United States

An Act of Heroism or an Act of Terrorism?

Terrorism is the preferred weapon of weak and evil men. An act of sabotage and violence. 9/11; a tragic aerial attack was one of the biggest acts of terrorism that occurred in America. But can an act of terrorism be for a good cause? James Aitken aka “John the Painter” committed acts of arson that some if not many would deem heroic during the American Revolution. Should we as a country root for him or detest him?

The American Revolution was a war of independence waged by the colonists.Due to an arising conflict Between Britain and the colonies. Tensions between the two grew for years. The British  government  imposed heavy taxes on the colonists  such as the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Tea Act of  1773. This created an uprise from the colonists who begrudged their lack of representation from Parliament, wanting the same rights as other British subjects. The American Revolution  took place from 1775 to 1783. The colonists were fighting to separate from the British rule. The battle of Lexington and Concord kicked off the war and the battle for independence began. The French joined the side of the colonies which turned the so called civil war into an international conflict. Ultimately the British surrendered at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783 ending the American Revolution, giving the colonists their independence from Britain.

James Aitken was born September 28th 1752 to George and Magdalen Aitken in Edinburgh, Scotland. James’ parents were skeptical about about whether or not he would live. James was 1 of 7 kids. The family was large and lived in a somewhat confined flat on Robertson’s Close. The neighborhood was one of if not the poorest and most populated in Edinburgh. Due to the children’s close proximity of one another they weren’t super close. Once the children left they usually didn’t have contact with their other brothers and sisters. This was common upon most families. James left his home at the age of nine. He became an apprentice to a local painter. Aitken was a part of George Heriot’s Hospital which was a charity based school giving fatherless poor children in Edinburgh a good education. His father passed in 1759 leaving his mother at the helm of impoverished household. In most cases widows were able to take care of their husbands businesses but George being a smith this was clearly impossible. As  Aitken progressed in his painting career he was exposed to all the hazards that came along with it such as prolonged exposure to paint, causing persistent vomiting and a serious  possibility of falling off the ladders. Aitken worked where and when there was a need. The long stressful hours he endured due to the trade demand led him to exhaustion and being poorly paid. He came to the realization that there was no future in being  a painter. For the years 1772 to 1777 he was constantly on the move never staying in one place for too long. Aitken had many sexual encounters on his many trips to London where he was attacked for being a Scot. One incident that stuck out in his sexual past was when he raped a woman. This occurred in in 1776 in the town Basingstoke, Hampshire. Aitken being 21 escaped in order to avoid being imprisoned for the rape he committed. He secured a passage to Jamestown Virginia. He was unable to payback Captain Robertson and was sold as an indentured servant. He spent two years on the plantations before escaping. Aitken was ill the first couple weeks arriving in America potentially facing diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. After gaining back his strength he ran away. Like most escapees in Aitkens shoes they headed to the nearest port to go back to Britain but James genuinely wanted to stay in America. He headed to North Carolina as well as floating between Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. The problem was his accent was a dead giveaway. Everywhere he went he was looked at as a foreigner. Philadelphia  had a large population of Scots-Irish immigrants. One might think this would be a decent place to settle down for the time being but war was in the air. Businesses weren’t hiring. It wasn’t until December of 1774 where Aitken was really suffering. A man named Malachi Macalle managed to get a petition signed by Virginians that expelled out of the country all Scotchmen. The year of 1775 there was a massive exodus of Scottish loyalists. Aitken didn’t really have a choice but to join them. The ship headed back to England commanded by Captain Wright was in need of crew so Aitken managed not having to pay but to work his way to England. More than anything he wanted to become an officer. This was his true ambition. He wanted to of course receive a commission, but in America. He offered to serve in the British army but losing all hope in receiving a commission he offered his services to the dawning American Army.                                                         

