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The Action Off Flamborough Head

July 2024
9min read

His main-deck guns were silenced, his hold was filling fast, and one of his own ships was firing into him. Still John Paul Jones refused to strike

By the autumn of the year 1779, Great Britain had been at war with her colonies in North America tor over four years. Things were going badly for King George III, and in particular for his navy. France and Spain were about to join his enemies: Gibraltar was threatened, and the islands of St. Vincent and Grenada were ripe for capture. But worse than this, Britain was not to be spared humiliation nearer home, at the hands of a man born thirty-two years earlier at Kirkbean, Kirkcudbrightshire, a village on Solway Firth which had been the birthplace of John Campbell, Hawke’s flag captain at the battle of Quiberon Bay.

The agent of humiliation began life as John Paul, son and namesake of a gardener. An elder brother had settled in Virginia, where he was doing well. At thirteen the young man crossed the Firth to Whitehaven, England, and turned to the sea, sailing as an apprentice in Whitehaven ships engaged in the North Atlantic trade and rising in due time to be master of a brigantine. In 1773, when he was trading at Tobago in the West Indies, as master ol the ship Betsey of London, his crew mutinied. Apparently Jones killed the ringleader. Fearing a local trial with hostile witnesses, he went to America, where he dropped his first name and took a new last one, Jones—very likely to hide his identity. It has not hidden him from history.

For sheer bravery under what he himself called “really deplorable” circumstances, not many naval actions surpass John Paul Jones’ encounter with H.M.S. Serapis off the coast of England in /779. This account by Oliver Warner, a well-known British biographer and naval historian, forms one chapter of his handsomely illustrated book entitled Great Sea Battles , covering twenty-six decisive duels at sea from Lepanto in 1571 to Leyte Gulf in 1944. Through the American Heritage Book Society, the book will be offered to our readers before its publication by Macmillan this fall. —The Editors

Two years later came the American Revolution, and with it opportunity. The unemployed Jones joined the Navy at once. As his sea experience had been long and varied, he was given a commission as lieutenant and appointed acting skipper of a thirtygun frigate. Soon afterward he had independent command, first of a sloop, and then of another sloop, the Ranger , in which he was ordered to France to take over a newly built frigate—which, alas, he never got.

From Nantes, his first port of call, Paul Jones look the Ranger to Brest, where he refitted. On April 10, 1778, he sailed on a cruise, intending to harass shipping in the Irish Sea and oil his early haunts, the coasts of the Isle of i\Ian, Cumberland, Wigtown, and Kirkcudbright. He did some damage locally and caused much alarm, by far his most successful exploit being oft Belfast Lough, where he fought and beat the Drake , a regular sloop of war, returning with his prize to Brest on May 8, a justly proud man.

Paul Jones was lionized in France, where he later made many feminine conquests and wrote a lot of verse to his admiring ladies, but he was disliked by his treacherous first lieutenant, and his homesick crew gradually became mutinous. At length Jones resigned command, and he was unemployed until the following spring, when he was able to commission an old French East Indiaman, the Duc de Duras , lying at L’Orient. He renamed her the Bonhomme Richard , as a compliment to his friend Benjamin Franklin, whose Poor Richard’s Almanac had recently been translated under the title Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard .

Jones’ new ship carried forty guns, and she sailed on August 14, 1779, with a complement of 380 men, of whom some 150 were French volunteers. The rest were of many nationalities, mainly outcasts. With Jones sailed the Alliance , an American-built frigate commanded by Pierre Landais, a Frenchman who had taken service under the American government; the Pallas , a French frigate; and the Cerf and the Vengeance , small French ships also sailing under the Stars and Stripes. Well handled, this could have been a formidable raiding squadron, but Jones, with all his gifts, did not possess the art of winning devotion, and from the first, difficulties with his captains, Landais in particular (see “The Revolution’s Caine Mutiny” in the April, 1960, AMERICAN HKRITAGE), were marked and serious.

