternoons that Summer, bounding out on the bowsprit to "encourage" young people to "stop crying and make off that gasket and get back on deck. It shouldn't take forty-five minutes..."
I may have changed my training technique since then, but the crews got tougher over the years. Crewmates also didn't like to tell me they had a problem with my methods, but to this day will elaborate injudiciously on any detail, for big yuks. Because I and my more stalwart compatriots (like Large) did the work that the others wouldn't. And -- especially in Large's case -- we did it better.
Clear a jammed flag halyard on the main. Up three sets of ratlines and a shimmy to the truk and back before either the First Mate got his shoes on or the event's sponsor ever knew there was an issue. Clean up the evidence of seasickness or drunkenness from around the heads. Dress up like an Eighteenth Century hand every day and try to teach tourists some history. Explain to incredulous and ignorant higher-ups why up-to-date charts and other information are important while not blaming a crewmate who "forgot" to provide said information. Spend days off trying to figure out how an organization can be so dysfunctional.

Born on this date in Scotland, the Captain of the original Providence (née Katy) never rose above that rank, probably since he did not suffer fools gladly but did mouth off freely at every twit and self-important incompetent that he met. Cruel history makes ugly claims about Jones, sometimes postulating that the only reason he got a ship in the Continental Navy was because of a "shortage" of commanders. The truth is that there were too many "commanders" who thought that "command" meant "cringe and fawn in order to get to navigate from one clean port to another flush commission."
Jones was always under some manner of misgiving, fomented by gossips and goons. And as far as he was concerned, anyone who wasn't serving his country, family, chief, or currency must be a gossip or goon. His loyalty was to the task at hand, and it mattered not one whit if that task were winning a naval battle or delivering a cargo. Anyone who compromised the mission -- by laziness, inadequacy, irresponsibility, ignorance, or unawareness -- was just as guilty of mutiny as any other pirate.
Of course, the British papers called him "a pirate," even when he made every effort to fight like a gentleman, and worthy opponents recognized that.
But, he was not the humble, warm, patient, and fatherly "Cap'n." So calling him "Father of the Navy" seems like faint praise, given his self-assuredness.
But he's the one who could pull off audacious stunts. Like the time when he rowed, under cover of night, to an enemy ship and painted a target on the hull so that his men would know which one to hit in the morning.
Some people remember the line "I have not yet begun to fight" as being the brave rejoinder of the scrappy skipper of an outmatched boat, to an opposing captain's query ("Do you ask for quarter?" roughly:'Will you beg for clemency as you surrender?').
According to Jones, he had no idea what the captain of the Serapis was talking about, since the battle seemed to be going on quite well, what with his firing three cannon by himself and all. He answered, "Je ne songe point a me rendre, mais je suis determiné a vous faire demander quartier."
Basically: "The idea hadn't occurred to me, but I am pretty set on you asking ME for clemency as YOU surrender."
A little more smart-ass in any case.
Captain John Paul Jones by Newell Convers Wyeth

On the floor in front of his tomb in the United Naval Academy Chapel, Annapolis, Maryland, is this inscription:


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