Kerr's Corner

Kerr's Corner is a regular feature in East Antrim and Newtownabbey editions of The Wizard. David Kerr would like to hear your memories of life in your own area. Maybe you'll trigger some thoughts for a future column.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Naval Battle in Belfast Lough

Naval Battle in Belfast Lough



JIM McFALL from Islandmagee has provided me with a copy of a fascinating history of the peninsula and the surrounding area. Thanks Jim. Local historian Dixon Donaldson originally published this wonderful labour of love in 1927. It appears to be a compilation of separate articles which may have been written for a magazine or newspaper. In 2002 the Islandmagee Community Development Association republished it in facsimile. Anyone with the slightest interest in local history should get hold of a copy. By all means read it right through from the beginning if you like, but you will also be rewarded if you skim through it and pick out the odd highlights here and there. I was particularly interested in the account of one of the first naval battles between the navy of the newly independent United States and the British Royal Navy.

The piece was hard to read, though. The original paste-up meant that some of the sentences and paragraphs are out of sequence and it takes an effort to make sense of everything.

This historic encounter took place in Belfast Lough – then known as Carrickfergus Bay – in 1778.

When the American Continenal Congress formed a ‘Continental Navy’ in 1775, Scots born John Paul Jones was one of the first volunteers to join. He was commissioned as a First Lieutenant and advised Congress on navy regulations before taking command of his own vessel - the Ranger - in 1777. In November 1777 he sailed in the Ranger for France where he struck up a rapport with the American Commissioner in Paris, Benjamin Franklin. At Quiberon he forced the French to salute the Stars and Stripes. This was the first time it had been hoisted in a foreign harbour and recognised abroad by a foreign state as the symbol of the new United States of America.

Operating out of Brest in Normandy, Jones took the American war of independence to the enemy as he harried British targets in their own waters. A hero who was awarded a specially struck Congressional medal by his own grateful country, in Britain he was regarded as little more than a pirate.

After reputedly laying-to overnight in the shadow of the Gobbins on April 20th1778, Jones spotted HMS Drake, a 20 gun sloop, near Carrickfergus, which he attempted to board in a night attack after signalling for a pilot. The crew of a fishing boat from the Scotch Quarter which went alongside the Ranger were taken prisoner. The boarding attempt failed owing to a severe gale and a blinding snowstorm. Thwarted for the moment Jones set sail for Whitehaven. On April 22nd a party of fifty men from the Ranger spiked the towns gun batteries and burned all the boats in the harbour without losing a single man.

Coming back over to Belfast Lough on April 24th, the Ranger captured a scout boat from the Drake in Blackhead Bay. The Drake under Captain Burden came out to meet the American privateer in mid-channel. This encounter suited Jones perfectly. As the Drake drew up she hailed the Ranger. Jones gave the reply through his sailing-master: “The American continental ship Ranger. We are waiting for you. Come on. The sun is little more than an hour high, and it is time to begin!” A broadside engagement commenced, and continued at close quarters for some seventy-five minutes, until the Drake struck her colours in surrender. Captain Burden was killed and his second in command Lieutenant Dobbs was mortally wounded. The Drake surrendered. Her sails and rigging were cut to ribbons and the hull was shattered. The Ranger’s “butcher’s bill” was two killed and six wounded to the Drake’s 42. The Drake had twenty four-pounder guns to the Ranger’s eighteen six-pounders.

This was the first time that an American vessel defeated and took as a prize a British warship in a sea battle. On May 8th, Jones managed to carry his prize back safely into Brest after avoiding any further engagements with British vessels.

Naturally his exploits were greatly celebrated in the rebel colonies but they also captured the imagination of many local people and were immortalised in quite a few ballads. The author quotes one as follows…

The good ship Drake at Carrick lay,To guard our shores from pirates, O!For Yankee bold and French foemanWere cruising in the Channel. O!
One evening after sundownA ship she hailed the pilot, O!She hove-to till the darkness fell,And the she proved the Ranger, O!The dauntless Jones did her command.He quickly called for boarders, O!And steering straight down on the Drake,He whistled Yankee-doodle, O!
A snow storm blotted out the Drake,And darkness fell between them, O!The Privateer then sailed awayAnd disappeared to leeward, O!
At break of day again she cameFrom shelter of the Gobbins, O!He look-out boat in Blackhead BayWas caught without a warning, O!
The British tars slipped anchor chains,And decks were cleared for action, O!The gunners grim stood by their gunsAnd gave three cheers for Geordie, O!
Like two game cocks the vessels fought,The fight was fast and furious, O!And broadsides thundered o’er the bay‘Rose smoke and flames like fury, O!
The Drake soon crippled helpless lay,At mercy of the Ranger, O!But Jones was kind as he was brave,And he forbade to sink her, O!
Brave Burden at his post did fall,He fought in vain for glory, O!Likewise his second in command:They both did die for England, O!
The Yankee ran ‘longside the Drake,And asked her to surrender, O!Out-matched, out-manned, that good ship struckHer colours to the Ranger, O!
Now while we cheer our own brave tarsWe’ll give one for the Yankee, O!In honour bright both ships did fightThat day of Carrickfergus, O!

Jones later went on to serve as a Rear Admiral in the Russian navy. He died in Paris in 1792 at the young age of 45. He lay in a Protestant cemetery until 1905 when his remains were located and returned to America. In 1913 he was re-interred with great ceremony in the crypt of the United States Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Maryland. He lies in a tomb modeled on that of the Emperor Napoleon in Paris.

The crypt is open to the public. There is also a museum dedicated to his memory.

David Kerr


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