John Paul Jones by G. Briggs

painting of John Paul Jones by G. Briggs

Most American School Children know of the famous Battle of Flamborough Head  of 23rd September 1779 , involving the ‘father of the American Navy’ John Paul Jones who commanded a small squadron. The battle has been presented as a ‘single ship action‘, but Jones was the commodore of a total of four vessels, including his flagship the ‘Bonhomme Richard’ , matched against two on the British side including the 44 gun Serapis commanded by Richard Pearson and a small ten gun sloop. Pearson was escorting a convoy from the Baltic of over fourty ships.

Jone’s took on the Serapis and was nearly defeated, as one of the other ships in his Squadron opened fire at both the Serapis and Bonhomme Richard, probably one of  the first recorded incidents of ‘friendly fire’ in United States history. At one point when asked to surrender Jones is alleged to have uttered the immortal words ‘I have not yet begun to fight’. The phrase is probably an approximation of what he actually said. The Bonhomme Richard was severely damaged and later sank. Jones captured the Serapis and made off in her.

From the first the accounts of the battle and particularly Jones himself were radically different. Both sides claimed victory. Captain Pearson lost his ship but saved the convoy which fulfilled his orders. The British press portrayed Jones as a murderous pirate and renegade; the American side a heroic Warrior. More than fourty Biographies were subsequently written about Jones. A low point was reached in the fictional biography written by Augustus C. Buell, who went as far as forging letters, including one from Jones which described the idealised qualities of an American Naval Officer.

More than one hundred men suffered appalling injuries including terrible burns. The irony is that the Bonhomme Richard crew list  shows that majority of the casualties fighting on the American side were men who were listed as English or Portuguese. Several groups have been searching for the Bonhomme Richard over the years, could a local group, the Filey Underwater Research Unit have found it.

 

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