The race to find the Bonhomme Richard

Sunday Independent:

Every US schoolchild knows that John Paul Jones, their country's first naval hero, rejected a call to surrender with the immortal words: "I have not yet begun to fight." What is less well known is that he was within sight of the Yorkshire coast when he uttered them.

Whether Jones ever said what was attributed to him is not certain. But it is true that one of the bloodiest naval battles of the American Revolution was fought in the North Sea on 23 September 1779, and that the American commander, despite having to abandon his sinking flagship, won the day. He captured the British warship attacking him and sailed off into legend.

This summer, 227 years after that encounter, British and American crews will again contend with each other off the coast of Yorkshire. This time they are in a race to discover the final resting place of the Bonhomme Richard, the 42-gun frigate commanded by the "Father of the American Navy". Jones's heirs in the US military are planning an underwater search, but they face competition from two other teams.


The Bonhomme Richard has long been a holy grail of marine archaeology, thanks to its association with Jones, said the naval historian Peter Reavely. "Britain has Nelson, and John Paul Jones plays the same role in the US. He is the greatest naval hero of the American Revolutionary War."


Originally named the Duc de Duras, the ship was built in 1765, then bought by the French government, which refitted her as a warship and lent her to the fledgling US Navy. John Paul Jones re-named her the Bonhomme Richard - after a magazine published by the US ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin.

A Scotsman who started his seafaring career at the tender age of 13, Jones was considered a pirate by the British, but a hero by America's rebellious colonists. In 1779 he took the Richard and three other vessels on a raiding expedition around the British coast, hoping to draw the Royal Navy away from its blockade of American ports.

The squadron captured 13 ships before attacking a Royal Navy warship, the Serapis, which was escorting 41 British merchant vessels en route from the Baltic. After a savage four-hour battle, Jones captured the Serapis, but his ship was so badly damaged that it was abandoned. Safely aboard the British flagship, his crew escaped to Holland and eventually returned to America.

The rediscovery of Jones's flagship would be more significant than that of the Titanic in 1985, said Melissa Ryan, project manager at the Ocean Technology Foundation. "The Bonhomme Richard was lost in a battle of national importance: the first naval victory for America during the Revolutionary War."


I hope they find it. John Paul Jones' bones reside in a crypt at the US Navel Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. One of his other famous sayings was "I want only fast ships for I am going in harms way." In that he was certainly accurate.


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