Signature of Captain John Perkins from the Logbook of HMS Arab 1800, held at the National Archives, Kew, London
Nickname(s) Jack Punch
Born Kingston, Jamaica
Died 27 January 1812
Allegiance Great Britain
Service/branch Royal Navy
Years of service 1775–1804
Commands held HM Schooner Punch
HMS Marie Antoinette
Battles/wars American Revolution
Fourth Anglo-Dutch War
French Revolutionary Wars
Captain John Perkins (died 27 January 1812), nicknamed Jack Punch, was a British Royal Navy officer. Perkins was the first mullato commissioned officer in the Royal Navy. He rose from obscurity to be one of the most successful ship captains of the Georgian navy. He captained a 10-gun schooner during the American War of Independence and in a two-year period captured at least 315 enemy ships.
Later in his career Perkins acted for the navy as a spy and undertook missions to Cuba and Saint-Domingue (modern day Haiti). At the start of the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue he was captured in Cap-Français and sentenced to death for supplying the rebel slave army with weapons.
After his rescue he was promoted commander in 1797 and then to post-captain in 1800. Perkins went on to cause an international incident with the Danish when he fired on two of their ships during peacetime. Toward the end of his career he captured the islands of Saint Eustatia and Saba from the French. The islands form part of the Netherlands Antilles. Perkins also attacked a 74-gun ship-of-the-line with a 32-gun frigate.
1 Early life and career
2 Capture on Saint-Domingue
3 Return to service
3.1 Promotion to commander
3.2 Promotion to post-captain
3.2.1 Battle of West Key
3.3 Capture of Saint Eustatia and Saba Islands
4 Later career
5 Final mission to Haiti
6 Retirement and death
Early life and career
John Perkins was probably born in Kingston, Jamaica in the middle of the 18th century. Very little is known of his birth or early life but several contemporary accounts describe him as mulatto (mixed race), with a white father and a black (probably slave) mother.
In 1775 Perkins first appears in the records of the Royal Navy when he was appointed to the 50-gun HMS Antelope, the flagship of the commander-in-chief of the Jamaica station as an extra pilot. "His knowledge of the different ports, &C. in the West Indies was, perhaps, seldom equalled, and never surpassed."
In 1778 he was placed in command of the schooner Punch, a ship probably armed with ten 2 or 4-pounder guns, though no detailed records survive. At this time he received his nickname Jack Punch, most probably earned because of the name of his command. During the next two years Perkins claimed to have captured 315 ships, an average of three per week, a claim that was later endorsed by the Jamaican House of Assembly.
Admiral Sir Peter Parker, and subsequent admirals, used Perkins in clandestine missions against the French at Cap-Français, a province in the South West of Saint-Domingue, and the Spanish in Havana, Cuba. Parker eventually commissioned Perkins as a lieutenant and gave him command of the schooner Endeavour. The 12-gun Endeavour was an American built schooner with a keel of 60 feet and beam of 20. Governor Archibald Campbell stated in a letter of recommendation 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."
In 1782 Perkins captured a much larger vessel containing several important French officers. The commander of the Jamaica station, Admiral George Rodney, promoted Perkins to master and commander of the Endeavour, and added two guns to her raising her armament to fourteen guns, thus putting her on the official Navy List as a sloop-of-war. Rodney's promotion of Perkins was disallowed. Rodney wrote later to Philip Stephens, First Secretary to the Admiralty, in an attempt to confirm the promotion. "I must therefore desire you will please represent to their Lordships, that on my arrival at Jamaica, I found Mr. Perkins lieutenant and commander of the Endeavour schooner – that he bore an excellent character, and had done great service." Despite his request Perkins was demoted back to the rank of lieutenant and the guns ordered to be removed. At the end of the American War of Independence he was "on the beach" (meaning that he was without a posting on a ship) as a half-pay lieutenant.
For several years between 1783 and 1790 Perkins disappeared from the books of the Royal Navy. It may be during this time that he turned to piracy as there is a French source and several English records that describe him as such.
In 1790, fifteen years after he had first joined the navy, Perkins made an application to the Jamaican House of Assembly for their assistance in achieving his promotion. After presenting his certificates to the assembly, the assembly investigated Perkins’ claim and resolved to make an application to the Admiralty for his promotion to post-captain.
Capture on Saint-Domingue
In 1790 Perkins volunteered once more and served under Admiral Philip Affleck. For several years there is no record that he held an official command but in 1792 Captain Thomas McNamara Russell of the 32-gun frigate HMS Diana, on a relief mission to the authorities on Saint-Domingue, was informed that a British officer was under arrest and due to be executed in Jérémie for supplying arms to the rebel slaves. Officially Britain and France were not at war and Russell requested that Perkins be released. The French authorities promised that he would be and then later refused. After numerous letters had been exchanged Russell determined that the French had no intention to release Perkins. Russell sailed around Cap-Français to Jérémie and met with the 12-gun HMS Ferret under Captain Nowell. It was agreed that Nowell's first lieutenant, an officer named Godby, would go ashore and recover Perkins whilst the two ships remained offshore within cannon shot, ready to land an invasion force if need be. Lieutenant Godby landed and after negotiations Perkins was released. Perkins then disappears once more from the records for a short time.
