John Paul Jones and Black Lives Matter


b. traven

In 1959, retired Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of naval commander, John Paul Jones.  Jones was probably the most provocative, shrewd, and aggressive Revolutionary War commander, helping secure the independence of our country from Great Britain.  Although born in rural Scotland, Jones was apprenticed at age 13 on a sailing ship that traded between the British Caribbean islands.  By 21, he was Master of large trading ships on the same routes.

On his way to his mastery of the sea, in 1764 at age 17 he shipped as Third Mate on a “blackbirder” slave trading ship between Africa and the “New World.”  For the next two years he moved rapidly ahead in assignments and by 1766 was Chief Mate on another slaver, the 30 ton brig, Two Friends.

After two years he lost his desire to be involved in the slave trade and fell in love with the British American colonies.  Morison, in his biography of Jones, tells us that on the way to this vision he made a call in at the island of Tobago.

This is what he found on Tobago: two hundred and forty three (243) whites (Scots and Englishmen) lived on the island with 4716 black slaves!

That little item caught my attention and for the moment I lost interest in Jones and thought about that horrendous fact and contemplated that there must have been a similar ratio in what was to become the United States of America.  Probably in Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, etc., what became the “slave states,” a small white family might own several hundred black human beings.

John Paul Jones went on to contribute to the successful fight against the British that led to our independence from that country, but those black people remained slaves. As our founders, from the North and the South put together our Constitution those black human beings were only counted as 5/8 of a person, with no civil rights.  They were counted as a compromise to flesh out the population figures of the slave states so that they could exert greater control over the federal government.

Two hundred years later, do Black Lives really Matter to our political system?

15 thoughts on “John Paul Jones and Black Lives Matter

  1. A timely reminder of the horror of slavery and the legacy of racism in U.S. history. I was just reading about local history; there was a booming slave trade in Connecticut for a time. People forget that slavery very much existed in the north before it was outlawed. The historian I was reading suggested America suffers from a form of dementia when it comes to our history. We forget a lot of stuff, and misremember what we do “know.”

  2. Thank you for this bit of history. Many African Americans know our history very well as they began, again, to study it and produce more books on the subject with the revival of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. What most white people refuse to know is the benefits they still derive from white skin privilege and try to judge Black lives on the basis of a privilege that Black folks just don’t have. I have witnessed the difference even with profession people of color, some of whom are quite well heeled. I do believe that until white people acknowledge the benefits their skin color provides and has provided thru the generations, it is an impossible task to try an undo racism in this country. We can argue about laws and behavior but that will never change the attitudes and erroneous and bigoted belief systems held.

    Currently we see the right wing using racism to rile up many white working people with xenophobic fears. The whole Clinton move against social service allowed this same fear/resentment of people of color deriving any benefits in this country. But the GOP has really outdone the issue not only with a total lack of platform that would benefit working people, but vile assaults on basic civil rights of Black people especially their right to vote.

    One simple summary way to see the problem is that slavery has never ended. It has only morphed a bit. People of color are to be enslaved labor in a privatized prison system where the owners profit extensively off public funds and the bodies of Black people and other of color. Only menial work is reserved for them and all avenues for self improvement are thwarted systemically at every level of society. This racism is still the structural foundation of much of our country. And the landed aristocracy is now our corporate elite, controlling major resources and owning almost all the political leaders.

    • One problem is that it’s not too easy for someone in the privileged group to see this sort of privilege – it just forms part of one’s view of the world and society, a baseline of normality unless an effort is made to learn how things are for others. For example, I KNOW that I’ve been given a huge amount of privilege relative to much of the world just by being white, male, Canadian and born to parents who were middle class but I had to get educated on issues like these in order to see that privilege. I could never really feel the privilege being there for me the way people who are discriminated against feel the oppression they endure even though it’s there all the time. Unless we are given some sort of magic that could make the people who deny the existence of systemic oppression live at least a year as a member of the groups they hate, it will take quite a bit of time and effort to educate and inform people and make progress in this area.

