The Shipwreck That Ended John Paul Jones’ American Naval Career

When the captain of the French ship Magnifique sailed in to Boston Harbor in the summer of 1782, he would have been received as a great friend. The British had, just months before, surrendered at Yorktown to the Americans and their French allies, and the new independent America was struggling to take shape.

John Paul Jones by Charles Wilson Peale

John Paul Jones by Charles Wilson Peale

The reality had not yet hit for the French – that the end of the war would mean America would soon go back to trading with Britain, and France would be worse off. In 1782, the French would have been thoroughly enjoying having successfully helped give a good kick to their British foes.

David Darling, a harbor pilot from Boston, travelled out to meet Captain Macteigne and the Magnifique and guide her safely to shore. The Magnifique was a 74-gun, 170-foot man-o-war arriving in Boston from the Caribbean. She was a large ship with a proud history in battle, but by 1782 her hull was also weakened by parasites picked up in the Caribbean.

As she sailed past Lovell’s Island in Boston Harbor, an unexpected wind shift pushed her on to a shoal. Over the years, writers have tended to embellish the details of the wreck, suggesting that she grounded on jagged rocks that nearly instantly tore out the bottom of the vessel and it sank killing sailors and forever submerging a small fortune in gold.

Unfortunately, the actual story seems somewhat tamer. Robert Sullivan in his Shipwrecks and Nautical Lore of Boston Harbor, notes that a review of the captain’s official letters show that the ship actually grounded in a spot where several other French ships had come to grief before, and they had successfully been refloated and repaired. The accident involving the Magnifique occurred about an hour before low tide, and it seemed likely the tide might lift the vessel safely off the shoal and she would be on her way.

The aging hull, however, was weakened by the grounding, and by the time of the next high tide, the ship had taken on considerable water. Over the next several hours, the crew raced to remove, not gold coins, but cannons. And Sullivan notes the efforts to refloat the vessel seem to have been limited in urgency.

Over the years, the rumors of gold coins have inspired countless treasure seekers to attempt salvage of the vessel, but all it’s given up to anyone’s knowledge is cannon shot and wooden souvenirs. The ship itself, with the help of currents, wound up enlarging the sand bar on which it crashed, and it has most likely now become part of Lovell’s Island.

Meanwhile, the wreck of the Magnifique did crimp the naval careers of two men: the harbor pilot, David Darling, and, oddly enough, John Paul Jones, the hero of the American Revolution who uttered the famous words “I have not yet begun to fight,” when offered the opportunity to surrender by the British.

Even though, as Sullivan reports, there is no evidence to suggest Darling took the Magnifique off course, and the captain of the vessel blamed the grounding on the slow response of the crew to the changing wind, Darling was ridiculed and vilified for the wreck. He became sexton at the New North Church, according to historian Nathaniel Bradstreet Shurtleff, tending the property and digging graves.

On at least one occasion, pranksters scrawled in chalk in front of the church:

“Don’t you run this ship ashore,

As you did the seventy-four.”

Less expected was the way the grounding would impact John Paul Jones.

Jones, a Scotsman whose daring seamanship had resulted in numerous British losses, was at the time of the grounding in Portsmouth, NH, overseeing construction of America, which he hoped would be his finest ship ever.

He was having America built to meet his specifications. Jones understood that the American Navy could not, and should not, build ships to try to match British gunships, which were built for the traditional side-by-side combat with one ship firing directly at the other in close quarters until one gave way.

Instead, he built it to be lighter with less draft and flatter, broader bottom so that it would be nimbler. It would carry the guns of a man-o-war, but would be more maneuverable to strike and move. Facing legal troubles and debts, Jones believed the bounties he would collect with America would solve his problems.

Unfortunately, Congress decided that it wanted to give America to the French to replace the lost Magnifique, and it ordered Jones to deliver it to the French captain. Neither party was happy with the decision, but both participated in the show of handing off the ship.

Jones was furious that, with the loss of his ship, his American career was scuttled. The French captain, meanwhile, favoring a more traditional ship to match evenly with the British, thought the America a poorly designed and built vessel that showed how little the American’s knew about shipbuilding.

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