Friday, 6 July 2012

John Paul Jones and the birth of a nation

The creation of founding myths based around strong historical figures is nationalist 101. People and stories from the past are used to define the characteristics of the nation which the leaders want to promote. Borrowing and reshaping historical figures who might sit awkwardly in the present is also standard operating procedure - the Soviet regime, notionally proletarian, was happy to honour the actions of Tsars and noblemen from bygone days.

Today is 6 July, birth date of the Scotsman tagged as "Father of the American Navy". John Paul Jones was not of course the true "father" of the US Navy - he joined only as second-in-command of one of the USN's first ships in December 1775. The Navy's originators were arguably the members of the Rhode Island assembly who passed a motion in August 1775 calling "for building at the Continental expense a fleet of sufficient force, for the protection of these colonies, and for employing them in such a manner and places as will most effectively annoy our enemies..."

Why then was his body repatriated in 1905 to the US, with full military honours, and why is his tomb still guarded today by cadets from the US Naval Academy?

     Source: Wikimedia

The answer of course is that what he did during the War for Independence was so audacious that his character has imprinted itself on the USN's consciousness - like Nelson did later for the Royal Navy. Unlike in the UK though, the USN retains a special place in the national consciousness. It is the armed service which first declared American independence directly to Europe and continues to define American might abroad.

That declaration of independence was thanks to the personal willpower and daring of John Paul Jones who by now a commander, took his ship, USS Ranger across the Atlantic to strike Great Britain in its home waters. Leaving America in November 1777 for a base in France, Ranger raided Whitehaven and the Solway Firth, with his first war cruise culminating in the capture of HMS Drake in April 1778.

Greater was to come though. On 23 September 1779, this time in command of the 42-gun USS Bonhomme Richard, off Flamborough Head on the east cost of England, he uttered the immortal words "I have not yet begun to fight" when asked by the captain of the 50-gun HMS Serapis if he had surrendered, as the Bonhomme Richard began to sink and his subordinates decided to lower the American flag. Taking charge and rousing the crew in a do-or-die response he turned around the course of battle which ended with the surrender of the Serapis.

John Paul Jones' naval campaign in British home waters did not win the military contest in the way that Trafalgar in 1805 demarcated the Napoleonic War. But it did define the birth of a nation and showed to the Old World, on their doorstep, that America was ready and willing to fight for its future.

For that reason he has entered US mythology, it is no mistake that the names of the two ships with which he won glory, have been reused to pass some of that honour onto later ships embodying American might abroad.

USS Ranger 1957-93                 USS Bonhomme Richard 1998-present

Source: Wikimedia

How should Scotland remember John Paul Jones though? He was born in Scotland and served the British merchant marine until 1773 when he came to live in British America. That said, he was prepared to shed blood of his recent fellow sailors for the general principle of independence and self-rule.

John Paul Jones fits as but one character within Scotland's long naval heritage, recognised on the world stage, but mainly created by sailors serving in the post-1707 Royal Navy*. Unlike the Soviets, we ought not to deny or gloss over that historical fact - Scots have proven themselves to be some of the greatest naval commanders the world has known - but in the service of nations other than an independent Scotland.

What does the military and naval heritage of Scots matter to Scotland today then? The answer is simply that it underlines that Scotland's global contributions are often way in excess of the size of its population. Shackled to a now-decaying England, it points again to the latent potential in Scotland that independence can unleash.

Independence "So Whats?"
1. A Scot is honoured as the central historical figure for the US Navy - the ultimate expression of American might abroad - we have powerful cultural connections to an institution which counts in the USA
2. Scottish military heritage speaks to the potential of Scotland
3. Geography and individuals' histories mean Scotland is just as much, if not more, a "maritime" nation than England. 

*Not to be forgotten are:
Thomas Gordon (1658-1741), one of founders of Russian Navy
Samuel Greig (1736-1788), Russian Navy reformer, fought for Russia against Turks and Swedes
Adam Duncan (1731-1804), Victor of Battle of Camperdown in 1797, which broke the power of Britain's premier Northern naval rival, Holland, and meant that victory at Trafalgar was the final one needed over Napoleonic forces.
Thomas Cochrane (1775-1860), Frigate captain on whom CS Forrester's Hornblower and Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey novels were based. Radical politician who was framed by Establishment for stock market manipulation, sent to gaol, expelled from the RN. Subsequently became naval commander of Chile, then later Brazil in their independence wars. Also later directed Greek Navy in war of independence from Ottoman Empire. Truth is stranger than fiction.


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