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Bonhomme Richard: 1779

When raiding round the British coast in 1779, John Paul Jones commands an adapted French East Indiaman carrying forty guns. When this ship is bought for Jones by the French government, he renames her Bonhomme Richard - after the character in Benjamin Franklin's periodical Poor Richard's Almanack.

Marauding down the east coast of England in September 1779, Jones encounters a British merchant fleet returning from the Baltic. They are protected by a naval vessel, the Serapis, carrying fifty-four guns. The merchant fleet escapes while the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis engage in a bloody duel, almost literally eyeball to eyeball, which is one of the classic fights of naval history.

After discharging a first broadside into the Bonhomme Richard off Flamborough Head, the British ship sails close and grapples the American vessel for boarding. But the marines prove unable to transfer on to the Bonhomme Richard in the face of American volleys, so the two vessels, tightly linked, bombard each other with cannon and musket fire at close quarters.

The question is who will outlast whom. After three hours the Bonhomme Richard is sinking - the moment at which Jones, invited to surrender by the British captain, Richard Pearson, replies with the famous line 'I have not yet begun to fight'.

Shortly after this, fortune favours the Americans. Fire breaks out on the Serapis, persuading Pearson to strike his flag - indicating surrender. Jones and his men board the Serapis and succeed in putting out the fire. Two days later, in spite of all efforts to save her, the Bonhomme Richard goes down. So it is in the Serapis that Jones returns triumphantly to safety in a continental harbour.

The list of casualties in this most brutal of engagements is not published at the time. Traditional estimates suggest as many as 300 dead or wounded on each ship, but the more probable number is now thought to be about 125 on the Serapis and 150 on the Bonhomme Richard.

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