Whitby Dive Site

 

The Bonhomme Richard Battle

Since 2003, Clive Cussler has launched consecutive annual searches off Flamborough Head in East Yorkshire to find the remains of one of the most famous ships in the history of the U.S. Navy, the Bonhomme Richard, the ship commanded by the American Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones, said to be the father of the U.S. Navy.

The war, also known as the American War of Independence, had its origins in an act passed by the British Parliament in 1705 in which legal documents in the American colonies had to be stamped and the tax paid to the British Government. The American colonists protested at the tax, one of their main arguments being that they were not represented in Parliament, and a growing number of them decided not to trade with England.

Over the following years, such was the pressure that eventually this Stamp Act was repealed, but in its place came a scheme where they had to pay duties on tea, glass and paper. This also caused so much uproar among the colonists that in 1770, it was decided that they would only have to pay the duty on tea.

The matter came to a head in 1773 when several cargoes of tea arrived at Boston and it was thrown into the harbour by the colonists. Britain now deemed that the colonists were in rebellion, but neither side would give way, and so the Colonists decided to defend their rights and declared war against Great Britain in 1775. A large military expedition was sent from Britain to try and secure the 13 colonies.

In July, 1776, the colonists issued a Declaration of Independence, as Americans and British fought several bloody actions. Due to their naval superiority, British forces were able to capture several coastal cities, including New York, but they failed to have the same success inland. At Saratoga, British forces suffered their most serious loss when 5,000 troops surrendered to the Americans.

After this action, the French, ever eager to join forces against the British and this time regain her lost colonies in North America, formally recognised the Declaration of Independence toward the end of 1777, and early in 1778 they made a treaty with the colonists, pledging arms and men. Once again, Britain faced the French at sea. In 1779, Spain joined with France in the hope that, together, Gibraltar would fall and pass into Spanish hands.

One of the officers of the Continental Navy of the American Revolution was John Paul Jones. He was born John Paul in a cottage in Kirkbean, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, in 1747 on the estate where his father worked as a gardener - the cottage still exists today. It has been restored and is open as a museum.

John Paul went to sea when aged 12, sailing from Whitehaven as an apprentice with the merchant Mr Younger, who was engaged in trade with America. He was the master of a merchant ship by the age of 21. In 1773, he had to flee the West Indies after he killed with his sword the ringleader of a mutiny over pay on his ship. He took up residence in Virginia, and adopted the names of John Jones and then John Paul Jones. He volunteered early in the War of Independence to serve in his adopted country's infant navy and raised with his own hands the Continental ensign on board the Alfred, the first of the Navy's first fleet.

A number of American and French privateers harried shipping around the coast of Britain and Jones earned a naval reputation for his raids.

Jones was given command of the USS Ranger in November, 1777, and sailed the following month for British waters, setting off eventually from the French port of Brest. Jones made the first landing by American forces in Britain. In April, 1778, he decided to attack the port of Whitehaven, from where he had first gone to sea. Using two small boats, he sailed into the harbour to attack the numerous colliers in the port. While Jones attacked one of the two forts guarding the harbour, it is reported that the crew of the other boat, supposedly heading for the other fort, reached the shore and immediately went into the nearest pub, where Jones eventually found them. Jones was forced to retreat, but not before setting some of the colliers on fire. The attack caused uproar throughout the land and it is reported that around a dozen Royal Navy vessels were ordered to find him.

Jones sailed the short distance to Kircudbright Bay where he planned to capture the Earl of Selkirk and release him in exchange for some American prisoners, but the Earl was not at home and so the crew ransacked the mansion looking for valuables, such as silverware. Jones was so impressed by the dignity of the Countess during the raid that he bought most of the silver from his crew and returned it after the war.

After sailing, the Ranger was off Carrickfergus, in northern Ireland, when they came across the sloop Drake, 20 guns. The engagement lasted just over an hour before the Royal Navy ship struck.

