John Paul Jones – hero or villain?

Who was John Paul Jones? Local diver Bill Woolford looks at the legendary seaman, the Bonhomme Richard and the Battle of Flamborough Head ...

JOHN Paul Jones, hero of the American Navy or pirate? Whichever he was, hero or villain, my old mate Scotty likes to say: "So it was a Scotsman who founded the American Navy!"

Scotty, an ex-fisherman who now works on Bridlington Harbour, was born in Kirkcudbright in Scotland, as was John Paul as he was known then (the Jones came later).

Jones was born in Kirkbean, Kirkcudbright, on July 6 1747, the son of a landscape gardener. He was indentured in 1761 at the age of 13 to an English ship owner at the port of Whitehaven. His first voyage was on board an 18-gun brig called Friendship bound for Barbados and Virginia.

John Paul loved the sea, worked and studied hard, and in 1766, at the age of 19, he became first mate on the brig Two Friends of Kingston, Jamaica, and two years on he became master of the brig John, of Liverpool.

In October 1773, while in Tobago as master of the ship Betsy of London, captain Paul became involved with an insubordinate and mutinous Tobagan seaman who he ran through with his sword and killed. He did not hang around for the visiting Admiralty court and went to Virginia to see his brother.

It was there he changed his name to the legendry John Paul Jones. During this period he made friends with notable leaders of a growing movement towards independence from the English crown.

In 1775 he was appointed first lieutenant on the 28-gun Alfred and by May 1776, Jones being a natural leader, he was given command of the 12-gun sloop-of-war Providence. During his 12 months in command, Jones and his crew captured 24 British merchant ships and he was later appointed to command the 18-gun sloop-of-war Ranger.

Jones was growing in confidence and experience and in 1778, from his base at the French port of Brest, took the war to the British, attacking and taking many merchant ships in their own waters.

It was here he decided to attack hs old port of Whitehaven. It was rumoured he came in unopposed as the locals knew him from his childhood days.

He went on to plunder and burn the town and later fought and captured the British Navy's 16-gun sloop-of-war Drake in sight of hundreds of onlookers on a nearby shore.

This caused great alarm to the British Navy but great joy to the Americans. Jones, operating at his best in a free ranging environment, went from strength to strength.

He took command of the 900-ton French East- Indiaman Duc-de-Duras, armed her as a 34-gun frigate and renamed her the Bonhomme Richard. On August 14, 1779 Jones set sail from the French port of L'Orient and continued to raid our coastal waters, taking more and more British ships.

After sailing into the Firth of Forth and causing havoc in Edinburgh and the town of Leith, Jones, along with the Alliance, Pallas and Vengeance, found himself as far down the east coast as Hull. He then decided to double-back north 20 miles to Flamborough Head.

Jones was by then becoming a major thorn in the side of the British Navy and by the third week in September he had captured many British merchant ships, including two military supply vessels with stores for the British Army in America.

ON September 23, 1779 a convoy of 41 merchant ships were on their way down the east coast of Yorkshire with an escort of two Royal Navy vessels, the 20-gun armed ship Countess of Scarborough and the 44-gun ship Serapis under the command of captain Richard Pearson.

As they passed Scarborough Castle they noticed a large red flag flying, which indicated "enemies on our shores". By the afternoon, with most of the convoy scattered from Scarborough to Flamborough Head, captain Pearson signalled from the Serapis for them to return north and back under the safe haven of Scarborough Bay and under the castle guns.

The Countess of Scarborough and the Serapis continued to head slowly to the south east where they were to meet John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard for the first time. Pearson manoeuvred the Serapis and Countess of Scarborough between the approaching ships of John Paul Jones and the now fleeing convoy.

It was then he gave the orders "clear for action". Jones, however, had already ordered "all sails set" and closed in on the British ships. He then hoisted the signal "general chase" which meant all the sails the ship could carry.

At around 7.15pm the two ships drew nearer to each other and after a few verbal exchanges Jones fired the first broadside, simultaneously hoisting his colours. Serapis returned her broadside from the portside guns – the Battle of Flamborough Head had started.

The British had double loaded their guns which smashed large holes in the starboard side of the Bonhomme Richard's water line. Jones replied with similar tactics (double loading) with five balls passing through the Serapis' side near the sternpost.

They continued to fire at close quarters, first one and then the other blasting away at eJach other's water lines. At around 8pm both ships came together, with captain Pearson gaining the upper hand and the Bonhomme Richard taking water.

Countess of Scarborough and Vengeance exchanged occasional shots at each other from a distance but the main battle was between the Bonhomme Richard the Serapis.

The two ships had by then been fighting for 45 minutes and the Bonhomme Richard was being slowly destroyed by the Serapis' heavier fire power – Jones had not encountered that size of ship before. Both ships were side by side and grappled together, with musket shots being fired from the tops as the battle raged on.

It was becoming a spectacular scene as onlookers from Bridlington, Sewerby, Flamborough, Filey, Hunmanby and Speeton watched the two ships together and on fire with the constant thunder of the big guns, said to be heard as far away as Scarborough.

The Serapis was on her own by then as the Countess of Scarborough was beaten by the two larger ships and forced to strike her colours. As the battle continued, captain Pearson shouted across to Jones: "Have you struck? Do you call quarters?"

Jones replied: "No, I'll sink but I am damned if I'll strike." Years later this became retold as: "I have not yet begun to fight." After hours of more intense fighting, with bodies littering the decks, it was Captain Pearson who finally surrendered and Jones quickly ran his own colours up the Serapis' mast and her guns fell silent.

Both ships were badly damaged; the Bonhomme Richard was still taking water so captain Jones decided, along with the Alliance, to take the Bonhomme Richard in tow. Hours later the Bonhomme Richard slipped beneath the waves somewhere off Flamborough Head.

Jones decided to sail east, as it was rumoured a squadron of British ships was sailing from Hull to intercept him, and later landed in Texel, Holland.

Captain Pearson received a court martial but it was rescinded, as he was seen to have saved the convoy, and he later received a knighthood. John Paul Jones continued with his swashbuckling ways, touring around Europe, until he died and was buried in France.

Many years later American research discovered where he was buried. His remains were exhumed and taken to America to be laid in a mausoleum as the founder of the American Navy.

SO, was John Paul Jones a pirate (or privateer) like Drake and Raleigh before him? I think so. As for the immortal words "I have not yet begun to fight" – I think the Americans would like to think so, as they have built him up over the years as their naval hero.

As for saving his ship, I think he sailed away from the battle area as soon as he could, as he knew the British Navy would be hot on his heels. Personally, I don't think he could have towed a boat very far, especially with the state the Bonhomme Richard was in, being shot full of holes and full of water.

He would have been at the mercy of the wind and tide. Whatever you think about Jones, I must admit he was quite a character. I am surprised the Americans have not made a film about him yet, as I could imagine Mel Gibson stood on the quarter deck uttering those famous words "I have not yet begun to fight".

As a diver myself, along with my colleagues from the East Yorkshire Subsea Heritage and Exploration Group, we continue to dive and research the deep wrecks off Flamborough Head.

Having been in touch with the Ocean Technology Foundation of America, we can certainly tell them where the wreck of the Bonhomme Richard is not located, as over the years we have dived many wreck sites in search of it.

We look forward to this year's diving as we have several marks to look at off Flamborough Head. You never know, one of these could be the Bonhomme Richard!