TODAY is the anniversary of an extraordinary day in British and American maritime history. It was on April 23 in 1778 that John Paul Jones, the founder of the American Navy, carried out one of his most daring feats, the invasion of the English port of Whitehaven, followed by a raid on the Scottish coast near Kirkcudbright. That was the last time the British mainland was invaded. John Paul (the Jones was added later) was born on July 6, 1747, in a cottage in Arbegland near Kirkbean, Kirkcudbrightshire. At age 13 he went to Whitehaven, just across the Solway estuary, and became apprenticed to a shipowner there.
His first voyage from Whitehaven was to Virginia; later he became third mate on another Whitehaven ship engaged in the American trade. In 1773 he made America his home, and during the American War of Independence he had a number of commands in the infant American Navy.
On June 14, 1777, he was given command of the Ranger and obtained a commission from Benjamin Franklin, American ambassador in Paris, to do as much damage as he could to the shipping around Britain. Jones decided that the best way to demonstrate that America was a force to be reckoned with was to attack an English harbor and set fire to the ships. He chose Whitehaven because he knew it very well and it was then one of England's busiest ports.
Jones arrived off Whitehaven on the night of April 22, 1778, and at dawn led a raiding party in two boats. He landed in the south quay, put out of action a small fort and battery, spiking 36 cannon, and then set fire to a large ship called the Thompson. As there were more than 200 ships in the harbor, the situation for the British would have been very serious had the fire taken hold. But the alarm was raised by a deserter from the raiding party, they returned to their boats, and the fire was put out before it spread.
The local newspaper, the Cumberland Pacquet, in an ``Extraordinary'' edition printed the same day reported that ``all the shipping in the port was in the most imminent danger'' and that, before the fire was out, ``the scene was too horrible to admit of any further description''!