It was a world war in the sense that decisive battles on land and sea were fought in India, in the Caribbean, in North America, Spain, Germany and Austria. Its repercussions were felt a century and a half later when the German Kaiser took up arms essentially against Great Britain, who had been previously victorious over both Spain and then France, in a war that was meant to end all wars.
Commander John Paul Jones was a most significant player during the American wars of independence. As a naval commander, he fought for the cause of independence of the American colonies from Britain. He was as significant as Admiral Horatio Nelson was for England, or Admiral Count d’Estrée for France. In a very real way Jones was the only player in the fledgling navy of the United States.
18th century imperialism was based on the theory that colonies existed for the good of the mother country, that they should supply the mother country with raw materials and receive back her finished products, and that they should trade with no foreign countries and nor foreign ships. This was not a wicked plan invented by the British for the purpose of oppression, but rather the way of doing things, accepted by all European countries. It was at a great cost to Britain that she was able to dislodge France from Canada in a seven year long war. This upset the balance of power in North America. The colonists woke up one morning to find themselves safer. The protection that Britain had provided them was over, but certain responsibilities remained on both sides.
The war to safeguard her colonies in North America had cost the British government £350,000 per year for 12 years, and it wanted at least some of it back. A stamp tax was imposed, which brought in about £60,000 per year. But the colonists had been at war too, they had also fought for their land. The violence of their indignation was explained not only by the stamp tax, but also by restrictions on colonial trade which had, because of the war, become quite lax.
The British had condoned smuggling, gun running and contraband when it suited the war effort. But now, with the necessity to raise money for the war debts, they had to impose the law with a firm hand.
Captain John Paul Jones was a Welshman who sailed the trade routes in the 1770s. He cruised a vast triangle from Plymouth England to Plymouth Tobago to Plymouth Massachusetts. He carried cod, timber and animal pelts one way, sugar, rum, molasses and tobacco another way, and calico, cotton, iron, nails, sugar cane machinery and finished goods yet another way. In those days, when he commanded the brigantine ‘Betsy’, his name was John Paul. He acquired the name Jones in Tobago under very unusual circumstances.
One windy October morning in 1773, the ‘Betsy’ drew in her gallants and folded her mains, and with jib and foresails she tacked towards her mooring in Rockly Bay. The signals flying from her mizzen halyard displayed the signals informing Fort King George that her cargo would be unloaded and that she would receive fresh cargo and make haste to sail to her home port, Plymouth in England. This was the cause of immediate consternation in her crew.
Several of the men were Tobagonians and glad to be home for Christmas. When John Paul announced that they would be paid not in Tobago but in England, the crew became enraged. Mutiny was the next obvious move. Captain Paul was a tall, strong man, young and vigorous and as it turned out, deadly. The first sailor who jumped upon his bridge, cutlass in hand, got 10 inches of cold steel straight through the heart. He dropped dead upon the deck of the ‘Betsy’. His second mate drew two loaded flintlocks, cocked and leveled them at the furious Tobagonian sailors.
Pandemonium reigned on board as the crew decided who was for the captain and who against. By that time, the customs cutter had come alongside and with armed officials from the harbour master’s office on board, some calm was restored. Captain John Paul was taken ashore for an interview with Lt. Governor Sir William Young.
In a letter, kept at an archive in Washington, John Paul describes the incident to Benjamin Franklin as unfortunate and goes on to relate the substance of his conversation with Sir William. The British Governor explained that there was no authority on the island to try an admiralty case, although it might have been possible to convene a vice-admiralty hearing. A civil case called by the local magistracy, comprised of Tobagonians, might not act in his favour - after all, he had killed a Tobagonian, and in a civil case, his plea for self-defense might not hold up.
After the talk to the governor, the ‘Betsy’ secretly weighed anchor and sailed away noiselessly into the darkness of the tropical night. Those of the Tobagonian crew and family members of the slain man who might have looked for John Paul the following day, only found only that the book in the harbour master’s office at Scarborough was signed John Paul Jones, skipper. Rather than facing charges for murder, John Paul had taken on a new name, which he would in fact carry to his death. The upset crew of the ‘Betsy’ never got paid for their work on the Atlantic, and skipper Jones was never seen in Tobago again.
Jones, however, was not only a scoundrel with a flaring temper. He was a mercenary. The navy in which he later served in the fledgling United States of America comprised a mere 16 fighting ships, while the British had more than 600. Yet, America’s most triumphant moments came at sea. In ship against ship fights, American frigates outclassed British ships, and American privateers captured 1,344 vessels. But the U.S. navy was too small to prevent an ultimate British blockade of the Atlantic coast, and it was on the inland lakes - Erie, Ontario and Champlain - that U.S. ships won their most strategic victories. Thereafter, a ship building race, the U.S. battle fleet more than held its own. By such stirring naval actions as the battle of Lake Erie, the U.S. prevented the British from gaining control of the lakes.