      • Very true. My own awakening to full social consciousness incorporated the crucial understanding of the nature of class society and the use of racism to keep the underdog classes divided. A brief anecdote: the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which claims to wear the mantle of Trotsky, was the dominant element in one of the two major national coalitions opposing the Vietnam War. They insisted the movement focus on just that one issue, under the slogans “Peace Now!” and “Bring The Troops Home Now!” The group with which I attended one of their large anti-war marches in New York City was pushing slogans like “Millionaires Get Richer While GIs Die!” [Billionaires were far less common back then, thus the reference to “mere” millionaires!] One of the operatives of the SWP shouted at us “What about ‘thousandaires’?!?” in an attempt to mock us and smother class consciousness. To smother class consciousness, of course–in order to smother working class solidarity–is what the “elites” have succeeded in spectacularly in US society. I dare say this is largely true of Canada as well. “Democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders sounds like all the other candidates promising to “save the middle class.” It would be nice to hear the phrase “working class” escape his lips! [To be fair, I have heard him refer to “working families,” but the point is the class nature of society is still a forbidden subject in the mainstream.] The legacy of racism will linger on a long time, unfortunately. To finally eradicate it will require an awakening of class consciousness.

  3. Tamarque.. You are so right! We seem to be moving backward as a country to a feudal society with serfs and nobles (1% ers) The former white working class is being treated like the minorities and its is gloves off for people of color.who are shot by police or warehoused in prisons. We must have hope and the courage to bring back our democracy from the grip of the ‘dark state’ which uses fear of ‘terrorism’ to snatch our once beautiful democracy from its citizenry.

    • Traven.
      From a 1782 Thomas Jefferson estimate of the Virginia population: Free inhabitants – 296,852; Slaves – 270,762. However, truth be known, I suspect the descendants of the 270k have little interest in getting back to a “homeland” where black lives matter even less than in gang-banger America.

      • Walter..I agree that the former slaves would have little interest in going back to Africa. It does appear though that their former southern ‘masters” would like to go back to when they ‘owned’ them and didn’t have to pay them a living wage.or let them lead a civic life voting. ( voting restriction laws)

      • America is the homeland of all persons born on its soil – black, white, or any other “color.” Furthermore, the continent of Africa is as culturally and socially diverse as any of the rest. There are very prosperous areas as well as deeply troubled areas like Somalia. As a brown-skinned, curly-haired, progressive, secularist Caucasian, my life would matter at least as much in a nation like South Africa as it does in the U.S. – with the possible exception of the old Confederate states and states under conservative Republican control where it would matter significantly less.

  4. BLM, and Occupy, any groups or individuals mentioned here (, and all others who strive to bring improvement to existence by never doing unto others that which they would not choose to have done to them, are and always will be of utmost importance to the USA political system.

    Moreover, this should be prioritized as perhaps the core aspect of what is meant as “human” itself, and recognized as of literally existential importance. This can hardly be emphasized enough as we slog further into the dangerously over-populated, and critically natural resource-limited, yet-to-be officially designated Anthropocene Era.

    Murder and other less permanent injuries, while with some frequency are a result of actions not economically motivated, nonetheless are very, very, very often a result of pursuit of economic enhancement; war virtually always is; and slavery most definitely never is not.

    An American icon and sage, who has a day named after him yet is unlikely to be accorded proper respect any time soon, wrote and spoke extensively and most eloquently on the subject for most of the final decade of his far too brief life, and some of the best he had to say is summed up in this op-ed I did not write:

  5. Escaped slaves on the island of Hispaniola (called “Marons”) successfully threw off their French colonial oppressors to found what’s now called Haiti. It is surprising that in a situation like “traven” relates on Tobago the British oppressors weren’t crushed in an uprising. I have read fairly recently about slaves held on Connecticut soil as well as south, on Long Island. In the southern US states, it must be borne in mind that there were indentured servants from Europe and white freemen who were self-employed (artisans) or simply wage employees of the upper crust. So it’s not like slaves imported from Africa vastly outnumbered whites everywhere and should have been easily able to break their own shackles. The legacy of slavery has not been washed away, no, not by a long shot. John Brown said these sins would need to be washed away with blood. Nothing I can add to that.

    • “It is surprising that in a situation like “traven” relates on Tobago the British oppressors weren’t crushed in an uprising.”

      Greg. My aunt and my two little nephews arrived in Auschwitz with hundreds of other Hungarian Jews and were greeted by a handful of Germans. They all died in the gas chambers. People subjected to inhuman treatment often don’t have the luxury of choice of action.
      I heard an interesting story yesterday from a visitor. He knew a WW II bomber pilot who was shot down over Japan near the end of the war. His crew survived and were initially held together in a POW camp. but he was sent separately to a camp near Tokyo and the crew was sent to a camp in or near Nagasaki. Over 100 American prisoners were held in this camp. Some one incinerated them when a bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.. Isn’t that a story of choice that none of us ever heard about?

  6. It is my understanding that John Paul Jones eschewed the slave trade and human trafficking he once pursued. When he inherited 2 negro slave boys from his brother’s estate in America he adopted them, educated them , and freed them .

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