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09/02/2006 Archived Entry: "Bonhomme Richard Wreck"
The Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis locked in combat off the Yorkshire coast
from a painting by Edward Tufnell
Two hundred and twenty-seven years ago this September our coastline was raided by an American privateer captained by Paul Jones. This was a privately owned armed ship which could be commissioned by a Government to fight in wartime. Some owners were little more than legalised pirates but at the time – 1779 - America was at war with England, seeking independence.
Jones, a Commodore in the American navy, was born in Scotland, and after raiding the Cumberland coast he was determined to plunder Whitby, then a wealthy port. He appeared off Skinningrove, fired into the village and then sent his men ashore on a raiding party before heading for Whitby. His ship was fired upon by soldiers who manned a battery above where the Spa now stands, but their cannon exploded and hurled two soldiers to their deaths onto the rocks below.
On September 20, the bailiffs of Scarborough sent an urgent message to Bridlington to say that a hostile squadron of ships, captained by the notorious Paul Jones, had been sighted. Three days later four vessels – Bonhomme Richard, Alliance, Pallas and Vengeance, entered the bay off Sewerby between Bridlington and Flamborough Head, causing the local people to hide their valuables and take shelter. But Jones was not interested in small gains – he was after a much bigger prize.
A fleet of English merchantmen was moving along the coast, protected by two men-o’-war, the Seraphis and Countess of Scarborough and they were trying to reach Scarborough harbour for protection by cannons positioned in Scarborough Castle. They didn’t make it.
In spite of Jones’ superior strength and firepower, the two English ships fought bravely and indeed, the Seraphis was more manoeuvrable than Jones’ Bonhomme Richard. Crowds stood on Filey cliffs to watch this most remarkable of sea battles, with Bonhomme Richard ramming the Seraphis until the two were locked in what was described as a deadly embrace. The crews then engaged in hand-to-hand fighting and close cannon fire. Although the Countess of Scarborough was beaten, the gallant Seraphis continued to inflict severe damage on the Bonhomme Richard, so much so that the ship’s master gunner hauled down her flag. But Jones fought on until fire from the other American vessels, followed by a cruel explosion on Seraphis caused her master – Captain Pearson - to surrender.
Jones then abandoned the Bonhomme Richard with many injured crewmen still on board, and commandeered the Seraphis to claim victory. For more than 36 hours, Jones tried to save his stricken ship but, badly holed and damaged by fire, she sank on September 25 with her pennant still fluttering. Paul Jones watched her sink, thus making this the only known occasion when a maritime commander won a battle and then left the scene in a beaten ship. Some reports say Jones left his injured crew members to go down with her.
Since that time, attempts have been made to find and recover the wreck of Bonhomme Richard. One problem was that there were no legal controls over divers recovering valuables from wrecks but in 1973 the Protection of Wrecks Act became law. This was designed to prevent the wholesale plunder of wrecks and the loss of important historical evidence.
In January 1976 it was announced that a team of experts would begin searching for the Bonhomme Richard, hoping to find coins, pewter, bronze cannons and even carpentry tools. The wreck was thought to be buried under twenty feet of mud although its precise location was not known. It was estimated the search could take as long as five years.
Bonhomme Richard was not found, then in July 1986 another attempt began, with twenty sea cadets helping to locate the wreck. As the ship had drifted for 36 hours before sinking, locating its wreck would be difficult even with electronic search equipment. One problem was that another wreck was thought to lie on top of Bonhomme Richard, this being a 4000 ton merchantman which had sunk in 1918. Again, it was not found.
This year an Anglo-American team, using 35 years of research material plus the latest computer technology have conducted yet another search some 15 nautical miles off Flamborough Head. Though they expressed confidence in locating the Bonhomme Richard. To date nothing has been found and they will need hundreds of thousands of pounds if they are to return next year to continue the search. If they do eventually succeed then another problem will arise. The ship was loaned to the Americans by the French, but it was never paid for after it was lost. So who owns it now?