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 A night on fire and a Convoy saved, the classic sea battle in Filey Bay that has fired the imagination of many.

During the American Was for Independence, Commodore John Paul Jones of the United States Continental Navy sailed against England in the Bonhomme Richard, a converted French East Indiaman in the possession of the King of France and formerly known as Duc Duras.  His mission was to circumnavigate the British Isles and draw off British Naval forces to facilitate a major Franco- Spanish attack on the British mainland.

 Jonesís squadron consisted of six vessels, but two French Privateers soon departed leaving him the continental frigate Alliance, Captain Pierre Landais, the Pallas, Captain Denis Cottineau and the Vengence, Captain Philippe Ricot  to try and capture the Earle of Selkirk, and harass British ports and shipping.  On the afternoon of the 23 September 1779, having circled England and Ireland, the squadron was off Flamborough Head on the Yorkshire Coast intent on raiding Bridlington, when it sighted a strategically important British convoy escorted by HMS Serapis of 44 guns, Richard Pearson commanding and the sloop Countess of Scarborough of 20 guns, Thomas Piercy commanding. Captain Pearson was sailing south from the direction of Scarborough off Filey Bay and  had no hesitation in engaging an enemy twice his superior and placed his two ships between the convoy and Jonesís squadron, which was sailing in a northerly direction from Flamborough Head.  The convoy meanwhile sailed north under the protection of the guns of Scarborough Castle.

 Jones ordered the Pallas to attack the Serapis from one side and the Bonhomme Richard to attack it from the other but the captain of the Alliance disregarded this order, being content to stay out of range.  The battle between Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis opened at 7:15 pm  at about 100 yards.  The Serapis fired the first broadside but each holed each other in the first exchange.  On the second response from Jones, one Ė possibly two of his old 18 pound cannon blew up causing many casualties and damage to the Bonhomme Richard, after this the 18 pound cannon were not used. 

The Serapis was more manoeuvrable of the two vessels and sailed around the Bonhomme Richard at will pouring broadsides into her and exacting a frightful toll.  With the Bonhomme Richard starting to take on water Jonesís only hope was to grapple with the Serapis and board her and the two warships became entangled.  Jonesís attempt to board was beaten back and the sips came apart again.  The Bonhomme Richard would not respond properly as Jones attempted to get into a position to rake his opponent, and the two ships again collided.

 Jones then personally lashed them together and grappling irons were thrown, the two ships were now held starboard to starboard and Pearson tried to shake the American free by dropping his anchor but the manoeuvre failed.  As both ships swung with the current, the Searpisís cannons fired at point blank range into and through the Bonhomme Richardís sides, literally starting to cut the ship in half lengthways.  Jones directed his fire at the Serapisís mainmast and both ships caught fire.  Both sides fired small arms and Jonesís sharpshooters and Marines in the tops of the rigging had entirely cleared the Serapisís deck and masting of opponents.

 In the meantime the Pallas had taken the Countess of Scarborough and for reasons known to Captain Landais, the Allliance  had not participated in the action but now appeared to fire three broadsides into the stern of the Bonhomme Richard and the bow of the Serapis, inflicting  casualties on both ships.  Both warships were now wrecks.

 Asked to strike by Pearson, Jones replied, ďNo, IĎll sink, but Iíll be damned if I will strikeĒ.  This was later erroneously recalled as ďI have not yet begun to fightĒ.  Then a Scottish seaman William Hamilton, climbed out on the Bonhomme Richardís main yard and while overlooking the Serapisís decks, threw grenades down. One of these entered one of  Serapisís hatchways to the gun deck below, setting off cartridges below and killing at least 20 men.  At 10:30 pm., his mainmast in danger of falling, Pearson surrendered.  Of her crew of 284, Serapis had 130 casualties and the Bonhomme Richard had 150 casualties out of a crew of 322.

 That night the victors cut away the mainmast of the Serapis and began to put out the fires, Bonhomme Richard continued to take on water and by 5 pm on 24 September, some guns had been jettisoned, along with more than 100 dead.  By 2:00 pm on the 25 September Jones had transferred his command to the Serapis.  Three hours later as the sea conditions worsened, his carpenters deemed it impossible to save Bonhomme Richard, but Jones returned to his ship for one final inspection.

 At 7:30 pm according to Samuel Eliot Morison, Jones again returned to Serapis and at 10:pm ordered Bonhomme Richard abandon ship.  By this time, both warships had been cut loose from the original battle anchorage of Serapis and were adrift.  Jones dispatched Midshipman Nathaniel Fanning back to retrieve some forgotten papers from Bonhomme Richard, now a mile distant from Serapis which was under jury rig.  Fanning wisely did not board, for the wallowing ship ďfetched a heavy pitch into the sea and a heavy roll and disappeared instantaneouslyĒ.  By this time Serapis had already sailed out of sight and it took more than a days hard pull for Fanning and his men to regain the fleet.

Adapted from a Presentation by Donald G Shomette, with his permission.

©  The Filey Bay 1779 Research Group.  April 2021