John Perkins: A Black Commander on the Jamaica Station

John Perkins: A Black Commander on the Jamaica Station

23 Feb 23
Message from the Editor

The author surveys the naval career of John Perkins, a black Jamaican and contemporary of Nelson, whose buccaneering career in the Caribbean met with considerable success and embodied the Royal Navy’s trade interdiction mission in those waters. A 15 minute read.

The Black Lives Matter movement, along with recent educational campaigns to address the horrors of slavery and the slave trade, have run parallel with efforts to highlight the significant roles played by historic black citizens of the United Kingdom. Yet, apart from the Jamaican born Mary Seacole, few 18th century names have achieved general recognition. In the Royal Navy the historic presence of black sailors has been written about before, but few individuals held positions of command. There was, however, another Jamaican, John Perkins (aka ‘Jack Punch’) whose highly successful naval career should place him on a pedestal visible far beyond his native shore.

There are many characters in our national history whose lives and achievements, were it not for the naval record, would remain unrecorded. One such individual is John Perkins who should be noted not only as the Royal Navy’s first black naval commander, but also as a highly successful officer who, in his distinguished career in command of a number of warships, took over 300 prizes during the 1780s. He was also to serve as a spy in Haiti – the first Commander Bond? His shore life was also filled with action, as he seems to have fathered more than a hundred children.

Like many of his colour in the 18th century, Jack Perkins’s ancestry is unrecorded. It might be assumed, given his Caribbean background, that he was the son of a plantation owner or overseer and a black slave, but Jamaica, ever since the British invasion of 1655, was populated by many free blacks who either lived independently as ‘Maroons’ or as farmers and traders. So, the first we learn of John Perkins is when, in 1775, he was appointed as a second pilot aboard HMS Antelope, the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief, Vice Admiral Clark Gayton, among whose other young officers of potential was a certain Lieutenant Horatio Nelson. Perkins impressed his seniors, for it was recorded that “His knowledge of the different ports, in the West Indies was, perhaps, seldom equaled, and never surpassed.”

He must have impressed in other ways as well for in 1778 he was appointed to command HMS Punch, a lightly armed schooner, in which, according to the records of the Jamaican House of Assembly, he captured a spectacular 315 prizes over the following two years. Such a striking rate requires some explanation: During the American Revolution the West Indies were producing oceans of sugar and rum which had two obvious markets – north to the Colonies or across the Atlantic to Britain. The former could produce the quickest returns, but there were two consecutive snags in this trade. The first was that the Navigation Acts required British goods to be transported in British hulls, and the second was that the American merchants were no longer regarded as British, nor, of course, prepared to adhere to such restrictive trade practices. Naturally, the West Indian sugar traders preferred profit to patriotism. It was a situation that was to embroil Captain Nelson of HMS Boreas in the mid 1780s when he insisted on not turning a blind eye to the law-breaking that was benefiting the locals. Perkins had only to reel in the miscreants and, of course, not be too susceptible to bribery. Even so, it does not seem that he was in receipt of the opprobrium that came Nelson’s way, for he was soon being referred to as ‘Jack Punch’.

The colour of Perkins’s skin, and his local knowledge, also gave him a chance to render a different kind of service for it is recorded that he was landed to carry out clandestine operations against the French colony of Saint Domingue, modern Haiti. After his espionage work ashore it was back to sea as a Lieutenant in command of the 12-gun schooner Endeavour in which his enthusiasm for prize-taking was well gratified by the Governor of Jamaica, Archibald Campbell, who stated that “By the gallant exertions of this officer some hundred vessels were taken, burnt, or destroyed, and above three thousand men added to the list of prisoners of war in favour of Britain; in short, the character and conduct of Captain Perkins were not less admired by his superior officers in Jamaica, than respected by those of the enemy.”

Although Perkins was not present at the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782, his enthusiasm and success brought him to the notice of Lord Rodney who promoted him to Master and Commander and added the extra guns needed to redefine Endeavour as a sloop-of-war. However, Rodney’s reward was not ratified by the Admiralty and Perkins had to endure the embarrassment of being demoted and having to land his additional armament and was subsequently placed on half-pay when the American War of Independence ended. Rodney did not give up on Perkins, however, for in 1790, at his behest, the Jamaican Assembly petitioned their Lordships to have Perkins promoted to Post-Captain.