Jones returned to Brest on May 8, but despite the success of hos voyage, He found it hard to get a fleet of ships together until the following summer

In February, 1779, the frigate Due de Durae, built in France for the East India Co., in 1765, for service between France and the Orient, was placed at the disposal of Jones by the French King and she was renamed Bonhomme Richard. Of 998 tons, she was 152ft. long with a beam of 40ft and her armament comprised six 19-pounder smooth bore, 28 12-pounder smoothbore, and eight 9-pounder smoothbore. It took several months for a squadron to be gathered

On June 19, 1779, the Bonhomme Richard sailed from Lorient accompanied by the frigate Alliance (36 guns), Pallas (an armed merchantman of 30 guns), Vengeance (an armed merchantman of 12 guns) and the cutter Cerf (18 guns) with troop transports and merchant vessels under convoy to Bordeaux. From there, Jones and his American - French squadron were to sail against the British in the Bay of Biscay. However, the Bonhomme Richard and the Alliance collided and were so badly damaged that the ships were forced to return to port for repairs.

The American - French squadron sailed again on Aug. 14 to operate in British waters. Off the south coast of Ireland, two prizes were captured, but 23 Englishmen from the crew of the Bonhomme Richard escaped in two of the ship's boats and landed in Kerry. Going northwest around the west coast of the British Isles into the North Sea, the ships headed down the east coast.

On Sept. 13, the squadron arrived off the Firth of Forth, and Jones eventually persuaded the other captains to join him in an attack on Leith, the port of Edinburgh. The inhabitants put up a battery at Leith ready to repel the ships, but the weather was not in the American French squadron's favour and the strong wind turned to a gale, forcing the ships back out to sea.

Jones then wanted to carry out a similar attack on the Tyne, but again the captains of the other ships were reluctant to join him, and so the attack never took place.

On Sept. 21, the squadron took or destroyed three ships off Flamborough Head, bringing the number of ships taken on the voyage to 17.

Throughout the voyage, the captain of the Alliance had not happy being under Jones's orders and deliberately and frequently took his ship out of the squadron, usually following at some distance. The Pallas also left the squadron at times but on the morning of Sept. 23, the Alliance and the Pallas rejoined the squadron.

That afternoon, near Flamborough Head, the squadron encountered a fleet of 41 merchant ships, heading from the Baltic to English ports. They were sailing in convoy, escorted by the frigate HMS Serapis (44 guns), under Captain Richard Pearson, and the armed ship Countess of Scarborough (22 guns), Commander Thomas Piercy.

The two British armed ships immediately placed themselves between the American - French squadron and the merchant ships which sailed off away from the warships. The Vengeance and Cerf chased after the merchant ships but were unable to intercept any of them. Meanwhile, people were gathering on the shoreline and the cliffs to watch the coming battle between the two British ships and the three American - French vessels.

At dusk, the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis were within hailing distance, and challenged each other to surrender, without success. At 1920 hours, the Bonhomme Richard opened fire on the Serapis. It was a bitter engagement, with both ships blasting each other with devastating results.

Meanwhile the Countess of Scarborough was engaging the Pallas, while the Alliance circled the four ships, firing at them on occasions.

The two ships locked together, bow to stern, starboard to starboard, and the lower guns of the Serapis continued to fire into the enemy's hull. The Americans had abandoned the lower gun deck and the gun crews were on the deck and the tops, raining musket fire onto the deck of the Serapis.

The Serapis was well alight in several places, and on the Bonhomme Richard, a seaman threw a hand-grenade down the English ship's main hatchway and into the gunroom, where it exploded among the cartridges for the 12 pound guns. The explosion tore through the gundeck, killing or wounding many of the gun crews.

It was about this time that the Alliance closed with the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis and fired a broadside hitting the Bonhomme Richard. The Serapis continued to fire on the Bonhomme Richard, and it was soon apparent that she was slowly sinking, as fires raged in several places.

The Bonhomme Richard lay half-submerged and was kept afloat only because the master at arms had released about 100 men who had been taken prisoner from British ships they had captured or sunk during the voyage, and the prisoners were told to man the pumps and pump for their lives or the vessel would sink and they would drown. But their efforts could not keep pace with the incoming sea.

It was shortly after this that a warrant officer of Bonhomme Richard and the ship's carpenter, unable to see their captain or the first lieu¬tenant and assuming both were dead, decided to surrender their ship which was on fire and sinking. They called for a ceasefire and ran to haul down the ship's pennant on the mainmast.

