USS Bonhomme Richard (1765)
Builder: Randall & Brent Shipyards
Acquired: 4th February 1779
In service: 4th February 1779
Out of service: 25th September 1779
Length: 152 ft (46 m)
Beam: 40 ft (12 m)
Draft: 19 ft (5.8 m)
Complement: 380 officers and enlisted
Armament: 28 × 12-pound smoothbore
6 × 18-pound smoothbore
8 × 9-pound smoothbore
Bonhomme Richard, formerly Duc de Duras, was a warship in the Continental Navy. She was originally an East Indiaman, a merchant ship built in France for the French East India Company in 1765, for service between France and the Orient. She was placed at the disposal of John Paul Jones on 4th February 1779, by King Louis XVI of France as a result of a loan to the United States by French shipping magnate, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray.
Little is known about the early career of Bonhomme Richard other than she was originally an East Indiaman named Duc de Duras, a merchant ship built in France for the French East India Company in 1765. She sailed in that service between France and eastern Asia until she was purchased by King Louis XVI of France in early 1779 and placed under the command of John Paul Jones on 4 February. The size and armament of Duc de Duras made her roughly equivalent to half of a 64-gun ship of the line
Jones renamed her Bon Homme Richard (usually rendered in more correct French as Bonhomme Richard) in honor of Benjamin Franklin, the American Commissioner at Paris whose Poor Richard’s Almanac was published in France under the title Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard.
On 19th June 1779, Bonhomme Richard sailed from Lorient accompanied by USS Alliance, Pallas, Vengeance, and Cerf with troop transports and merchant vessels under convoy to Bordeaux and to cruise against the British in the Bay of Biscay. Forced to return to port for repair, the squadron sailed again 14th August 1779. It went northwest around the west coast of the British Isles into the North Sea and then down the east coast. The squadron took 16 merchant vessels as prizes.
Battle of Flamborough Head
Further information: Battle of Flamborough Head
On 23th September 1779, the squadron encountered the Baltic Fleet of 41 sail under convoy of the HMS Serapis and HM hired armed vessel Countess of Scarborough near Flamborough Head. The Bonhomme Richard and Serapis entered a bitter engagement at about 6:00 p.m. The battle continued for the next four hours, costing the lives of nearly half of the American and British crews. British victory seemed inevitable, as the more heavily armed Serapis used its firepower to rake Bonhomme Richard with devastating effect. The commander of the Serapis finally called on Jones to surrender. He replied, “Sir, I have not yet begun to fight!” Jones eventually managed to lash the ships together, nullifying his opponent’s greater maneuverability and allowing him to take advantage of the larger size and considerably more numerous crew of Bonhomme Richard. An attempt by the Americans to board Serapis was repulsed, as was an attempt by the British to board Bonhomme Richard. Finally, after another of Jones’s ships joined the fight, the British captain was forced to surrender at about 10:30 p.m. The Bonhomme Richard – shattered, on fire, leaking badly – defied all efforts to save her and sank about 36 hours later at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, 25th September 1779. Jones sailed the captured Serapis to the Dutch United Provinces for repairs.
Though the Bonhomme Richard sank after the battle, the battle’s outcome convinced the French crown to back the colonies in their fight to become independent of British authority.
Search for the wreck
Bonhomme Richard’s final resting location is the subject of much speculation. A number of unsuccessful efforts have been conducted to locate the wreck. The location is presumed to be in approximately 180 feet (55 m) of water off Flamborough Head, Yorkshire, a headland near where her final battle took place. The quantity of other wrecks in the area and a century of fishing trawler operations have complicated all searches.
One season’s attempts to locate and retrieve the ship, or some artifacts from her, using USNS Grasp were filmed for the Discovery Channel’s Mighty Ships series. The U.S. Navy’s mission was unsuccessful.