For a few years thereafter Perkins disappears from the record. There is a hint that he turned pirate and this would not be surprising given his knowledge of the waters, his proven ability to take prizes and a background that would have made him acceptable to the buccaneering community. Strangely, for someone like Perkins, one of the targets of these marauders were the slave ships still ferrying Africans to the Indies, often under the watchful eye of Royal Naval escorts. He might also have been indulging in gun-running to the rebels in Saint Domingue.

The slave-revolt which began in 1791 in Saint Domingue must rate as one of the most complicated struggles of the turn of the 19th century, involving as it did royalist and revolutionary whites, free ‘mulattoes’ and a slave uprising led by the great Touissaint Louveture. Jamaican interest lay in discouraging any success or propaganda that might cause their own slaves to rise up. Naturally, intelligence was the key and Perkins was an obvious man to go ashore and obtain it. How long he was able to remain undetected is not known but in 1792 he was captured by the French authorities, charged, and found guilty of gun-running, and then imprisoned at Jérémie under sentence to death. Luckily for ‘Jack Punch’ word of his misfortune reached the ear of Captain Thomas McNamara Russell of the frigate HMS Diana, an officer who had already established a reputation as a fighting commander and was being hosted by the French to thank him for bringing a convoy of supplies to the island. The French agreed to release Perkins but when they showed little intention to do so Russell acted in character by sailing in company with HMS Ferret to within cannon range of Jérémie and suggesting that he might be forced to send a heavily armed landing party ashore to free the prisoner. Shortly afterwards Perkins was released and rowed out to the Diana.

He was soon on his way back to Saint Domingue but this time as the commander of HMS Spitfire, a captured 6-gun French privateer and one of Commodore John Ford’s squadron dispatched to give aid to the beleaguered French royalists, a role that involved the capture of several more rebel vessels. In September 1793 Spitfire, Penelope, Iphenegia and Hermione sailed around to the north coast and took eleven merchant ships as prizes. On rejoining the squadron Perkins was transferred to another prize, the Convention Nationale, which was romantically and royally restored to her original name as HMS Marie Antoinette. The transfer was a lucky one for Perkins as on 12 February 1794 Spitfire capsized off Saint Domingue with no survivors.

Perkins in his new command now sailed with the squadron into Port-au-Prince which was briefly captured along with the 45 ships that lay in the anchorage. Slowly but surely he was building up a small portfolio of prize money which was enhanced the following year when, in a smaller squadron, he was present at the capture of the schooner Charlotte and the brig Sally. Perkins’ luck held once again for, in early 1797, he was promoted by Admiral Hyde Parker, C-in-C Jamaica, and appointed to the 14-gun brig, HMS Drake, while his successor onboard Marie Antoinette, Lt. McInerheny, was murdered by a mutinous crew who took the ship into Saint Domingue.

HMS Drake was a Deptford brig launched in 1779 but refitted in 1788 before being deployed to the West Indies in 1795. Perkins joined her in 1797 as part of Captain Hugh Pigot’s squadron which was continuing the routine ‘turkey-shoot’ by capturing French merchant ships in the ports and waters around Saint Domingue. On 20 April they brought nine of these out of the harbour of Jean-Rabel. There were, however, enemy warships in these seas and on 17 September the squadron engaged the 12-gun schooner Trompeuse which blew up, although many of her crew were hauled out of the sea.

The next month Perkins captured the French privateer Favorite winning for himself prize-money worth £53 13s 9d (about £5,000 in today’s money). A few weeks later, he was in company with Captain Poyntz, in the 5th rate 32-gun Solebay, when they discovered four French corvettes off Cape Tiburon. These ranged from the 8-gun Vengeur to the 18-gun Egyptienne amounting to a force of 48 guns. The British pursuit was rewarded when the French became becalmed, exposing them to be individual attack and were thus captured. Promotion to Post-Captain followed the next year and with it command of the 32-gun HMS Meleager which Perkins afterwards left to join the 22-gun HMS Arab in early 1801. In her he was to fight the main, and most controversial, naval engagement of his career.

From 1672 until 1917 Denmark had a small colony in the West Indies consisting of the islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. In 1801 England had gone to war with Denmark, the highlight of the confrontation being the Battle of Copenhagen in April when the ex-C-in-C Jamaica, Hyde Parker, joined with the ex-Senior Officer Afloat in the West Indies, Lord Nelson. Thousands of miles away, and one month before, the antagonists engaged in a much smaller affair.

