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John Perkins (Royal Navy officer)
d. 27 January 1812
Signature of Captain John Perkins from the Logbook of HMS Arab 1800, held at the National Archives, Kew, London
Nickname Jack Punch
Place of birth Kingston, Jamaica
Place of death Kingston, Jamaica
Allegiance File:Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg Great Britain
Service/branch  Royal Navy
Years of service 1775–1804
Rank Captain
Commands held HM Schooner Punch
HMS Endeavour
HMS Spitfire
HMS Marie Antoinette
HMS Drake
HMS Meleager
HMS Arab
HMS Tartar
Battles/wars American Revolution
Fourth Anglo-Dutch War
French Revolutionary Wars
Napoleonic War

Captain John Perkins, Royal Navy (d. 27 January 1812) was a British naval officer.

Perkins, nicknamed Jack Punch, was the first black 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-François 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.


Early life and career

John Perkins was born in 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).[1][2]

In 1775 Perkins was appointed to the 50-gun HMS Antelope, the flagship of the commander-in-chief of the Jamaica stration as an extra pilot. "His knowledge of the different ports, &C. in the West Indies was, perhaps, seldom equalled, and never surpassed."[3]

In 1778 he was placed in command of the schooner Punch, a ship probably armed with ten two or four pound cannons, 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 captured 315 ships an average of three per week, a claim that was later endorsed by the Jamaican House of Assembly.[4]

Admiral Sir Peter Parker, and subsequent admirals, used Perkins in clandestine missions against the French at Cap Francois, a province of Saint Domingue, and the Spanish in Havana, Cuba. Parker eventually commissioned Perkins as a lieutenant and gave him command of the schooner Endeavour.[5] The 12-gun Endeavour[6] was an American built schooner with a keel of 60 feet and beam of 20.[7] Governor 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."[4]

In 1782 Perkins captured a much larger vessel containing several important French officers.[4][8] 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 list as a sloop-of-war.[9][10][11] Rodney’s promotion of Perkins was disallowed.[9] 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."[9] 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.[12][13]

In 1790, fifteen years after he had first joined the navy, Perkins made an application to the Jamaican House of Assembly for their endorsement. 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.[4]

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-François 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.[3] Lieutenant Godby landed and after negotiations Perkins was released.[14] Perkins then disappears once more from the records for a short time.

Return to service and confirmation of promotion

In September 1793 Perkins returned to the books of the Navy. Perkins is listed as commanding HMS Spitfire, a 4 gun sloop.[15] He accompanied Commodore John Ford's squadron when the British, at the request of French Royalists mounted a campaign against Saint-Domingue.[16] On arrival Ford’s squadron captured amongst other vessels a schooner belonging to the French Navy named Convention Nationale.[17] 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."[18] 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.[19] In 1796 Marie Antoinette made up part of a small squadron that captured the Schooner Charlotte and Brig Sally.[20] Perkins remained with her until he was promoted master and commander.

It is unrecorded the circumstances of his promotion but in 1797 Admiral Sir Hyde Parker promoted Perkins to commander of HMS Drake,[21][22][23] a brig of 14 guns. In Drake Perkins captured four French Corvettes, the 18-gun L'Egyptienne, the 16-gun L'Eole, the 12-gun Le Levrier and the 8-gun Le Vengeur in company with HMS Solebay, Captain Poyntz on November 24, 1799 off Cape Tiburon.[24][25] 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.[26][27] 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.[28]

Perkins was promoted on September 6, 1800 as post-captain[29] in the 32-gun frigate HMS Meleager.[30] In early 1801 Perkins was moved to the 22-gun HMS Arab.[31] , Greenwich, London.]] In March 1801 the Arab, in company with the 18-gun British privateer Experiment, caught and challenged two Danish vessels, the schooner Den Aarvaagne and the brig Lougen.[32] Arab fired several broadsides at Lougen before the Danish ship returned fire. Her first shot loosed the bower anchor of the Arab and allowed the Danes to escape into St Thomas. The commander of the Lougen was awarded a presentation sword made of gold, a medal and 400 rix-dollars (a whole year’s salary for a Captain in the Danish Navy) by the Danish government for escaping from Perkins. On 13 April 1801 Arab captured the Spanish Privateer El Duenda.[33]

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 Saint Eustatius and Saba, capturing their French garrisons, forty-seven cannon and 338 barrels of gunpowder.[1][34] Eustatia had been the jewel in the crown of the Dutch West Indies. After several further cruises Perkins was transferred in 1802 into the 32-gun frigate HMS Tartar.[35]