Hearing their calls for surrender, an enraged Jones drew his pistols and ran at them, shouting "Shoot them, kill them!" The two men abandoned their attempt to lower the ship's pennant and turned to flee when they saw Jones approaching them. Jones, finding his pistols unloaded, hurled his empty pistols at the carpenter, hitting him on the head and knocking him unconscious.

On the Serapis, Capt. Pearson had heard the calls for surrender and shouted across to Jones: "Have you struck? Do you call for Quarter?" Jones, according to most accounts, replied: "I have not yet begun to fight."

But on the Serapis, the crew could no longer fire any of her guns. At 2230 hours, Capt. Pearson hauled down his colours.

Jones ordered his crew to board the Serapis and at around 1100 on Sept. 25, the Bonhomme Richard sank. Jones sailed the captured Serapis to Holland for repairs. After a number of weeks, Jones and his squadron sailed down Channel to return safely to Lorient.

The Countess of Scarborough and the more powerful Pallas fought for two hours before the British ship was captured. Both ships were extensively damaged.

Because of the two engagements, the British merchant ships were all able to make a safe escape.

The casualty toll on the Serapis and Bonhomme Richard was high with, according to reports at the time, 129 killed or wounded on the British and 116 killed or wounded on the Bonhomme Richard.

There is, however, some question whether Jones' actually said: "I have not yet begun to fight.". Richard Dale, Jones' first lieutenant during the battle, first credited him with that immortal phrase. Dale would normally be considered an excellent source but his recollection of Jones' words came 46 years after the battle when the then retired 65-year-old commodore recounted them to John H. Sherburne, an early biographer of Jones.

 

The Naval Historical Center (NHC), in Washington, was a supporter of the Ocean Technology Foundation (OTF) in leading the expedition to find the wreck of the Bonhomme Richard. Other project collaborators include the University of New Hampshire Center for Coastal Ocean Mapping / Joint Hydrographic Center, the College of Exploration, the Surface Navy Association is also a key supporter of the project as was th English Heritage, which advises the British Government on the historic environment.

The OTF created a computer model of the ship, which will simulate how she may have drifted after the battle. With the benefit of all this information, the project team was believed to have pinpointed an area where they believe the wreckage lies. The OTF and its partners will conduct surveys of the ocean floor using a magnetometer, which can detect large amounts of metal ballast underwater, and high-tech sonar systems that can identify anomalies on the ocean bottom.

Whilst advances in science and technology have made it possible to find any ship that has been lost and buried in the seabed. I know from experience that it is never that easy, indeed if it were the OTF team might yet have found the wreck site nor would have we seen Clive Cussler mount consecutive expeditions! When found, the wreck of the Bonhomme Richard will undoubtedly be one of the most important archaeological discoveries in U.S. naval history.

The Bonhomme Richard is quite possibly the most important underwater archaeological site to the U.S. Navy. Discovery of the shipwreck may well shed new light on the battle between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis, what life was like on board the ship for the officers and crew, ship's her armament and weaponry, and the construction of the ship herself.

However, with the ability to discover comes also the responsibility to manage, preserve, and interpret for all. The OTF team were planning on involving teachers, students and the public, who can share the search through the Internet. Lesson plans, an online workshop for teachers, and an interactive Web site will help raise awareness in the public and the education community of one of the most fierce and pivotal battles in U.S. naval history.

John Paul Jones

As for Jones, he failed to realise his dream of becoming an admiral in the Continental Navy and he spent the remaining years of his life trying to increase his professional knowledge of fleet command and to convince Congress that he should be appointed the United States Navy's first admiral. But he was blocked at every turn.

Frustrated, Jones left the U.S. for France in 1788 and was eventually offered a commission in the Imperial Russian Navy as a Rear Admiral, but he again encountered jealousy among other admirals. He returned to Paris where he remained without money or prospects until his death in July, 1792, at the age of 45. The site of his grave in Paris was soon forgotten.

In 1905 Jones' grave was rediscovered, and his remains were returned to the United States to be re-interred in a vault beneath the chapel of the Naval Academy at Annapolis in January, 1913.
The American Revolutionary War ended in 1783 when the Treaty of Paris recognised the independence of the United States of America.