Originally built in 1766 as the French merchant vessel Duc de Duras, the ship was gifted to Captain John Paul Jones of the Continental Navy by King of France Louis XVI for use against the British during the American Revolution. Jones renamed her Bonhomme Richard to honor his friend, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, whose famous work, Poor Richard’s Almanac, was a bestseller in France under the title Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard. Jones received command of Bonhomme Richard from Monsieur Gabriel de Sartine, French Minister of Marine, in the spring of 1779. After several months of refitting the ship to a man-of-war, Jones was tasked with supplying her armament and manning the crew. Despite suffering from a somewhat toxic relationship with his subordinates during his last voyage as commander of the sloop Ranger, the officers he selected for duty on the ship remained relatively loyal to Jones. However, the crew was altogether a different matter. The sailors on the crew came from a variety of nationalities and languages, hailing from the American colonies, France, Scotland, Ireland, England, Italy, Norway, and even India. Naturally and unsurprisingly, they often quarreled among themselves, even coming to blows on occasion. Early on, Jones faced a scare when it was discovered that a group of Englishmen, who had signed on to avoid French prisons, plotted to kill him and take control of the ship. When Jones learned of the plot, he dismissed more than 100 English sailors and hauled the ringleader before a court martial hearing. The mutineer ultimately received 250 lashes with the cat-o-nines-tails. Unfortunately, the episode was not the only time Jones had to deal with crew insubordination. Later, while Jones was on shore conducting business, 12 men abandoned the ship to get drunk and frolic in the local seaside town. Jones, having no mercy for the offenders, ordered the sting of the lash for their dereliction of duty. The severe punishment seemed to have convinced the rest of the crew that Jones intended to run a tight ship. She set sail from L’Orient, France, on 19 June 1779, as flagship of a squadron made up of 36-gun frigate Alliance, three French warships, and an 18-gun cutter taken from the British.
On their first mission, the squadron was ordered to escort merchant ships in the Bay of Biscay to various ports. Jones was deeply frustrated with the mission, because he wanted to fight the British. Although the mission was perceived as mundane to Jones, he was promised almost unlimited discretion of how and where to use the squadron as soon as he had seen the convoy to safe harbor. Soon after leaving L’Orient, heavy seas plagued the squadron. One night, while battling the storm, Bonhomme Richard and Alliance collided in the dark. Both of the ships suffered significant damage, but fortunately not enough to prevent them from completing the mission. On 1 July, the squadron returned to L’Orient with all the ships escorted safely in port. Jones immediately got to work on getting the ships repaired—Bonhomme Richard received a new bowsprit and Alliance had a new mizzenmast stepped. By the end of the month, the squadron was ready for the sea. Bonhomme Richard hoisted her sails with Pallas, Vengeance, and Le Cerf for waters off Ile de Groix, France, where Alliance and two French privateers, Monsieur and Granville, waited.
Before they set sail, Jones had a particular vision of how he planned to use the squadron. He was well aware that the young Continental Navy was no match for the powerful Royal British Fleet. Jones planned to use his squadron against British shipping and civilian targets to create fear on the English home front. This would drive up insurance rates and pull as many British ships as possible away from the American coast, forcing them to patrol their own home waters. In addition, he planned to conduct hit-and-run raids on British ports and extort ransom from the cities under the threat of burning them. He also considered going after Britain’s coal supplies, because the threat of stripping the country of fuel would cause panic, especially in the winter, among the British people.
Shortly after dawn on 14 August, Jones' squadron set course for the southwestern corner of Ireland. Four days later, the French privateer Monsieur captured a prize and the next day escorted it back to port. Later that day, Bonhomme Richard and her consorts began pursuing a large enemy ship, but after a long chase, the prey vanished over the horizon. The next day, two broadsides convinced the brigantine Mayflower to surrender and Jones sent the English ship to L’Orient. On the afternoon of 23 August, the wind died completely leaving the squadron becalmed off the Skelligs near the entrance to Dingle Bay. Although they were unable to move freely, Bonhomme Richard still managed to capture Fortune without a fight. Jones sent that ship to France as well. On 30 August, Jones spotted three ships off his port bow and gave chase. Just before noon on the following day, Bonhomme Richard overtook the letter of marque Union and persuaded her to strike her colors. Shortly thereafter, Alliance appeared with a prize of her own, Betsy. On 2 September, the squadron captured yet another enemy ship sailing from Norway. The following day, the squadron passed between the Orkney and Shetland islands and then, after sending two prizes to Norway, turned south to begin the last leg of its cruise around the British Isles. On 4 September, heavy seas ensued, and for nine days, Jones saw neither ship nor land. Finally, on 13 September, Jones found himself off Dunbar, Scotland.
