John Paul Jones and Serapis

John Paul Jones and Serapis

One of John Paul Jones’ most famous quotes, “I have not yet begun to fight” was spoken at the battle between Bonhomme Richard vs. Serapis . This battle at Flamborough Head along the Yorkshire coast was several hours long that left Jones’ ship in shambles. There were many casualties and he almost didn’t win. This week, Midshipman Alex Morgan regaled us with a tale of that battle in our #TallShipTuesday video in honor of John Paul Jones’ Birthday.

Jones’ Journey to England

Long after John Paul Jones left Providence, in 1779 he went on to captain the Bonhomme Richard. This ship was a gift from King Louis XVI of France who came to American aid. Jones named this ship after his friend Benjamin Franklin who wrote Poor Richard’s Almanac. This book became popular in france after it was translated to Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard. Jones was originally tasked with escorting French ships to their destinations safely. He deemed this task beneath him. Jones wanted to bring the fight to England and force English ships home to patrol their waters instead of menacing American coasts. He traveled over the seas with his small fleet of French and American Ships including Alliance, Pallas, and Vengeance amongst others.

Jones eventually made his way over to Ireland, Scotland, and finally England. Upon making it to the coast off Yorkshire on September 23rd, his crew spotted a fleet of ships. Jones Identified them as a merchant convoy. 50 merchant ships sailed on a voyage to Norway escorted by HMS Serapis, a frigate, and Countess of Scarborough, a sloop-of-war (like Providence). Jones turned his small fleet towards these ships and gave chase.

The Battle

Jones readied his men for battle. Serapis, not knowing where the ships hailed from, tried to figure this out as darkness fell. Flags were to dark to distinguish were they came from, so they tried to hail the ship several times. They came within half a pistol shot in attempts to hail the ship, but did not get an answer. Before long both ships had begun to fire. Wood splintered, holes began to give way to water. Bonhomme Richard was outgunned. Some of their cannons exploded within their ship. The situation began to look dire. It was then that the captain of Serapis shouted “Have you struck? Do you ask for quarter,”  Jones shouted back “I have not yet begun to fight!” 

Somehow the fight continued for 4 hours. Eventually they managed, just barely to win. With their ship sinking, the surviving crew boarded Serapis. Jones desperately tried to save Bonhomme Richard, but there was nothing they could do, the damage too extensive. When all was said and done, “roughly half the crew of both ships were killed or seriously wounded in one of the longest and bloodiest battles during America’s quest for independence.


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