Captain John Perkins

Updated: A reader has created a Wikipedia entry for Captain John Perkins.

The British Navy during the Age of Sail was a fairly conservative and socially homogeneous institution. Sometimes, however, men appear who break the mold. One of these is Captain John Perkins. There isn’t a lot of information on him. What there is seems to be collected neatly in one paragraph in the Dictionary of National Biography.

Perkins, John [nicknamed Jack Punch] (c.1745–1812), naval officer and spy, was born in Jamaica. Nothing certain is known of his origin, but he is described as a ‘mulatto’, the child of a white father and a black mother, and if so it is highly probable that his mother was a slave. Under Jamaican law, this would have made the boy himself a slave, but the mixed-race sons of white men in positions of authority were often emancipated and educated to the level of clerks or overseers.

Perkins must already have been an experienced mariner by the outbreak of the American War of Independence in November 1775, when he entered HMS Antelope, flagship at Jamaica, as a pilot, and he later claimed to have been ‘from his youth … engaged in the Sea Service’ (TNA: PRO, CO 140/75, 30). He continued on the books of various ships on the station throughout the war, but in practice he seems to have been detached most of the time in various small tenders cruising against enemy privateers. In command of the schooner Punch in 1778 and 1779, Jack Punch, as he was nicknamed, won a remarkable reputation: his claim to have taken 315 prizes and captured over 3000 prisoners in the course of the war was officially endorsed by the Jamaican house of assembly. Perkins also scouted enemy preparations at Cap François and Havana, making clandestine visits to the shore. On 15 October 1781 he was commissioned by Sir Peter Parker as lieutenant commanding the schooner Endeavour. In her he continued his spectacular career, taking a prize much larger than his own vessel, and in July 1782 Rodney, in a characteristically irregular promotion, made him commander of the Endeavour with a lieutenant under him. This was disallowed, and he was still a lieutenant at the end of the war.

What Perkins did during the peace is unknown, but on the mobilization in 1790 he offered his services to Rear-Admiral Affleck, was sent on an espionage mission to Hispaniola, and was about to go on another to Cuba when the threat of war receded. In February 1792, probably engaged again on intelligence work, he was arrested and condemned to death by the French authorities at Jéremie in St Domingue, and only rescued at the last minute by the interposition of a British warship. In June 1795 he was at sea once more, in command of the schooner Marie Antoinette, from which in June 1797, ‘an old and deserving officer’ (TNA: PRO, ADM 1/250, P50), he was promoted by Sir Hyde Parker into the sloop Drake. This time the commission was confirmed, and in September 1800 Parker made Perkins post in the frigate Meleager, from which he soon transferred to the Arab, and in 1804 to the Tartar (32 guns). In the Arab he occupied the island of St Eustatia on its evacuation by the French in April 1801. In the Tartar he was much on the coast of St Domingue during the war between the French and the slaves, led by Dessalines. There he found himself caught between, on the one hand, Edward Corbett, ‘extra minister’ sent from England to assess the situation, who complained that Perkins was unduly friendly to the black population, and, on the other, his admiral, Sir John Duckworth, who firmly backed him, and Lieutenant-Governor Nugent, who sought his advice. By now Perkins was no longer young, and after several bouts of illness (described as asthma) he was forced towards the end of 1804 to resign his command. He retired to his home in Kingston, where he died on either 24 or 27 January 1812—probably the latter, as he was buried on the 28th.

Perkins was a remarkable character, whose rise from obscurity, if not slavery, to the rank of post captain, coupled with his extraordinary skill, daring, and success, made a great impression on contemporaries. Though of no great education, he was functionally literate and sufficiently polished to move in naval and colonial society. He was probably unique among naval officers in apparently never once having visited Britain.


Filed under Age of Sail, Naval Biography

5 responses to “Captain John Perkins

  1. Gloomy Northern Boy

    Bearing in mind the very varied backgrounds of RN seafarers and the modernity of the Fleet and its international logistical network, I am not sure I would describe it as either homogeneous or conservative in the Napoleonic Age…

    • Certainly, that is true! The officer corps were held by a majority of men from upper class backgrounds, but there was plenty of room for those with skills to get in (professional interest mattered more than political interest). That being said, for a country which still endorsed slavery in the colonies, this is a remarkable achievement.

      • slam2011

        Black history in Britain is a bit niche, but can be varied, e.g. Nathaniel Wells Esq., created High Sheriff of Monmouthshire by the Prince Regent in 1818, was black: Wells was technically born a slave as the son of a Welsh plantation-owner and his (later enfranchised) black partner, Joardine. Inheriting his father’s wealth made a big difference.

        Did you know Jacques Francis, the diver who salvaged some of the guns from the Mary Rose a few years after she sank, was black? Also the first African on record to have testified in an English court.( )

  2. Pingback: Captain Jack Perkins – The First Black Skipper in the Royal Navy |

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