“I have not yet begun to fight.”
John Paul Jones. The name itself conjures iconic images of great wooden ships pounding each other with cannons, while men in crows nest fired their muskets into the opposing ships, hoping to pick off other sailors. I most recently became fascinated with John Paul Jones because one of my aunt’s traced our lineage to him through Ancestry.com. Our lives share a few parallels, but I have to admit he is a far more honorable man then I am, and his life story is much more exciting.
Most people don’t know a whole lot about Jones, save for a quote we often remember from our elementary and high school days, “I have not yet begun to fight.” Remember that? Unfortunately, that’s probably the only thing we remember! This blog post will explore that particular moment in history when he said that, and hopefully show how he was instrumental to helping the United States win their independence from England.
John Paul Jones, His First Victories Against the British
Jones was born as just John Paul (he added Jones later) in Scotland, and apparently had a Scottish accent (think Sean Connery). He was also a freemason, and even joined his friend Benjamin Franklin at the Grand Orient de France’s Lodge of the Nine Muses. That’s why his story is relevant on this blog.
During the Revolutionary War, the rebel colonies had no real navy that could compare to might of the British Royal Navy. The USS Ranger, the sloop-of-war that John Paul Jones was to command, was relatively small and had only 18 guns. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy had huge first-rate ships of the lines with more than 100 guns. This is the disparity in naval vessels which John Paul Jones had to contend with.
So, when Jones decided that he would raid the British coast in his small 18-gun sloop, no one doubted that this was a ballsy type of guy. His victories in Great Britain made him a star in both the colonies and in France.
The Battle of Flamborough Head
His naval exploits onboard the Ranger were all successful, and in 1778 he took command of a larger, 42-gun ship that used to be a trading vessel, but was modified and fitted for war. He named it after his good friend Benjamin Franklin, who wrote the Poor Richard’s Almanac. The ship’s new name was theUSS Le Bonne Homme Richard or “The Good Man Richard”.
On September 22, 1779, the Bonne Homme Richard and a small brigantine (a type of brig) had split from another squadron and were sailing off the coast of Yorkshire, England, looking for some convoys to attack. In the later hours of night, Jones decided to join up with the other two frigates in his squadron, theAlliance and the Pallas. The reunited squadron headed north toward Bridlington, which was a peninsula that jutted out into the North Sea. On the other side of this peninsula were two British vessels that were escorting a large convoy heading south.
The Alliance separated itself from the squadron, leaving the Bonne Homme Richard and the similarly armed HMS Serapis to fight. The Serapis was a warship, not a modified trades vessel like the Richard, and as such was able to almost literally run circles around the Bonne Homme Richard. It was while losing the gunnery battle that the British captain asked if Jones would like to surrender, to which Jones famously replied, “I have not yet begun to fight.”
Realizing he couldn’t win against the Serapis in a gunnery battle, Jones decided to hook up the Bonne Homme Richard to the Serapis and make the fight hand-to-hand. A little over a half hour later, Jones’s men were finally able to grapple the Serapis, and none to soon because the Bonne Homme Richard was heavily damaged and close to sinking. It was during this heated frenzy an American grenadier managed to throw a grenade (think of those black balls with fuses in them), either through a hole in the deck or just by sheer luck, next to the powder magazine in the rear of the ship. The explosion crippled the Serapis.
While the crew had managed to grapple the Serapis, they had not yet been able to board her. There was a point when an exhausted Jones took a few minutes to rest on a chicken coop. The Bonne Homme Richard‘s crew, thinking Jones was dead, decided to strike colors, but since the flag was shot away the crew had to shout it out. The British captain, perhaps perplexed, asked to confirm, “Have you struck your colors?”
Jones, who didn’t have surrender in him, overheard this exchange and yelled back, “I have not yet thought of it, but I am determined to make you strike.” Seeing that their commander was back in action, the crew also gave up trying to surrender and returned to the fight. Other reports later said that Jones said something more like, “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike.”
Finally, after much gunfire and cannonades, the crew of the Bonne Homme Richard had managed to get close enough to board the Serapis. It was after seeing that the convoy had managed to escape safely, and after seeing that there was really no hope to win the battle, that the British commander ofSerapis surrendered.
Jones’s Contribution Toward American Independence
It was a small battle that made a huge impact on American morale throughout the colonies, which had lost quite a few battles. It was largely because of Jones’s exploits, the diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin who was at the time in France, and because of a army win during the Battle of Saratoga, that the French decided to ally with rebels against England. Finally, the colonies had a real navy on their side that could actually fight toe-to-toe with the British. Soon, they’d have French troops to help win on the ground back in the colonies. Ultimately, the influence of the French military, and the tenacity of the colonial army and navy, was what won America’s independence.
John Paul Jones, hereafter known as the “Terror of the English”, had become a legend and is now known as the father of the United States Navy.