American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

BONHOMME RICHARD. Early in 1779 the king of France arranged for the purchase of the French-built Indiaman Duc de Duras, as part of a squadron of vessels to be put temporarily at the disposition of John Paul Jones.* Thus, the vessels remained French, although they were to sail under the American flag. The old-fashioned Duras, renamed Bonhomme Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard,” was quickly, but illy, fitted out. She carried guns on three decks, although the lowest tier of six old eighteen-pounders was nearly useless. Her armament was roughly that of a thirty-two-gun frigate.

The Richard's short career as a commerce raider is not without interest, but the vessel's primary engagement was her close combat with the Serapis* off Flamborough Head on 23 September 1779. During the famous battle, undertaken at night, several of the Richard's guns burst, and the tangled vessels fought unequally—the Serapis tearing the Richard apart below, while the Richard commanded the upperworks of the Serapis. With the Richard on fire and sinking, victory seemed clear for the Serapis until an American seaman dropped a grenade from one ofthe Richard's yardarms through the main hatchway of the Serapis. The grenade ignited loose powder on the gundeck, setting off a huge explosion that killed or disabled nearly sixty of the English.

Several times the English commander called out to know if the Americans had surrendered; each time Jones answered in the negative. Finally, in the name of humanity, the English commander lowered his flag with his own hands—the men fearing to go on deck. At daybreak the Richard was a wreck, her men unable to control the fire or keep up at the pumps. She lasted through that day and the next night, but at about ten the next morning the Richard rolled heavily and sank bow foremost into the sea.

The Richards sea fight has been celebrated in Nathaniel Fanning’s* Narrative (1806), by James Fenimore Cooper* in The History of the Navy (1839) and “John Paul Jones” in Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers (1846), by Herman Melville* in Israel Potter (1855), and by Walt Whitman* in Leaves of Grass (1855), among major authors, each taking his cue from the report of Jones himself, who was no mean writer. More recently, William Gilkerson* treated the vessel in The Ships of John Paul Jones (1987).

R. D. Madison