The Governor of the Danish Islands had received intelligence that a British force was heading his way and despatched two on his own vessels, the brig Lougen and schooner Den Aarvaane, from St. Croix towards St. Thomas to investigate. As they neared the West Kay reef they sighted two British ships approaching. These were Arab with the 18-gun privateer Experiment as her escort. Not knowing the British intentions, Carl Jessen, in command of Lougen, shortened sail to allow the British to approach although he also ordered Den Aarvagne to keep at a safe distance and then, as Arab opened fire, to return to St. Croix. Jessen in turn returned fire and edged his way towards the protection of the heavily armed fort of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. With a foe on either side Jessen also had to quickly train makeshift gun crews to man just four guns on his port side against the lesser-armed Experiment. Realising also that a British boarding would be disastrous for his vessel, Jessen employed another group to repair sails and rigging as soon as they were shot away. Then, with safety in sight, Lougen fired a lucky shot which shattered Arab’s cathead causing her port anchor to plunge down, much reducing both her headway and manoeuvrability. Moments later Arab came under fire from the fort and Perkins withdrew, having lost eight men with ten more wounded. Experiment, now outgunned, also retired after a few more exchanges.

Three weeks later Admiral Duckworth, with 29 ships and four thousand troops, seized the islands. The gallant Jessen was taken into captivity but released to return to Denmark in the summer where he received a hero’s welcome including the presentation of a sword by his sovereign inscribed “For courage shown on the third of March 1801.”

Arab continued her gleaning of prizes until 16 April when she formed part of the force that landed and seized the small islands of Saint Eustatius and Saba from the French who had arrived as allies of the original Dutch occupiers who had in turn been evicted by Rodney in 1781. Small though it might have been, but with a combination of sugar plantations and an illegal entrepôt trade, St. Eustatius was justifiably known as ‘The Golden Rock’. Another command followed, with Perkins leaving Arab in 1802 to join the 32-gun HMS Tartar in which he was to fight several actions against the French in the continuing blockade of Saint Domingue.

The British squadron under Commodore Loring in HMS Bellerophon had so far been highly successful at denying the French ashore resupply by the simple expedient of capturing or sinking most of the enemy vessels that they sighted. In July 1803 they sighted and gave chase to the 74-gun Duquesne and the two brigs escorting her. Perkins distinguished himself, not only in forging ahead of the other pursuers but in keeping Duquesne engaged until his more heavily armed companions closed in and took her surrender. He was then entrusted, alongside Vanguard, with escorting the prize, along with the 16-gun Oiseaux captured the next day, back to Port Royal. Perkins returned to Saint-Domingue where he continued to play a part in the siege until the commander of the garrison at Cap-François, the cruel General Rochambeau (son of Marshal Rochambeau who commanded the French Army during the American Revolutionary War), under siege on the landward side by the black Haitian force led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, evacuated his forces only for the British to capture most of the vessels. Rochambeau himself, captured onboard Surveillante, was taken to England where he spent nine years in prison.

In January 1804 Dessalines declared Haiti an independent nation and Governor Nugent, anxious about having an independent free-slave nation over the water, despatched Perkins in Tartar to have talks with the new government. His background and previous experience made him the obvious choice for this delicate diplomatic mission which was led by Edward Corbet, serving on Nugent’s staff. The horrors of that cruel war for freedom were still very evident. Perkins, in his official report to Admiral Duckworth, wrote:

“I assure you that it is horrid to view the streets in different places stained with the blood of these unfortunate people, whose bodies are now left exposed to view by the river and sea side. In hauling the seine the evening we came to our anchor several bodies got entangled in it, in fact such scenes of cruelty and devastation have been committed as is impossible to imagine or my pen describe.”

The mission achieved little but the delegation returned with a hand-written copy of the Haitian Declaration of Independence. It, along with every other copy, disappeared only for this sole surviving copy to be discovered by an American researcher in the British National Archives (PRO) in 1972.

Perkins himself was never to make that trans-Atlantic journey. Retiring in March 1804, he lived on until 27 January 1812 but, as with his formative years, his life away from the sea casts not even a shadow. All we know of this outstanding officer is what the naval record tells us so it is appropriate to end this short article about his successful career with a sentence from his obituary in the Naval Chronicle: “He annoyed the enemy more than any other officer, by his repeated feats of gallantry, and the immense number of prizes he took.”