Later career

Between 20 November and 4 December 1803 Tartar was in company with Captain Loring's squadron when the squadron captured the French ships of war Le Decouverte, La Clorinde, La Surveillante, La Vertu, and Le Cerf.[36] 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.[37] 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 off Saint-Domingue. 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.[38][39] 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.[40]

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.[41] 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."[42]

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.[3] 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[2] 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."[3]


  1. ^ a b The Royal Navy. A History from the Earliest Times to 1900, William Clowes, p. 471
  2. ^ a b Nautical Magazine 1842, pp. 387–391 and pp. 461–465
  3. ^ a b c d Naval Chronicle, 27 (1812), pp.351–352
  4. ^ a b c d Journals of the Jamaican house of assembly, 8
  5. ^ ADM 51/4181 Captains' logs Endeavour May 31, 1776 – Feb 21 1781
  6. ^ Ships of the Royal Navy, Colledge, p.114
  7. ^ Letter-Books and Order-Books of George, Lord Rodney, Admiral of the White Squadron, Volume 1. Page 230
  8. ^ Letter-Books and Order-Books of George, Lord Rodney, Admiral of the White Squadron, Volume 1. Page 490
  9. ^ a b c The Life and Correspondence of the Late Admiral Rodney. Godfrey Basil Mundy, p. 344,345
  10. ^ Letter-Books and Order-Books of George, Lord Rodney, Admiral of the White Squadron, Volume 1. Page 511
  11. ^ Letter-Books and Order-Books of George, Lord Rodney, Admiral of the White Squadron, Volume 2. 685
  12. ^ Lady Nugent's Journal of Her Residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805, Shepherd, p. 311,312
  13. ^ Christophe: King of Haiti, Cole, p. 303
  14. ^ Naval Chronicle, 17 (1807), pp. 458–462
  15. ^ ADM 8/69 Admiralty Records held at the National Archives, Kew
  16. ^ The Royal Navy. A History from the Earliest Times to 1900, William Clowes, Volume 4, p. 214
  17. ^ Ships of the Royal Navy, Colledge, p.216
  18. ^ London Gazette: no. 13600, p. 1096, 10 December 1793. Retrieved 8 July 2010.
  19. ^ London Gazette: no. 13684, pp. 723–725, 17 July 1794. Retrieved 8 July 2010.
  20. ^ London Gazette: no. 15717, p. 841, 7 July 1804. Retrieved 8 July 2010.
  21. ^ British Warships in the Age of Sail 1714–1792, Winfield, p. 313
  22. ^ Ships of the Royal Navy, Colledge, p.102
  23. ^ National Archives, Kew: ADM 36/14999 Admiralty: Royal Navy Ships' Musters (Series I) 1795 May – 1798 Aug HMS Drake
  24. ^ London Gazette: no. 15872, p. 1570, 14 December 1805. Retrieved 8 July 2010.
  25. ^ British Warships in the Age of Sail 1714–1792, Winfield, p. 214
  26. ^ The Royal Navy. A History from the Earliest Times to 1900, William Clowes, p. 334, 335
  27. ^ Naval History of Great Britain Vol. 2, James, p. 113
  28. ^ London Gazette: no. 18729, p. 2022, 24 September 1830. Retrieved 8 July 2010.
  29. ^ Isaac Schomberg (1802). Naval chronology; or, An historical summary of naval & maritime events, from the time of the Romans, to the Treaty of Peace, 1802. C, Rowarth, Bell Lane, Fleet Street. p. 378. 
  30. ^ Ships of the Royal Navy, Colledge, p.222
  31. ^ Ships of the Royal Navy, Colledge, p.18
  32. ^ Johnny Erik Balsved (17 February 2003). "Battle of West Kay 1801". Copyright © 2009-2011 Johnny E. Balsved. Retrieved 30 April 2010. 
  33. ^ London Gazette: no. 16027, p. 621, 9 May 1807. Retrieved 8 July 2010.
  34. ^ Naval History of Great Britain Vol. 3, James, p. 150
  35. ^ Ships of the Royal Navy, Colledge, p.345
  36. ^ London Gazette: no. 15935, p. 861, 8 July 1806. Retrieved 8 July 2010.
  37. ^ London Gazette: no. 15672, pp. 165–167, 4 February 1804. Retrieved 8 July 2010.
  38. ^ Naval History of Great Britain Vol. 3, James, p. 186
  39. ^ National Archives, Kew: ADM 51/1447 Captains' logs Tartar 16 Apr 1802 – 30 Apr 1804
  40. ^ London Gazette: no. 15889, p. 196, 11 February 1806. Retrieved 8 July 2010.
  41. ^ Lady Nugent's Journal of Her Residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805, Shepherd
  42. ^ Christophe: King of Haiti, Cole, pp. 140–143


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