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The Founders Club

Tracing the Philosophical Roots of the U.S. Constitution

The Battle of Flamborough Head

What would happen if you gave an outlaw Scotsman a new ship and told him to help the American cause in any way that he could? Well, we are going to be exploring that concept in today's article. This is the story of John Paul Jones and the Battle of Flamborough Head.

It was the 23rd of September, 1779 and Scottish Continental Naval officer John Paul Jones was sailing down the east coast of Britain creating havoc wherever possible. Now John Paul Jones has an interesting past. He always believed he was destined for something great and he was going to do whatever it took to achieve that greatness. He is quoted saying...

“It seems to be a law of nature, inflexible and inexorable, that those who will not risk cannot win.”

John Paul Jones was a commander in the British Navy and his name was just John Paul until he killed one of his crew for trying to start a mutiny and fled to America as an outlaw. There he changed his name to John Paul Jones and joined the Patriot cause. He was ordered to help the cause in any way possible so he started attacking British vessels. He actually took it a step further and sailed to Britain to attack vessels in English waters. He literally sailed to Britain to prove that they were vulnerable.

The British thought of him like a Pirate due to his tactics. Articles in Britain were published asking where was the British Navy? After some success he was given new ships by the French. He named his vessel and flagship Bonhomme Richard after the Poor Richard's almanac to honor Benjamin Franklin.

By September only 4 ships remained. The Bonhomme Richard, the Alliance, the Pallas, and the Vengeance. He continued to create Havoc around the coasts of Britain and on the 23rd of September he saw some British Merchant ships that were a perfect target. Jones sailed into the Bridlongton bay but before he had the opportunity to attack the British Merchant ships, two British Escorts sailed between them allowing the Merchant ships to escape.

The two British escort ships were the Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough. Jones’s plan was to sail in a straight line to use his total strength and fire on one side to devastate the British escorts. The French captain onboard the Alliance, Landais, chose not to follow his order. He had a lot more training in naval tactics and chose to sail away from the rest of the fleet to separate the 2 ships which worked. The battle had begun.

The battle took place in the moonlight and it had attracted thousands of British citizens. As they looked on, they saw these ships being illuminated by the moon and lit up with the flashes of the cannons and explosions. They couldn’t wait to see the Patriots sink. John Paul Jones wanted to give them a show.

After hours of battle the Serapis hit the Bonhomme Richard hard and killed a lot of Jones’s men while critically damaging the ship. Jones knew he was in trouble so he wanted to board the Serapis. He rammed the Serapis so both were completely entangled.

Many of Jones’s officers begged him to surrender but the stubborn Scotsman refused and when one of his officers tried to, Jones clobbered him with his pistol and continued the battle. Jones was manning one of his own cannons when Captain Pearson of the Serapis yelled at Jones to strip his colors and surrender which prompted Jones to yell...

“I have not yet begun to fight!”

The British tried to board the Bonhomme Richard but they were met with Jones’s hidden defence force. The Serapis’s mass finally fell over and Jones wanted to make the situation too hot for the British.

Jones’s Grenade-thrower William Hamilton ventured above the Serapis until he could almost look straight down on the deck of Serapis and he began to drop Grenades on the ship. As the grenades blew up it scattered burning gunpowder, setting off other charges nearby, and ultimately the chain reaction covered the entire rear half of Serapis’ lower gun-deck.

Captain Pearson understood that with the Countess of Scarborough being defeated, many of his crew dead or injured, his rigging and sails too badly damaged to make a speedy getaway, he could neither win nor escape. He had no hope of defeating the stubborn Scotsman and so the Serapis surrendered.

The Bonhomme Richard finally sank and so John Paul Jones took charge and repaired the Serapis. John Paul Jones would be known by the Americans as a hero and as a pirate to the British. This was truly one of his greatest moments.

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