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September 23, 2019

John Paul Jones and the Fight of His Life

The legend of John Paul Jones is remarkable. How did a Scottish immigrant become a hero of the American Revolution and the Father of the American Navy?

John Paul Jones was born John Paul in southwest Scotland in 1747. At age 13, he was apprenticed to a ship owner and sailed to Barbados and Virginia. At age 16, John Paul went to work on slave ships, but quit in disgust at the trade. In Jamaica, he boarded a ship to return to Scotland, but when the ship’s master and first mate died of fever during the voyage, John Paul sailed her back home. The ship’s grateful owners rewarded John Paul with his first command of a vessel. His next command was the brig Betsy in 1772. The crew grew mutinous over pay issues while in Tobago. Its ring leader swung a club at John Paul, who then killed the man with his sword. Doubting a fair hearing, John Paul quickly fled, adding the surname Jones. By 1774, John Paul Jones returned to Virginia and found himself among Revolutionary leaders when tensions with England over taxes and self-governance were at a tipping point.

Jones volunteered for service in the new Continental Navy in 1775. He became one of the most successful captains, capturing many prizes, including cargo of 10,000 winter uniforms and equipment that wound up with George Washington and his troops at Valley Forge just days before crossing the Delaware and the surprise attack at Trenton. Jones commanded three ships, and rattled the British by raiding a town on the west coast of England. By the fall of 1779, Jones commanded a fleet of five ships, including his flagship, the Bonhomme Richard. Jones anticipated fleets returning to England and decided to attack. On September 22, 1779, a Baltic convoy of 41 ships were spotted off the east coast of England. The two escorting British warships, Serapis and Countess, took on Jones’ Bonhomme Richard and Pallas near Flamborough Head. The battle raged for hours with Jones’ ship taking damage. Jones rammed the Bonhomme Richard into the Serapis and tied the ships together as fighting continued. The Serapis’ captain called out for the American surrender, but Jones yelled back, “I have not yet begun to fight!”1 On the 23rd, the British surrendered after a grenade exploded below Serapis’ decks. Damaged beyond repair, the Bonhomme Richard was sunk. Jones transferred his flag to the Serapis, bringing it and another ship to Holland as prizes.

The Battle at Flamborough Head changed the course of the Revolutionary war the same way as the victory at Yorktown. A small navy could match and beat the most dominant navy in the world. But John Paul Jones proved that British hubris was no match for the Americans’ resilience.

1This famous phrase was likely ascribed to Jones decades later by his first officer and history. Jones is recorded by a contemporary Scottish newspaper to have said, “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike.” To “strike the colours” meant to take down the ship’s flag to signify surrender.

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