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.
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.
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.
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.
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