Captain Jack Perkins – The First Black Skipper in the Royal Navy

The 18th Century Royal navy was not an institution noted for its racial diversity. Despite this, at least one black enjoyed a career as an officer that spanned 30 years and commanded a number of sloops, schooners and frigates in the process. His name was Jack Perkins.

The quarter deck of an 18th Century Royal Navy warship was not a place one would expect to see much in the way of racial diversity. Despite this, at least one black man enjoyed a career as an officer that spanned 30 years. He even commanded a number of sloops, schooners and frigates. His name was Jack Perkins.

On Sept. 6, 1800, the British frigate HMS Meleager of the Royal Navy’s Jamaica Station piped aboard its new skipper, John “Jack” Perkins.

By the time of his promotion to post captain of the 32-gun warship, Perkins had already earned himself an enviable reputation as a daring and capable naval officer. After joining the service 25 years earlier as a ship’s pilot, he had risen to command the 10-gun schooner HMS Punch. On his watch, the nimble, little vessel would capture no fewer than 315 enemy ships during the American War of Independence.

From there, Perkins would sail a number of other sloops and schooners into battle throughout the West Indies and lead a life of intrigue and adventure one would expect to read about in Horatio Hornblower or Jack Aubry novel. But this isn’t what’s most astonishing about Jack Perkins — But the fact that he was the first black man to captain a ship in the Royal Navy is!

At a time when most of his contemporaries in the New World toiled under the yoke of slavery, Jack Perkins was enjoying a remarkable naval career. In fact, he was described by one senior officer in the Royal Navy as an “officer of zeal, vigilance and activity.”

Humble Beginnings
Little if anything is known of Perkins’ early life, his parents or the circumstances of his upbringing, let alone how he came to serve in the Royal Navy.

What is known is that he joined the service in 1775, probably while he was in his late teens or early 20s, and served aboard HMS Antelope. It’s likely he had some experience at sea prior to enlisting. According to the newspaper The Naval Chronicle: “his knowledge of the different ports in the West Indies was, perhaps, seldom equalled, and never surpassed.” [1]

His performance on board the Antelope must have been exemplary; within three years, Perkins was given command of his own vessel:  The Punch. Over the next two years he amassed a remarkable collection of prizes.

Perkins on the Rise
Around 1780, Admiral Sir Peter Parker, commander-in-chief of the Royal Navy’s North American fleet, appointed Perkins skipper of HMS Endeavour, a 12-gun schooner, which the young officer used to capture or destroy another hundred enemy ships in the Caribbean, while taking thousands of enemy crews prisoner. He even managed to net one French vessel containing a number of senior enemy officers.

“The character and conduct of Captain Perkins were not less admired by his superior officers in Jamaica, than respected by those of the enemy,” wrote Archibald Campbell, governor or Jamaica.

Endeavour was eventually converted to a 14-gun sloop or war and Perkins promoted to master and commander of it. However, at the war’s end, his promotion was reversed and the he was stripped of command and put on half pay.

Without a ship, Perkins disappeared from the navy’s records. Some sources suggest that he even briefly turned pirate.

In 1790, Perkins returned to the Royal Navy and served as a officer aboard HMS Dianna. Three years later, he was captured by French authorities on Sainte Domingue (modern-day Haiti) while on a secret mission to supply arms to rebel slaves. Although France and Britain were no longer at war, Perkins was sentenced to hang for the offense. British officers managed to negotiate his release.

In 1793, Perkins was again in command – this time as master of HMS Spitfire, a lightly armed sloop. With Britain found itself again at war with the French, Perkins returned to action, capturing a French warship off Sainte Domingue. He would be given command of the vessel, which was renamed HMS Marie Antoinette.

Captain Perkins
For the remainder of the decade, Perkins fought against the French and later the Danish throughout the West Indies, commanding a raft of other ships.

In 1801, while in command of the 32-gun HMS Arab, Perkins led an expedition that captured the islands of St. Eustatius and Saba.

And in January of 1804, while commanding the 32-gun HMS Tartar, went ashore to assess the Haitian slave rebellion that was raging there. It was his last mission as an officer of the Royal Navy. He retired in March of that year.

After the service
His health failing, Perkins retired to Jamaica to live off his prize money. There are some reports that he may have travelled to Great Britain in 1805 to visit the country he served so energetically, but no compelling proof of his voyage exists. He reportedly never married but, according to some accounts, did father a prodigious number of children – as many as one hundred. [2] Perkins would be remembered as a true trailblazer — it would take until 1966 for an African American to rise to captain in the U.S. Navy.

Jack Perkins signature from one of his ship's log books.

Jack Perkins’ signature from one of his ship’s log books.


4 comments for “Captain Jack Perkins – The First Black Skipper in the Royal Navy

  1. 8 April, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Fascinating story. I love it. I don’t know where or how you do your research, but damn you good at it. Thanks!

    • 8 April, 2013 at 6:45 pm

      Thanks… that’s nice of you to write. The research isn’t a problem — loads of stuff online. The toughest part is coming up with fresh ideas three times a week. Sometimes I get them indirectly from the daily news, some come from books I read and documentaries I watch on TV, and some are just rattling around in my head.

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