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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
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.