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Bonhomme Richard

A French translation of Benjamin Franklin's nom de plume, "Poor Richard." When John Paul Jones received the Duc de Duras from the King of France, Louis XVI, he renamed the former French East Indiaman Bonhomme Richard to honor Franklin, the American Commissioner at Paris whose famous almanacs had been published in France under the title Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard.

(Frigate: tons 998; length 152 feet; beam 40 feet; depth 19 feet; complement 380; armament six 18-pounder, twenty-eight 12-pounder, eight 9-pounder)

The first Bonhomme Richard--a merchantman built in 1766 under the name Duc de Duras for La Compagnie des Indes, France's version of England's East India Company--was purchased by Louis XVI from a Monsieur Berard in early 1779 and placed at the disposal of Capt. John Paul Jones by France's Minister of Marine, Monsieur Gabriel de Sartine, for operations against the British. Sartine gave Jones authority to use his own judgement in determining when and where he would sail and what he would then attempt to do.

After spending the next few months selecting officers, recruiting, arming the vessel as a frigate, and preparing her for sea, Jones--who now bore the honorary title of commodore since other warships had been placed under his overall command--got underway from L'Orient, France, in Bonhomme Richard on 19 June 1779 to escort a convoy of transports and merchantmen to various ports along the coast of the Bay of Biscay. The fine new American frigate Alliance and three French warships--the frigate Pallas, the brig Vengeance, and a cutter taken from the British called Le Cerf--were also in his squadron to help him protect these charges.

Soon after Jones left L'Orient, a storm arose; and, as the allied ships were battling heavy seas that night, Bonhomme Richard and Alliance collided in the dark. Though both suffered significant damage, each was able to continue her mission.

During the cruise, several British men-of-war approached the allied squadron, but all quickly withdrew when they realized the strength of Jones' force. Such occasions showed the American commodore that his flagship was too slow to force ships of the Royal Navy to fight when they preferred to flee. After seeing each of its charges safely into port, the squadron returned to L'Orient on 1 July.

Repairs were then Jones' first order of business. While Bonhomme Richard received a new bowsprit and Alliance had a new mizzenmast stepped, their three French consorts cruised off Belle-Ile in quest of British privateers which had been preying on French merchantmen in that vicinity. They returned without scoring and in need of repairs themselves. Nevertheless, the squadron was again ready for sea by the end of the month. After contrary winds gave way to favorable breezes, Bonhomme Richard sailed with Pallas, Vengeance, and Le Cerf for waters off Ile de Groix where Alliance and two French privateers, Monsieur and Granville waited.

Shortly before dawn on 14 August, the seven warships stood out from Groix Roadstead and headed roughly northwest toward the southwestern corner of Ireland. Four days out, Monsieur took a prize; but, on the 19th, that privateer left the squadron with her victim. Later that day, Bonhomme Richard and her consorts began pursuing a large ship; but, after a long chase, she vanished over the horizon on the 20th.

The next day, two rounds from Bonhomme Richard's guns brought Mayflower to; and Jones sent that brigantine to L'Orient under a prize crew. On the afternoon of the 23d, while the squadron was becalmed off the Skelligs near the entrance to Dingle Bay, a lookout sighted Fortune. Jones took that Bristol-bound brig with two armed boats from the flagship and sent the prize to France under orders to either Nantes or Saint-Malo.

On the same day, Jones' already cool relationship with Alliance's commanding officer, Capt. Pierre Landais--a former officer in the French Navy who had gone to America under the sponsorship of Silas Dean and had received a captain's commission in the Continental Navy from Congress' Marine Committee--were further strained to a dangerous degree. Jones had sensed the calm's coming on and--realizing that any of his ships becalmed close to the Irish shore would be in great danger of being captured--denied Landais permission to pursue a vessel that had been sighted in shoal water just outside the breaker line. On the afternoon of the 24th, Landais, who had long disliked Jones, visited the flagship and insultingly berated Jones while announcing that he would obey no future orders from the commodore; but, instead, would follow his own judgement in all matters.

Other evils also sprang from that calm on the 23d to bedevil Jones and his squadron. That evening, when Bonhomme Richard had drifted dangerously close to shoals off the Skellig Islands, Jones ordered his barge lowered so that it might tow the frigate into deeper and safer water. Unfortunately, the coxswain had recently been disciplined; and the boat's Irish oarsmen were delighted by an opportunity to return home. Therefore, well after dark, they cut the hawser and sped shoreward toward freedom. Then a jolly boat sent in pursuit of the deserters was lost in a dense fog which settled during the night and remained through the following day.

That afternoon the commodore sent Le Cerf to look for the missing boats. However, after failing in that mission, the cutter was unable to find her way back to the squadron and finally returned to L'Orient alone.

