In “Turning Point in Tobago” Debbie Jacob writes about the disreputable life John Paul Jones led in the Caribbean before he became a hero of the American Revolution. She states that Jones “was a Casanova with sea legs” that charmed politicians and ladies from Europe to the Caribbean, adding that, “In the Age of Sail, when one man’s outlaw buccaneer was another man’s hero, the ambitious, hot-tempered Scot became a contemptuous pirate to the British, and a decorated hero to the Americans.”
Born in Kirkcudbright, Scotland on July 6, 1747, Jones apprenticed himself at age 13 (as John Paul) for seven years to the captain of the brig Friendship. After crossing the Atlantic eight times, he had to find another job, as the Friendship had to be sold. He worked for three years on the slavers King George and Two Friends, ships that sailed the Middle Passage to deliver slaves to the Caribbean. Since he hated the work, he asked to be paid off in Jamaica. On his way home to Scotland, the captain and the first mate of the ship died and at 21, Jones became the unpopular captain of the John.
In 1770, on his second voyage as captain of the John, Jones’ infamous temper surfaced. He ordered the flogging of the ship’s carpenter, Mungo Maxwell. Although he was not found guilty in Tobago, where Maxwell filed charges, he was arrested as soon as he set foot in Kirkcudbright, where the plaintiff’s father was a prominent figure. Jones posted bail and was able to clear his name with letters from the Admiralty Court of Tobago and from the captain of the ship that Maxwell took to sail home, which stated that Maxwell had died of a fever and not from the wounds inflicted by Jones. This same year, Jones joined the Masons.
After clearing his name, Jones returned to Tobago in 1773 as captain of the Betsy. Unfortunately, his temper would get the best of him once again; faced by his mutinous crew, whom he refused to pay until their return to Britain, Jones “accidentally” killed the crew’s ringleader. Jones claimed that his assailant rushed forward with a cudgel, “the fatal and unavoidable consequence of which was his rushing upon the sword” that he happened to have picked up. Although he had investments in Tobago, Jones fled the island and traveled incognito. It is not known where he went between Tobago and Virginia, but legend has it that he operated as a pirate for some time before turning up in Fredericksburg in 1774.
In Virginia, he befriended Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, “courted southern belles,” and joined the American Revolution. In 1775, he was commissioned first lieutenant in the Continental Navy, and he was well on his way to becoming a legend of the Revolutionary War.