Return to service
In September 1793 Perkins returned to the books of the Navy. Perkins is listed as commanding HMS Spitfire, a 4-gun schooner. He accompanied Commodore John Ford's squadron when the British, at the request of French Royalists mounted a campaign against Saint-Domingue. On arrival Ford's squadron captured amongst other vessels a schooner belonging to the French Navy named Convention Nationale. She was renamed HMS Marie Antoinette and Ford gave command of her to Perkins. Ford described Perkins as "an Officer of Zeal, Vigilance and Activity." In 1794 Marie Antoinette made up part of the squadron commanded by the newly promoted Rear-Admiral Ford that accompanied Brigadier-General John Whyte that briefly captured Port-au-Prince. At the time some forty five vessels lay in harbour and these were all made prizes. In 1796 Marie Antoinette made up part of a small squadron that captured the schooner Charlotte and brig Sally. Perkins remained with her until he was promoted master and commander.
Promotion to commander
The circumstances of his promotion are unrecorded, but in 1797 Admiral Sir Hyde Parker promoted Perkins to commander of HMS Drake, a brig of 14 guns. Subsequently HMS Drake, in company with a squadron under Captain Hugh Pigot, consisting of the 32-gun frigates HMS Hermione and HMS Quebec, and the cutter HMS Penelope, were involved in the cutting out of eight enemy ships at Port-de-Paix on 20 April 1797. On 25 October 1798 Drake captured the French privateer La Favorite. The prize money for Perkins (amounting to 2/8 of the total value of the vessel) was 53 pounds 13 shillings and 9 pence.
The front page of the HMS Arab logbook 1800 from the National Archives, Kew
In inflation-adjusted terms this would be approximately £5,000 as of 2016.
In Drake, in company with Solebay, Captain Poyntz, Perkins captured four French corvettes, the 18-gun Egyptienne, the 16-gun Eole, the 12-gun Levrier and the 8-gun Vengeur on 24 November 1799 off Cape Tiburon.
Promotion to post-captain
Perkins was promoted on 6 September 1800 to post-captain in the 32-gun frigate HMS Meleager. In early 1801 Perkins moved to the 22-gun HMS Arab.
Battle of West Key 1801 courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
Battle of West Key
In March 1801, Arab, in company with the 18-gun British privateer Experiment, caught and challenged two Danish vessels, the brig Lougen, under the command of Captain Carl Wilhelm Jessen, and the schooner Den Aarvaagne. Arab approached the two Danish vessels and, according to Danish accounts, without warning, fired several broadsides at Lougen before the Danish ship was able to return fire. Lougen, which had escaped serious damage, began to return fire steadily. Experiment initially attempted to capture Aarvaagne, but Aarvaagne obeyed orders to stay out of the fight and instead escaped south to Christiansted on St Croix with its intelligence on British actions. Experiment then joined Arab in the attack on Lougen, with the two British ships sandwiching the Danish ship. During the engagement, which lasted for over an hour, one of Lougen's shots struck the Arab's cathead and loosed the bower anchor. (Perkin's reported that it was the first shot from Lougen that loosed the bower anchor.) Arab's crew was unable to cut the anchor free, leaving Arab unable to manoeuvre effectively. This allowed Jessen to steer a course that brought him under the protection of the shore batteries and then into St Thomas. Captain Jessen of the Lougen was awarded a presentation sword made of gold, a medal and 400 rixdollars (the equivalent of a whole year's salary for a Captain in the Danish Navy) by the Danish government for his actions.
On 13 April 1801 Arab captured the Spanish privateer Duenda.
Capture of Saint Eustatia and Saba Islands
On 16 April 1801 Perkins, in company with Colonel Richard Blunt and a detachment of the Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment), laid siege to and captured the wealthy islands of Sint Eustatius and Saba, capturing their French garrisons, forty-seven cannon and 338 barrels of gunpowder. Eustatia had been the most profitable of the islands in the Dutch West Indies.
After several further cruises Perkins was transferred in 1802 into the 32-gun frigate HMS Tartar.
Between 20 November and 4 December 1803 Tartar was in company with Commodore John Loring's squadron when the squadron captured the French ships of war Le Decouverte, La Clorinde, La Surveillante, La Vertu, and Le Cerf. La Surveillante and La Clorinde were bought into British service. La Surveillante had on board at her surrender General Rochambeau the commander of the French forces on Saint-Domingue. On 25 July 1804, while in company with HMS Vanguard under Captain James Walker, Tartar was involved in the capture of the French 74-gun ship of the line Duquesne, and two 16-gun brigs sailing with her. Tartar outsailed her larger companions and kept the Duquesne and her consorts engaged until the larger British ships came up and the French squadron surrendered. A seaman's share of the prize money aboard the Tartar for the capture was 6 shillings and 8 pence. A petty officer's share was 1 pound, 13 shillings and 11 pence.
Final mission to Haiti
In January 1804 Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the commander of the slave rebellion in Haiti declared independence from France. Perkins was sent by Admiral Duckworth and Governor Nugent in Tartar as a British observer to the island. Perkins was accompanied by Edward Corbet. Corbet was a government advisor appointed by Nugent. Perkins described the situation on Haiti in his official letters to the Admiral. "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."
Retirement and death
In March 1804 Perkins resigned his commission on health grounds. It is rumoured that Perkins finally visited England in 1805 although there is no supporting evidence for this. There is no further record of his involvement with the Navy or Haiti. Perkins died on 27 January 1812 at his home in Jamaica. According to his obituary he suffered for many years with a condition described as "asthma" and that this was the cause of his demise.
There is no record of a wife and the records concerning his estate have disappeared. One article makes mention that during his life Perkins managed to father over one hundred illegitimate children, although no records of them exist.
His obituary in the Naval Chronicle described his actions while in command of the schooner Punch:
“ he annoyed the enemy more than any other officer, by his repeated feats of gallantry, and the immense number of prizes he took. ”