For as storied as John Paul Jones’ three mast frigate Bonhomme Richard has become her life was relatively short and surprisingly exciting considering her origins. She was never intended to march into battle, being originally built in the French dockyards at Brest as an East India merchantman. But she faced her challenges in her brief time as a warrior with relish and heroism, as all the best ships do.
Built in 1766 for Monsieur Berard of the Companie des Indes, the heavy frigate was originally named Duc de Duras. She probably carried only light guns, perhaps no more than 12 pounders, during her twelve years on the merchant round. Little is known about this part of the ship’s life, but she seems to have been sturdy, weatherly and unmolested by freebooters.
By 1779 France was deep into another war with England and had both feet firmly in the American Revolution. John Paul Jones, now famous in France for his continued harassment of British shipping, was in the country after the loss of his inimitable Ranger. No doubt through the persuasion of America’s ambassador Benjamin Franklin, Louis XVI bought Duc de Duras from Berard and turned it over to Jones.
Now Commodore Jones was given a French commission and authority to prey on British shipping, particularly the privateers that continually troubled her merchants. The frigate went through a refit and was mounted with six 18 pound, twenty-eight 12 pound and eight 9 pound cannon and stuffed with a privateer-sized crew of close to 400 men. Jones named his new flagship Bonhomme Richard in honor of Franklin whose Poor Richard’s Almanac was known in France as Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard.
The frigate left the port of L’Orient on June 19th on her first mission: escorting French merchants to a number of ports along the Bay of Biscay. In Jones’ accompanying flotilla were the American built frigate Alliance and three French ships, the frigate Pallas, the brig Vengeance and a cutter, Le Cerf. The five ships would cruise together, on and off, for the next three months.
Bonhomme Richard was the largest of the flotilla. She displaced nearly 1,000 tons, was 155 feet in length and 40 feet across her beam. Her draft of 19 feet made her unsuitable for shallow bays and estuaries, so the brig and cutter were almost mandatory tenders. Certainly life aboard her was uncomfortably cramped. Jones had obviously planned for prize taking and that necessitated men for prize crews.
Once the merchants had been seen safely into their ports, Jones turned his ships northward for a cruise quite literally around the island of Britain. Setbacks arose, including an embarrassing collision between Bonhomme Richard and Alliance that caused a retreat to L’Orient for refit. Back at sea by August 1st, Jones began collecting prizes of British merchants and privateers. Trouble continued, however. When the flotilla was becalmed off Dingle Bay, Ireland, an altercation broke out between Jones and Alliance’s French Captain Pierre Landais. Landais essentially called Jones a coward for keeping Alliance from following a prize into the Bay. Jones claimed he felt the calm coming and wanted to keep Landais from capture but Landais would not back down. He would take Alliance out on her own and later, meeting up with Bonhomme Richard again off Cape Wrath, Scotland, would challenge Jones to a never-to-be-realized duel.
This questioning of the Commodore’s authority brought desertions during the calm and Le Cerf fell out of sight in a heavy fog while trying to bring back the wayward men. Eventually Bonhomme Richard, Pallas and Vegeance pressed north to the outer Hibredes and then turned south. Jones tried to blockade and ransom Newcastle, the coal port in eastern England, but his captains would not participate. Several prizes of colliers (ships carrying coal particularly to Scandinavia and Holland) were taken, however, and success for Jones’ cruise began to materialize.
At dawn on September 23rd, Bonhomme Richard, along with Pallas, sighted HMS Serapis and her consort sloop Countess of Scarborough. It took the entire day for the ships to close on each other due to the poor winds but by 6:30 in the evening Jones bespoke Captain Richard Pearson of Serapis. No kind words were exchanged and within the hour a firefight was in progress.
Things went poorly for Bonhomme Richard at first. Two of her 18 pounders exploded, killing a number of men and shutting down the other four heavy guns for fear they might also be defective. She was left with only her light guns against Serapis’ greater fire power. Jones made a desperate and as it turns out brilliant tactical decision to ram and board Serapis as if he and his opponent were Roman triremes. Bonhomme Richard’s hull befowled Serapis’ foreanchor, holding the two ships together. Jones applied a series of grapnels to increase the hold and boarding commenced while the extremely close range firefight continued.
Both ships were nearly destroyed in the four hour conflict that followed. At last Serapis surrendered some time after Countess of Scarborough struck to Pallas. Jones transferred his entire crew to Serapis, who was in only slightly better shape than her opponent, and managed to limp her into the Texel Roads port in Holland.
Bonhomme Richard, the former Duc de Duras, was noted in Jones’ log as sinking at 11:00 AM on September 25th of 1779. Gone but not forgotten, Bonhomme Richard, as noted in last Friday’s post, is now a prize herself. But this time the hunters are marine archaeologists and the benefactor is history.
Painting via Maritime National Images.