After many wasted and lonely years in the colonies, Aitken finally returned to England on hopes of being employed. The lonely and friendless man who didn’t have a penny to his name, spent hours drinking away. Attending  a local bar in Oxford he overheard a couple gentlemen discussing the significance of the dockyards to the British Navy. They mentioned them being a weak spot of the British Army. With nothing in mind other than money, fame, and desire to help the colonies win the war, he started to plot some ideas.  After just little time, Aitkens starts to believe that he could single handedly win the War of Independance by crippling those facilities.  Although determined to cripple the dockyards, fear of how guarded they were worried him.  This led him to flee to Paris where he met with American diplomat, Silas Deane. Silas was an American politician and member of the continental Congress having great support towards  American independence. to create an effective scheme.  After overcoming fear and gathering help, the plan was set; the plan was to hit five different dockyards over a five day period. In the town of Portsmouth. Hindering thoughts quickly turned to actions as he returned to England and set out to accomplish his goals.  Aitken attempted to execute his plan. He went to the rope house thinking it would be a prime spot to hit. He waited with his homemade incendiary bombs at the ready. The bombs were made with painting materials. This is how James Aitken got the name “John the Painter”. As he waited the tide approached. Aitken did not think about this possibility. If he waited for a lower tide he could have caused more damage because the ships-filled with gunpowder at the port would have been unmovable. An unexpected wait led him to be locked in until someone opened the door.  After being found he was briefly questioned, but managed to slip his way out of the situation and start from scratch.  Days after, he returned to finish the job but only managed to deal a small bit of damage. It cost around 20,000 euro in repairs. Many dockworkers found this to be because of the large amounts of flammable material laying around in the dockyard. Through his somewhat unsuccessful attacks he shifted towards the town of Bristol. Here he set fire to several British vessels: the  Savanna la Mar, the Fame, and the Hibernia. He used liquor and spirits as fuel for the fire. Aitken fled soon after. Citizen were awoken to the commotion of multiple fires. Aitkens hope of triggering a massive explosion were short lived when he found out that all three of the fires had failed to make contact with the combustibles. At the scene combustibles were left behind indicating this being intentional.  This  convinced everybody that an organized group was committing these crimes.  On the run he was  shortly captured  by British forces.  Overall the damage done by “John the Painter” was not severely significant but put a lot of stress on British citizens and forces.  Due to his cryptic and tedious acts of violence, after he was arrested, very little evidence was discovered that he was responsible for all of the crimes.  This led to the British implementing a spy in jail with Aitken whom he opened up too and revealed  the truth behind his crimes.  These so referred to “terrorist acts”  are what caused John the Painter’s death.  The British officials hanged him off of the highest gallows ever to be used for execution in England. Many British citizens attended due to the fact that he caused all this  terror as well as damage  throughout the towns. They could not understand how  a man hailing from the United Kingdom could cause such commotion in his  homeland. This is what  attracted  more than 20,000 spectators to his lynching. 

In the end, it was ordinary people such as journeymen, apprentices, and landladies which sealed Aitkens fate because there were no police resources.  It was these people who aitken his whole  life had been associated with whom which he had swindled. He was tried as any other felon would have been for his crimes in Portsmouth and Bristol. British citizens called him an incendiary meaning one designed to cause fires, but it also means one who provokes factions or promotes quarrels. Both these definitions failed to describe Aitkens motives. He acted out of malice. He sacrificed civilian occupied places. This was beyond sabotage. the crimes Aitken had committed were very shocking but seemed to have no lasting affect on how the British viewed itself nor the outcome of the war. We should still care because the message is more important than the outcome. It shows that terrorism can be for a good cause. He was not simply committing these acts to harm innocent people he was hoping to help his side win the war. If anything his actions were heroic.

Article by Connor King & Matt Jenner

Works Cited

“1777: James Aitken, Aka John the Painter, Terrorist of the American

     Revolution.”ExecutedToday.com, 8 Mar. 2013.

“John the Painter.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Sept. 2017,

Warner, Jessica. John the Painter: Terrorist of the American Revolution ; a Brief Account of His Short Life, from His

     Birth in Edinburgh, Anno 1752, to His Death, by Hanging, in Portsmouth, Anno 1777. To Which Was Once

     Appended a Meditation on the Eternal Foolishness of Young Men. Profile, 2005.

Comments are closed.