The Battle Flamborough Head in 1779 was one of the first signs that the fledgling United States of America meant business on the world stage. A little piece of American history on the Yorkshire coast.
While visiting family back in East Yorkshire last autumn, we took a daytrip to the scenic village of Flamborough on the North Sea coast. A peaceful, rugged place where you can amble along the cliffs while enjoying a bracing salt breeze and impressive sea views. The quiet conceals a secret: once upon a time, this was the scene of a key event in American history.
Probably forgotten by all except local historians and American Revolutionary War buffs, the Battle of Flamborough Head in September 1779 was one of the first signs that the fledgling United States of America — still in the thick of its struggle to break free from Britain’s colonial grasp — was prepared to pursue its interests on the world stage. The episode helped to cement America’s reputation as an up-and-coming military power. It also helped to ensure that the name John Paul Jones went into history books as the father of the American Navy.
I must go down to the sea again
If I’m perfectly honest, a proper fish and chips lunch was the main reason I wanted to go to the coast. But I also wanted to see the sea. I’ve been living in landlocked Austria for 18 years now. Even though Austria boasts its own innumerable beauties — if you’re British, there is a certain, primeval urge to feel salt air in your nose every now and again. To get back in touch with your island roots.
Before heading off to North Landing to buy the said greasy lunch, we took an hour or two to walk around the cliffs. Time very well spent! Clouds slip across the sky, carried on a robust inland breeze. Colonies of seals lounge on the sheltered beaches below or tumble playfully in the waves. A lighthouse dating back to the early 19th century stands atop the cliffs (see main picture above). The tower of another, dating right back to 1674, stands slightly further inland on the approach to the headland. Built by Sir John Clayton on commission from King Charles II, historians believe it is the oldest lighthouse still standing in the UK. Flamborough really is quite an enchanting place.
A Franco-American alliance
A small monument standing between the two lighthouses commemorates the 1779 Battle of Flamborough Head, fought here just off the coast between a Franco-American squadron and the British Royal Navy.
France had entered into a military alliance with the fledgling USA in 1778. The French were nursing considerable resentment against the British at the time, having had to surrender their own territories in North America after the French-Indian war. They were glad of any opportunity to cock a snook at their imperial competitors and weaken their hand in the New World. Teaming up with the Americans was a great way to do this. The logic behind the alliance was for the French to supply the Continental Army with piles of munition and other equipment which the latter could use to fend off their colonial overlords. Meanwhile, the French could stand back and watch the Americans further French geopolitical aims. It was a win-win situation.
One of the items to change hands as part of this military tie-up was the French merchant ship Duc de Duras. The ship was promptly renamed USS Bonhomme Richard — after Benjamin Franklin’s nickname, “Poor Richard”. In August 1779, a certain John Paul Jones took over the captaincy of the ship. Jones was a Scottish born seaman who had already built up a considerable reputation with his exploits as a naval captain in the Revolutionary War. Together with three other vessels, he set sail from France in August 1779 and made his way to the coast of Eastern England.
The Battle of Flamborough Head begins
On 23rd September 1779, a British convoy of merchant ships was sailing south along this same piece of coastline on the way back from Baltic ports, laden with timber and iron. They were escorted by the Royal Navy ships HMS Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough. All had received a warning from Scarborough that there was a hostile squadron in the vicinity and to remain on the lookout. While some ships chose to ignore the alert, they soon bolted back into the protective field of the HMS Serapis when the American squadron sailed into view.
At around 6pm, the two parties drew close to one another. As a first strategic move, Jones had one of his ships, the Pallas, ride along in his wake to try and deceive the British as to their number. With the Americans approaching the convoy, Richard Pearson, captain of the HMS Serapis, called out to Jones, “What ship is that?” Jones had correctly anticipated that the darkness would make it very difficult for him to properly assess the situation. “I can’t hear you!”, Jones yelled back. Pearson repeated his question, demanding Jones to “answer at once, or I shall be under the necessity of firing into you”.
Tensions between the two sides spiked as the two men stared each other down in the descending darkness. Finally, as it became clear that Jones would not reply, the two ships fired at each other almost simultaneously. The Battle of Flamborough Head had begun.
Now, the USS Bonhomme Richard did not start life as a warship, but as slower, more cumbersome merchant ship refurbished with the accoutrements of a military vessel. In view of that, Jones quickly realised that the British would quickly outgun and outmanoeuvre his side. The only way to prevail in this conflict was to capture the HMS Serapis by boarding her. He and his men made repeated attempts to do so — without success.
The superior firepower of the HMS Serapis raked the American vessel, causing it to start taking on water. Eventually, smelling imminent victory, Pearson cried out to Jones “has your ship struck?” (a way of demanding surrender in maritime parlance). At this, the defiant Jones (allegedly) replied with one of the most famous ripostes of the civil war: “I have not yet begun to fight!”
There followed a bloody, hand-to-hand battle. In a move of immense daring and courage, Jones and his crew managed to curtail the HMS Serapis’ agility by lashing the USS Bonhomme Richard to its side. Because of USS Bonhomme Richard’s greater height, this gave the American army a clear advantage: shooting from above, they could pick off the British sailors like fish in a barrel. Jones was only too happy to direct fire at the British by taking control of one of the cannons himself.
Carrying off the spoils of war
Finally, at 10:30 pm, after four hours of fierce fighting, Captain Pearson had to surrender the HMS Serapis. The Americans had killed 117 of his crew. Climbing aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, he said to Jones: “It is with the greatest reluctance that I am now obliged to resign this, for it is painful to me, more particularly at this time, when compelled to deliver up my sword to a man who may be said to fight with a halter around his neck!” To be defeated in battle by the American underdogs was clearly a bitter pill to swallow.
Although flush with victory, Jones must have felt a certain sadness as he surveyed USS Bonhomme Richard. It was in a sorry state, having taken on 5 feet of water and sustained serious damage from British cannon fire. He could not save it. To leave the scene of the battle, Jones boarded the captured HMS Serapis and lead the squadron down to Texel on the Dutch coast before heading back to France. The HMS Serapis was renamed the Serapis and handed to the French as a prize. Louis XVI of France — evidently pleased with the spoils of war — granted Jones the rank of Chevalier as well as an elegant sword. The King, effusive in his praise, even credited Jones with having maintained “the freedom of the seas”.
A pyrrhic victory
Although the victory of the Franco-American squadron over the British in the Battle of Flamborough Head strengthened the alliance between the young United States and France and solidified Jones’s reputation as a courageous captain (or good-for-nothing pirate, if you consider the matter from the British point of view…), it would still go down in history as pyrrhic. At the end of the day, the British Navy succeeded in its aim of protecting the merchant convoy — it lost no part of it.
But the tables were slowly turning — the Americans were gaining in power and influence. It would not be long until they extinguished British power in America forever.
Photos: author’s own: Katharine Eyre © 2021