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The Action Off Flamborough Head
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
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
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.