As early as August 23, off the coast of Ireland, a coxswain and six men deserted from [ones’ own ship; nine more men and three officers, chasing the runaways, fell into British hands. The Cerf parted company, never to reappear; and little more was heard of the Vengeance . Jones then took what was left of his squadron up the west coast of Ireland, rounded the north of Scotland, and sailed down the east coast, where it was likely he would be able to capture valuable prizes. He was not disappointed. Pri/es came his way, but he found it increasingly difficult to keep his force together. Landais, with no tradition of discipline, regarded himself almost as an independent privateer and frequently made cruises on his own, paying no regard to the rendezvous which Jones had been careful to arrange.

At one time, Jones made a show of force oft Leith, spreading consternation in Edinburgh, but he was driven out of the Firth of Forth by a westerly gale. When it abated he was far out to sea, and he decided that alarm and preparation would have destroyed his chances of success. Sensibly enough, he decided to attempt off the English coast what he had failed to do in the Forth. By a fortunate chance he fell in with the Alliance , which had once more become separated, on September 23. Almost immediately thereafter, a large convoy was sighted coming southward, around Flamborough Head on the rocky Yorkshire coast south and east of Scarborough.

The merchantmen, carrying navy stores from the Baltic, were under escort from the Serapis (Captain Pearson), a newly built frigate rated at forty-four guns but carrying fifty, and the Countess of Scarborough (Captain Piercy). The latter was a hired sloop mounting twenty six-pounders—light guns, with few trained gunners.

The advantage of the wind was with the escorting ships. They at once stretched to the southward toward an enemy of whom they had probably had warning. Jones made the signal to form line of battle, but of this Landais took no notice. He stood toward the convoy, perhaps hoping to pass by the ships of war and make prizes while Jones fought for his life.

It was evening, and at about six o’clock the English tacked, crossing ahead of the Americans, keeping between them and the convoy. Flamborough Head itself was by now crowded with people whom the rumors of the day had drawn to the neighborhood. Even after the sun set, a harvest moon lit the scene for their benefit.

At half-past seven the first shots were exchanged between the Serapis and the Bonhomme Richard , while the Pallas was engaged with the Countess of Scarborough . The less important part of the battle was soon broken off, but was resumed later; then the Pallas , more powerfully armed, found herself well able to deal with her opponent, which she took prize after the Englishman had made a creditable resistance. Unfortunately for Jones, the Pallas spent the rest of the night securing her capture, and her captain made no attempt to go to the help of his commodore. The Alliance , a powerful ship which could have rendered Jones’ victory swift and overwhelming, gave up her pursuit of the convoy soon after dark, contenting herself with circling once or twice round the Pallas and the Countess of Scarborough , firing indiscriminately at both.

In the struggle between Jones and Pearson, the advantage should clearly have been with the Englishman. Not only was his ship new, his armament considerable (two decks of guns to Jones’ one), and his crew well trained, but the Serapis was a good sailer. Moreover, within a few minutes of opening fire, two of Jones’ guns burst, killing and wounding a number of men and damaging the deck above them. After an hour’s fighting, Jones knew that his only chance of success was to grapple his opponent. It should have been Pearson’s particular care to prevent this, for his advantage was in mobility and ordnance, not in point of numbers.

It is a matter of debate how Jones caught the Serapis , but the details themselves are clear. The Serapis’ jib boom caught in the starboard mizzen rigging of the Bonhomme Richard . Jones lashed it to the mizzenmast with his own hands. The Serapis’ starboard anchor then hooked her opponent’s quarter, and the ships swung together bow and stern, their starboard sides touching.

In close fighting there was little to choose between the opponents, but their distribution of strength became important. The lower-deck battery of the Scrapis with its i8-poundcrs smashed the Bonhomme Richard’s hull badly and reduced to silence her main-deck ordnance, but the gun crews, driven above, reinforced the fighting tops, swept the quarter-deck and forecastle of the Englishman with musketry and grenades, and forced her men below.

At this critical stage the Alliance , which, had she been even tolerably handled, could have raked the Serapis and settled the issue within a few minutes, repeated her earlier maneuver of circling the combatants, firing at both, and doing more harm—or so Jones said later—to friend than foe. Even so, her mere presence had a dispiriting effect on Pearson and his men.