On 14 September, the squadron reached the Firth of Forth, the entryway to Edinburgh, Scotland. Jones hoped to raid Leith—Edinburgh’s port—and demand a massive “contribution” or else “lay it in ashes.” He also planned to demand a sizeable number of American prisoners be released. His plans stalled when Captains Denis Cottineau of Pallas and Philippe Ricot of Vengeance—the only two ships in the squadron still in the vicinity—objected. It took all night and into the next morning for Jones to convince the other commanders to agree to the mission. However, by the time he had convinced them, the wind turned, making it extremely difficult for the squadron to reach Leith. Nevertheless, they ultimately approached the port under British colors, hoping to maintain the element of surprise, but locals figured out what was afoot and began preparing defenses. Jones continued to press on, closing in on 17 September, but a sudden gale stalled the squadron and drove it back. Jones lamented that he had made it within a “cannon shot” of the town before realizing that an amphibious landing was fruitless. Although Bonhomme Richard and her consorts lost their chance to attack Leith, Jones refused to give up. His new plan was to raid nearby Newcastle and destroy its coal supplies. This would impose great hardship on the people of London, because they depended primarily on Newcastle for their fires in the winter. However, with Great Britain now fully aware of their presence, Cottineau and Ricot feared such a raid would be a suicide mission. They flatly refused to attack Newcastle, even if Jones ordered them to do so. He reluctantly gave up the plan.
Shortly thereafter, the squadron seized another collier loaded with coal and the British sloop Speedwell. On the night of 21–22 September, Bonhomme Richard, after a long chase, captured yet another collier and drove a second ship ashore south of Flamborough Head, Yorkshire. She also took a British brigantine inbound from Rotterdam. That evening, Jones reversed course and headed north to look for Pallas, which had fallen behind while chasing local shipping. A little before dawn on 23 September, Jones eagerly called an “all hands on deck” when a lookout sighted ships in the distance. They were none other than Pallas and Alliance, the latter of which had just vanished more than two weeks ago. The return of the ships brought the squadron back to full strength.
Propelled by a light breeze, Jones squadron slowly moved north, and at about 3 p.m., a lookout shouted out that a large group of ships was approaching from the north. Guided by information he had received previously, Jones concluded that the vessels belonged to a 41-ship convoy coming from the Baltic Sea under the protection of British frigate Serapis and sloop-of-war Countess of Scarborough. Eager to confront them, Jones ordered maximum sail to close in on the enemy, but the wind was still very light and some three-and-a-half hours passed before they reached within striking distance. Meanwhile, British Captain Richard Pearson, commanding the convoy from Serapis, eyed the approaching ships suspiciously. Since they were still too far away, he could not tell what nationality they were, and Jones was flying British colors as a lure to get them into range of his cannons. Pearson, who was cautious, ordered the merchant ships to move towards shoreline where coastal defenses could defend them. With the valuable merchant ships protected under the guns of Countess of Scarborough, Pearson moved forward to determine the identity of the approaching squadron. As Jones closed in with two escorts, he raised signal flags for the rest of the squadron to form a line of battle. They not only ignored these orders, but turned away entirely and left Bonhomme Richard alone as she closed with Serapis. Keeping his British colors aloft, Jones closed in on Pearson’s ship. The British captain called out to him, via trumpet, “What ship is that?” Hoping to move in just a little closer, Jones responded that he was Princess Royal. Unconvinced, Pearson called out again “Where from?” and when he received no answer, he bellowed, “Answer directly or I’ll fire into you.” Jones gave his answer by hauling down the British colors and raising the flag of the American rebellion. Immediately, both ships unleashed full broadsides onto each other.
