John Paul Jones
The Bonhomme Richard vs. The HMS Serapis
John Paul was born in the small fishing village of Arbigland, Scotland on July 6, 1747. To his parents John Paul and Jean MacDuff he was the fourth child. They had seven children but unfortunately all but two died in infancy. The family was originally from Fife but John Paul’s father had taken the family and moved to Arbigland where William Craik, the owner of a large estate their had met him and hired him to be his gardener.
John Paul grew up on this estate and to those who watched him grow up, it seemed that he always had a fascination and a passion to sail something. Whether it was a leaf as a child or a bit of wood blown by a small paper sail, John Paul was a seaman from birth. He attended Kirkbean School but spent much of his time at the small port of Carsethorn on the Solway Firth. As he grew up others often found him teaching his playmates to maneuver their little boats to mimic a naval battle, while he, taking his stand on the tiny cliff overlooking the small river, shouted shrill commands at his imaginary fleet.
At the age of thirteen he boarded a ship to Whitehaven, which was a large port across the Solway Firth. There he signed up for a seven year seaman’s apprenticeship on The Friendship of Whitehaven, whose captain was James Younger, a prosperous merchant and ship owner. His first voyage took him across the Atlantic Ocean to Barbados and Fredericksburg, Virginia at which he stayed with his older brother William, a tailor, who had left Scotland for America over thirteen years before, and who now was living comfortably and flourishing.
John Paul was released from his apprenticeship at age 17 after which he went straight into the slave trade as third mate on King George of Whitehaven. After some time he became disgusted with the slave trade and returned home. John Paul had become a captain at the age of twenty-one. When on one of his missions, John Paul was accused of assaulting and killing one of his sailors, and was then arrested but found not guilty by the Tobago courts because of lack of evidence and testimony on his behalf. Because of this he fled to America and changed his name to John Paul Jones of which he was called for the rest of his life.
He arrived in America just as the Revolutionary War was starting and joined the revolution effort. He was made a first lieutenant on an American ship and gradually, through his almost unbelievable successes, became captain of his own ship. He successfully completed many missions and raids against the British and as a result they considered him a full-blooded pirate. Some of the ships he commanded were Alfred, Providence, Ranger, and without doubt, the most famous of all Jones’ ships, Bonhomme Richard.
One of the most famous naval battles of all time for Americans and infamous for the English was led and initiated by John Paul Jones. On September 21, 1779, John Paul Jones, aboard Bonhomme Richard, along with the rest of his fleet, which consisted of Pallas, Vengeance, and Alliance, were sailing off the coast of Flamborough Head, Britain. They spotted two ships and without delay took up chase. The enemy ships split up one sailing Northeast and the other Southwest. Pallas set off in pursuit of the northern bound ship while The Bonhomme Richard and the Vengeance went after the southern one. As Bonhomme Richard quickly captured and sunk the southern ship, John Paul Jones saw through his looking glass another fleet of ships coming from the south. He thought at first that they were some sort of convoy heading toward Leith from London but as he gazed upon his prey he noticed that two of the ships had pendants hoisted, classifying them ships of war.
All of the ships except the two that appeared to be armed headed for shore by some sand bars which would be hard for the Americans to attack, while the remaining two made way for Bonhomme Richard. John Paul Jones sent a signal to the British ship and after a time, two small boats from the opposing ships came and informed Captain Jones that they were armed British merchant ships. In addition, they told him that a King’s frigate was nearby and that they perceived the Richard to be an English Ship of War. Captain Jones went along with the deception and managed to lure the other merchant ships out into the bay. Very quickly, the British ships realized who Bonhomme Richard actually was, and the Pallas was not in sight, so John Paul Jones took his ship and sailed back to Flamborough Head to find Pallas and the Vengeance. By then it was three o’clock in the morning so when The Bonhomme Richard once again came upon two armed ships they sailors were frightened but it turned out to be the Pallas and the Vengeance.
On the morning of September 23, 1779, a day which would be remembered in American History for more than five hundred years, The Bonhomme Richard and its fleet spotted, and began to chase a large ship that appeared to be the ship that John Paul Jones had forced ashore the night before. Soon after this they saw an English ship with 41 sail and 44 cannons appear around Flamborough Head, at which Captain Jones abandoned the chase of the small ship and hoisted sail to head for the large warship. Another smaller English ship of war appeared of which the Pallas set off in hot pursuit. Jones hailed for the captain of his ship the Alliance but this traitorous captain turned his ship and fled from the battle.
At quarter past seven that evening, Richard and the English warship (called the HMS Serapis) were on parallel courses and were approximately 800 feet apart from one another. Captain Pearson, of the Serapis, hailed once and then, as he hailed a second time, both ships fired their broadsides into one another. Two of the 18-pounders that Jones had put in the gunroom on the sides of the ship, jumped off their carriages as they were fired, wounding a number of the men and destroying part of the deck above. Captain Pearson then attempted to go sail around the bow of the Richard, and to rake her, (which is to fire directly into an opponent’s side from a position where the enemy’s cannon fire cannot be brought to hit the attacker), but The Richard quickly moved ahead and Jones was nearly able to hook up and board the Serapis. By this time over 80 of the 144 men working the gun deck battery of Richard were either killed or wounded and the deck was slippery with blood and fragments of bodies. Unfortunately, it was also riding two feet lower due to water entering through cannon shot holes from the Serapis. The two ships continued to trade fire for hours. When Alliance reappeared on the scene, Jones assumed that she had come to his rescue, but instead Alliance fired a broadside into Richard’s stern and sailed away to the northward. Jones realized that his ship was being shot to pieces and his only hope was to board the enemy. The chance came when the anchor on Serapis caught on Richard and the French marine sharpshooters that Jones had hired prevented the British from cutting it free. Because the American flag had been shot down, Captain Pearson hailed to ask if they were surrendering, “No, I’ve not yet begun to fight!” was John Paul Jones’ reply. This line immediately became Captain Jones’ most famous quote and when we think about this battle, this line stands forth above all.
The battle between these two ships had been in progress for over two hours and the ships were so close that burning pieces from the British guns had set fire to the wreckage on Richard’s decks. Captain Jones ordered Lieutenant Edward Stack to have some hand-grenades dropped down Serapis` main hatch. On the third throw, one ignited a pile of cartridges causing a huge explosion, which killed or wounded more than 50 British soldiers. The traitorous Alliance reappeared, and fired another round of cannon shot into the sterns of both ships and then immediately sailed off. The sharpshooters on the Bonhomme Richard by now had shot eleven men at the wheel of Serapis, and had shot down the main mast as well. Then Jones quickly organized a boarding party of 25-30 men and boarded the Serapis. After a few minutes of terrible slaughter of British soldiers, Capt. Pearson, having allowed the fleet of merchant ships he was protecting to escape, lowered the flag himself and surrendered the ship to Richard Dale, the First Lieutenant of the Bonhomme Richard. Because Richard was so badly wounded Jones took his men aboard the now conquered Serapis and after the Bonhomme Richard sunk headed for port.