The English captain was even more discomforted by a display of individual daring worthy of Jones himself. One of the Bonhomme Richard’s crew crawled out onto a mainyard, carrying a bucketful of hand grenades. One of these he succeeded in throwing down the main hatchway of the Serapis , where a number of cartridges had been placed so as to be handy for the guns. The grenade fell among these. The explosions spread the length of the ship, disabled many of the guns, and killed, wounded, or scorched their crews.

Actually, matters were nearly as bad on board the American. The carpenter reported to Jones that there was so much damage below that the ship was in danger of sinking. When word of the danger spread between decks, the chief gunner and two others ran aft, without orders, to haul down the flag, but finding that the staff had been shot away, they started to haul down another, bellowing, “Quarter! For God’s sake, quarter!” When Jones came up, furious, two of the wouldbe surrenderees fled, but Jones threw a pistol at the gunner which fractured his skull, stopping his wails.

Shortly after this incident, both captains attempted to board. Although neither was successful, the next event might have given the day to the Serapis . In the hold of the Bonhomme Richard were more than a hundred prisoners taken from prizes. Shortly after the gunner cried for quarter, the American master-at-arms went below to release them. Over a hundred men rushed on deck, and had they been organized they should have been able, with the help of their friends in the Serapis, to overwhelm their captors. But they were confused, panic-stricken, half-stunned with noise—in a condition to be ordered about but not to take the initiative. Jones, with sublime presence of mind, instantly set them to work in parties at the pumps. There they stayed, like obedient sheep. Only one man kept enough self-possession to make his way over to the Serapis , and to tell Captain Pearson the true state of the Bonhomme Richard .

This act of initiative was too late to be of any use. Both ships were beaten, and it was almost a matter of chance which would give in first. The matter was decided by Jones’ iron determination not to strike, augmented by the near presence of the Alliance and by the fact of the Pallas’ success becoming known to the English. At half-past ten the Serapis struck, Jones at once taking possession.

The Bonhomme Richard was with difficulty kept afloat during the night, and she sank about eleven o’clock on the morning of the twenty-fifth. The state of the men was much the same as that of the ships: they were completely shattered. The exact number of killed and wounded is uncertain, but in proportion to those engaged it was the bloodiest combat of its time.

Flamborough Head was the greatest scene of Paul Jones’ life. He managed to get his prizes to the Texel, where they were later taken over by the French. Jones received great honor among the subjects of Louis XVI. The King himself gave the hero a gold-hilted sword inscribed: VINDICATI MARIS LUDOVICUS xvi REMUNERATOR STRENUO VINDICI ("Louis XVI recognizes the services of the brave maintainer of the rights of the sea"). His own authorities awarded him a gold medal, and he is honored as one of the founders of the American Navy, though he held only one more active sea command, and that a brief one on his homeward journey.

The fate of the captains of the Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough is of some interest. They were tried by court-martial at Sheerness on March 10, 1780, and were honorably acquitted. The court held that “Captains Pearson and Piercy, assisted by their officers and men, had not only acquitted themselves of their duty to the country, but had, in the execution of such duty, done infinite credit to themselves by a very obstinate defence against a very superior force.” The merchants of London, whose cargoes Pearson and Piercy had safeguarded, presented Pearson with a sword of honor. King George III, with what may appear to have been some excess of enthusiasm, actually knighted him. Pearson indeed had done his best, but in the circumstances it was far from good enough. He should have taken one of the various chances open to him to defeat his indifferently equipped though determined and skillful enemy, whose conduct of the engagement was in fact beyond praise. Above all, he should have kept his distance, and pounded the American to pieces. Paul Jones deserves the last word about the occasion. When he heard how his antagonist had been rewarded, he said: “Should I have the good fortune to fall in with him again, I’ll make him a lordl”

The oddest fact of all was the continuous assertion by Landais that it was he who had defeated the Serapis . He lived years after the battle, chiefly in America, and long before his death he had utterly convinced himself of the truth of his own story.


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