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The Last Invasion of Britain? May 5, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

It is sometimes said that the last invasion of Britain took place 22 April 1778 at Whitehaven in Cumbria. On that date, John Paul Jones, a Scot and an American patriot led his ship, the USS Ranger, against the small Lakeland Port (another post, another day) in an unlikely annex to the War of Independence. However, this was not the last invasion on British soil, for the simple reason that Jones himself launched a later attack on St Mary’s Isle on the Solway Firth in Scotland (pictured). So obscure is this raid that even its date is not clear: it was probably carried out 24 or 25 of the same month. However, Jones’ logic in attacking was straightforward enough. Dunbar Douglas 4th  earl of Selkirk had his home on the isle and Jones wanted prisoners, particularly important unionists. It should also be mentioned that Jones’ father had worked for the Earl’s family: there may have been a bit of Freudianism in this descent. The true last invasion of Britain began, in any case, as an attempt at kidnapping and ended as something rather different. Here are Jones’ own words.

On my return on board the Ranger [after Whitehaven], the wind being favorable, I set sail for the coast of Scotland. It was my intention to take the earl of Selkirk prisoner, and detain his lordship as hostage, in conformity to the project already mentioned. It was with this view about noon of the same day I landed on that nobleman’s estate, with two officers and a few men. In the course, of my progress, I fell in with some of the inhabitants, who, taking me for an Englishman, observed that lord Selkirk was then in London, but that her ladyship and several ladies were at the castle.

Note that this ‘invasion’ was so fearsome that the locals did not even realise that they were being attacked! We then have evidence of that strange ‘keep-the-gloves-on’ chivalry that generally characterised the American forces, though not sadly always British forces, in that war.

On this [news], I determined to return: but such moderate conduct was not comfortable to the wishes of my people, who were disposed to pillage, burn, and destroy every thing, in imitation of the conduct of the English towards the Americans. Although I was not disposed to copy such horrid proceedings, more especially when a lady was in question, it was yet necessary to recur to such means as should satisfy their cupidity, and at the same time, provide for Lady Selkirk’s safety. It immediately appeared to me, to be the most proper mode to give orders to the two officers to repair to the castle with the men, who were to remain on the outside under arms, while they themselves entered alone. They were then instructed to enter, and demand the family plate, in a polite manner, accepting whatever was offered them, and then to return, without making any further inquiries, or attempting to search for more.

It should be mentioned that Jones had serious problems with his crew who were a mutinous bunch. After this pleasant interlude in Scotland, indeed, Jones reports that he ‘ran no small risk of being either killed or thrown into the sea’ by his sailors and officers.

I was punctually obeyed; the plate was delivered; lady Selkirk herself observed to the officers, that she was exceedingly sensible of my moderation; she even intimated a wish to repair to the shore although a mile distance from her residence, in order to invite me to dinner; but the officers would not allow her ladyship to take so much trouble.

Next we see the strangely quixotic character of Jones himself. A savage man at times, who had flogged, earlier in his life, a sailor to death and who would later be accused of rape, he could also act like the perfect Scottish gentleman: he despised, for example, slavery.

At the time I had been obliged to permit my people to take Lady Selkirk’s plate, I determined to redeem it out of my own funds the moment it should be sold and restore it to the family. Accordingly, on my arrival at Brest, I instantly dispatched a most pathetic letter to her ladyship, in which I detailed the motives of my expedition, and the cruel necessary I was under in consequence of the English in America, to inflict the punishment of retaliation. This was sent open to the post-master general, that it might be shewn to the king of England and his ministers… During the course of the war, I found it impossible to restore the plate belonging to the Selkirk family; I, however, purchased it at a great price, and at length found means to send it by land from l’Orient to Calais, by means of M. de Calonne, who transmitted to me a very flattering letter on the occasion; in short I at length received a very flattering letter from the earl of Selkirk, acknowledging the receipt of it.

Those damn Yankees, blast their eyes for their horrid inhumanity!

Any other unlikely acts of chivalry in war? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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5 May 2012: Very quick is Southern Man this morning who writes: ‘I know this story and would like to share with you a passage from an anti-Jones publication. This describes how one of the officers at the castle was polite and the other rude. It also gives more details of the plate’s return. ‘Several years elapsed without [lady Selkirk] hearing from jones, and all hope of the realizement of his promise had vanished; but, in the spring of the year 1783, to the great and agreeable surprise of her ladyship, the whole of the plate was returned, carriage, paid, precisely in the same condition in which it had been taken away, the tea-leaves remaining in the tea-pot as they were left after the breakfast on the morning of their visit to the castle.’ I love the detail of the tea-leaves. Seriously though I think the elapse of years speaks strongly in favour of Jones the gentleman rather than Jones the flogger or (supposed) rapist.’ Thanks SM!