Pearson enjoyed a substantial firepower advantage having 50 guns compared to Jones, who had 40. Jones' disadvantage worsened dramatically when two 18-pounders exploded early in the battle. The twin blasts tore a hole in the ship and killed or horrifically injured their gun crews. The situation only got worse when Jones realized the remaining four 18-pounders were too old and defective to risk using, so he ordered to abandon them as well. Jones, knowing he had no chance just blasting away with his now very inferior firepower, tried to maneuver close enough to board Serapis. Bonhomme Richard came alongside Serapis at a poor angle, however, when his men tried to board, Pearson’s marines easily repelled them, and Jones pulled away. Pearson then made another attempt at firing a broadside, but Jones was careful to keep his ship from presenting itself at an advantageous angle for Pearson’s guns. While maneuvering, the two ships collided with Bonhomme Richard’s bow, striking Serapis’ stern. At this point, Jones realized his best chance was to get the two ships coupled together. He scrambled across the deck to grab the enemy’s forestay (rope connected to the primary mast) that had been cut and had fallen on the deck of Bonhomme Richard. Seizing it and tying it to his own ship, Jones managed to tie the two ships together in a deadly embrace. This took away Pearson’s superior firepower, because half of his guns were pointed away from Bonhomme Richard.
With the two vessels entangled, Jones crew went to work firing what guns they had left at Serapis’ rigging in hopes of disabling her, while simultaneously using small arms fire and grenades on the enemy ship. Jones ordered his men to attempt a second boarding, but at that time, Pearson’s crew was able to fight them off. However, these actions forced the British seamen, on Serapis, out onto the dock, creating easy targets for Bonhomme Richard’s sharpshooters. Jones suffered yet another setback when Alliance moved forward and unleashed the first of three broadsides not on Serapis, but on Bonhomme Richard. The commander of Alliance—former French naval officer Pierre Landais—and Jones had a longstanding feud that blew up when Bonhomme Richard and Alliance collided months earlier. Later in his journals, Jones would claim Landais did it on purpose, so he could sink Bonhomme Richard and take credit for sinking Serapis. Nevertheless, the ongoing feud would have to wait. His ship, as was Serapis, was in dire straits. Billowing smoke engulfed the decks as fires sprang up amid the debris of shattered timbers and shredded sails. As they scrambled to fight the battle, the crew of Bonhomme Richard also worked to make sure the flames did not reach the powder magazine.
While Bonhomme Richard’s small arms were having a devastating effect on Serapis and her crew, the British cannons were as equally successful. During the third hour of the battle, Jones found himself with only three small 9-pounders left on the quarterdeck. When one of the gunners suffered a severe head injury, Jones himself took over and began firing at the enemy mainmast. While he was hunched over the gun, one of the crew came up from below, and not knowing it was Jones firing the weapon, assumed his commander had either surrendered or was dead. Gunner’s Mate Henry Gardner grabbed two nearby crewmates and began to scream “Quarter! Quarter!” Jones, hearing their cries, became enraged. Turning on the men, he chased them down the deck and finally hurled his pistol at Gardner, striking him in the head and rendering him unconscious. Pearson, meanwhile, heard the screams as well. “Have you struck? Do you ask for quarter,” he called out across the deck of Bonhomme Richard, not even bothering to use his speaking trumpet as the two ships still lay lashed together. At that moment, Jones famously replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!”
Pearson got the message and the fighting continued. At around 10:15 p.m., an enterprising seaman from Bonhomme Richard managed to get on one of the yards overhanging the British deck and dropped a grenade into an open hatch. The blast ignited powder cartridges that had been left scattered about the deck during the heat of battle, and triggered a series of explosions that blew guns off their carriages and blasted gaping holes in the side of the ship. Flames engulfed the gun deck, where many of the crew now confined themselves to avoid the constant sniper fire topside. At this point, both ships were in dire condition and it was just a matter of time before one of them would surrender. Reportedly, one of the seamen begged Jones to surrender, but he refused. “No! I will sink. I will never strike.” However, Pearson had enough and at 10:30 p.m. struck.
Jones spent a day-and-a-half trying to salvage Bonhomme Richard, but it was a hopeless effort. At about 11 a.m. on 25 September, Jones, watched “with inexpressible grief” from the deck of his new flagship as Bonhomme Richard disappeared beneath the waves. By all estimates, roughly half the crew of both ships were killed or seriously wounded in one of the longest and bloodiest battles during America’s quest for independence.