I’ve Not Yet Begun to Fight
John Paul Jones and the Battle of Flamborough Head
There was a recent story in the news that John Paul Jones’ ship, the USS Bonhomme Richard, was located off the coast of Yorkshire, England. The ship sank in 1779 during the naval battle of Flamborough Head and was the first US ship to defeat a British ship in its home waters. When I posted the story on social media, I received a few responses from readers who didn’t know we “took the fight to them,” so here’s the story of the Battle of Flamborough Head along with the crazy story of what happened after.
John Paul Jones
John Paul Jones was born John Paul in Scotland, July 6, 1747. His father worked as a gardener on the estate of Arbigland on the Southern coast. He began his maritime career when he was just thirteen years old, sailing as an apprentice on a merchant ship. His older brother, William Paul, settled in America, in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Jones advanced in his career while sailing back and forth between England/Scotland, the American Colonies, and the Caribbean Islands. In 1768 he found himself in command of the Scottish brig, John, after both the captain and ranking mate developed yellow fever and died. He successfully navigated the ship to a safe port and was rewarded by the owners who made him commander of the vessel and crew with a 10% share.
Jones life gets complicated here. Let’s say he gets into a bit of trouble while serving as captain of a couple of ships. In one case, he had a disobedient sailor flogged, the sailor died, and Jones spent some time in a Scottish prison. He was released when it was found that the sailor died from yellow fever. The man was the son of a very influential Scottish family, so Jones made his way to Tobago, in the Caribbean. Jones got into more trouble when he killed a mutinous crew member with a sword in an argument over pay. He made his way to Fredericksburg and adopted the full name “John Paul Jones.” In some way, it seems so very American that our first great naval commander was an outlaw!
The Bonhomme Richard
Jones signed up to serve in the Revolutionary War in 1775. He commanded a few different ships (with plenty of controversies we’ll save for another time) and in 1779 was captain of the 42-gun USS Bonhomme Richard. It was a former French merchant ship, rebuilt and given to America by a French shipping magnate. Now based in France, Jones was eager to take the battle to the English coast. He got his wish September 23rd, at Flamborough Head, off the coast of Yorkshire, England when he encountered the HMS Serapis, a British, double deck 44-gun ship commanded by Richard Pearson. That night, the Serapis carried six extra guns for a total of 50.
The ships exchanged heavy fire, and the Bonhomme Richard suffered massive damage. Incredibly, Jones had his men lash the two ships together and continued fighting in close quarters. The Serapis was now too close to fire on them. The Bonhomme Richard had a larger crew which Jones used to his advantage. When Captain Pearson yelled over to Jones to surrender, Jones responded with the famous quote “I’ve not yet begun to fight!” and ordered his men to board the Serapis! (It’s believed the response was much more aggressive and colorful than what history remembers.) The battle raged on for three more hours until Pearson surrendered the Serapis. Jones took command, unlashed the Bonhomme Richard, which sank, and sailed to neutral, Dutch waters. But there was still more to come.
On To Neutral Territory
Jones held the original crew of the Serapis prisoner, renamed the ship the “USS Serapis” and hoisted an American flag based on a drawing he’d received from Benjamin Franklin. He sailed to Holland, neutral territory, where he would release the prisoners and continue on his way.
The USS Serapis docked in the port of Texel, a part of the United Dutch Provinces. But instead of recognizing the flag of the United States of America, British diplomats claimed it was a pirate flag and demanded the arrest of “the black pirate, Paul Jones”!
It is with pleasure that we acquaint your excellency that the flag of the United States of America consists of thirteen stripes, alternately red, white, and blue; a small square in the upper angle, next the flagstaff, is a blue field, with thirteen white stars, denoting a new constellation – Benjamin Franklin and John Adams
The Dutch weren’t eager to hand over Jones, the ship and his crew since they were quietly aiding the Americans. (Remember the last newsletter, in which I showed the British depiction of the Dutch playing both sides in a political cartoon?) The Dutch diplomat suggested they check the records of official flags to settle the dispute. Miraculously, a drawing of the Serapis flag appeared in the record book! (The drawing, labeled “Serapis” is dated October 5, 1779, is still in Dutch archives.)
Eventually, John Paul Jones sailed out of Texel and continued his naval career.
Today, John Paul Jones is interred in a bronze and marble sarcophagus in the Naval Academy Chapel at Annapolis, MD. The USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53), a Navy destroyer, bears his name.
Note: There are different tellings of the Serapis or Franklin Flag story. One has Jones sailing the Serapis into Texel with the flag and the other without a flag. In the latter version, the Dutch made the flag and the illustration.
Some of you might remember I did an episode of “Mysteries at the Museum” about the Franklin Flag and we used the version that says Jones sailed into Texel with the flag, so I’ve gone with that one here, too. But either might be true.
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