Not only did the squadron lose officers, men, boats, and the cutter; but Bonhomme Richard's other consorts began dropping away. Granville, the remaining privateer, left to take a prize and never returned. Pallas, the French frigate, broke her tiller at night; and dropped behind out of sight. Landais took Alliance off in pursuit of prizes on his own, not to return to the fold until the end of August. Moreover, when the commodore's errant oarsmen reached shore, the deserters carried intelligence about Jones' force which alerted the British to its threat and prompted the Admiralty to send out warships to search for the allied squadron which, for the time being, had been reduced to Bonhomme Richard and Vengeance.

The two ships continued to sail in a generally northerly direction west of the outer Hebrides and then headed for Cape Wrath, the northwestern tip of Scotland. On the afternoon of 30 August, Jones sighted three ships on his port bow and gave chase. Just before noon the following day, she overtook the letter of marque Union and persuaded her to strike. Shortly thereafter, Alliance reappeared with a prize of her own called Betsy. Landais celebrated the reunion by reiterating his refusal to obey Jones and by speaking of a duel once both men had reached shore. Pallas rejoined the squadron on the night of 1 and 2 September; and, on the latter afternoon, Vengeance captured an Irish brigantine returning from Norway.

About noon on the 3d, the squadron passed between the Orkney and Shetland Islands and then, after sending the two prizes to Bergen, Norway, turned south to begin the last leg of its cruise around the British Isles. Alliance took two more small prizes; and Landais, after refusing to confer with Jones on board the flagship, again left the squadron. The weather soured on the 4th and drove the allied men-of-war away from the dangerous shores of Scotland. For nine days, Jones saw neither strange ships nor land. Finally, on the 13th, he found himself off Dunbar. The following day, Bonhomme Richard caught two ships carrying coal from Leith to Riga.

Jones next entered the Firth of Forth; but contrary winds soon arose and forced him to the mouth of the Firth, thwarting his plans to extort ransoms from Leith and Kirkaldy. Since surprise had been lost by the time the breeze again turned favorable, Jones headed south down the coast, hugging the shore to avoid the eyes of the Royal Navy. He wanted to attack Newcastle, England, to interrupt London's coal supply, but the refusal of the captains of his French consorts to cooperate in the operation forced him to give up the effort just as his flagship approached range of targets ashore. An empty collier and the sloop Speedwell found themselves in Jones' clutches off Whitby. He removed all valuables and ordered the prizes scuttled, but one of the French captains released the sloop after extracting a ransom.

During a long chase of a group of merchantmen on the night of the 21st and 22d, Bonhomme Richard captured another collier in ballast and drove a second ship ashore south of Flamborough Head, Yorkshire. She also took a British brigantine inbound from Rotterdam. Early on the morning of the 22d, the squadron sighted a group of merchant ships off the mouth of the Humber estuary, but failing wind frustrated the Commodore in his efforts to pursue this quarry.

That evening, Jones reversed course and headed back north toward Flamborough Head to look for Pallas which had fallen behind while chasing local shipping. A little before dawn on the 23d, a lookout reported the return of Alliance and Pallas which brought the squadron back to its greatest strength since Landais had slipped away off the Shetlands more than a fortnight before.

Propelled by a light breeze, Jones' ships slowly moved north until early afternoon when a stillness descended almost becalming the squadron. About 3:00 p.m., a lookout shouted down from Bonhomme Richard's rigging to inform the commodore that a large group of ships was approaching from the north. Jones, guided by information he had received from captured pilots, concluded that the vessels belonged to a 41-ship convoy coming from the Baltic under the protection of the British frigate Serapis--commanded by Capt. Richard Pearson, RN--and the sloop-of-war Countess of Scarborough. Eager to prey upon such juicy game, the commodore bent on maximum sail to close the enemy; but the wind was still so light that some three and a half hours passed before the adversaries reached striking distance.

At 6:30 p.m., Bonhomme Richard rounded Serapis' port quarter and, after an exchange of questions and answers between Jones and Pearson to establish identity, opened fire with a salvo from her starboard broadside guns. The English man-of-war answered immediately. Two of Bonhomme Richard's 18-pounders burst, killing many men, neutralizing the rest of her largest guns for fear that they too were unsafe, and doing substantial damage to the ship.

Realizing that he was outgunned by his more powerful and faster opponent, Jones reasoned that his only chance of victory lay in moving still closer to Serapis where he might take her by boarding or by having his sharpshooters pick off her men and officers. He was fortunate in colliding with the British frigate in such a way that her anchor fouled Bonhomme Richard's hull and held the two ships together. Jones then strengthened the bonds with grappling hooks.

A fierce, four-hour close-range fight ensued before Serapis finally struck her colors. Bonhomme Richard, shattered, on fire, and leaking badly defied all efforts to save her and sank at 1100 on 25 September 1779.

Before she went down, Jones transferred his crew to the prize, Serapis, and sailed to Texel Roads, Holland.

James Mooney

29 April 2004