On the sideboard in my dining room stands a model ship, approximately 85 cm long and 70 cm high, its hull lined with square portholes through which the barrels of tiny cannon protrude. There are intricately carved staircases, a ship’s wheel, a lattice hatchway cover and a windlass for pulling up the anchor. The words ‘BON’ and ‘HOMME’ are clearly legible on the bronze plaque on the stern, but only by tilting your head can you make out the faded ‘RICHARD’ below.
I now know a good deal about the Bonhomme Richard. I know that it was originally a French merchant vessel called the Duc de Duras; that it was loaned to the fledgling US navy; and that it took part in the War of Independence. I know it was 152 feet long, weighed 998 tonnes and carried 42 guns. But at the time this replica was created in 1975, I knew only that it was my dad’s obsession. My brother recalls trips to a timber merchant and a miniature electric drill; my mother remembers that my father sat up in bed beside her making three-holed ‘deadeyes’: grooved discs less than a centimetre in diameter, through which lanyards were threaded. I remember the sensation of sandpaper, the heat of it after it was rubbed on wood and its roughness when I held it to my face.
When he finished the model, my father took it to Rabbies, a restaurant he co-owned on Burns Statue Square in Ayr, which served steak with tomatoes cut into Little Red Riding Hood baskets. A copy of the Selkirk Grace hung on one wall and a glass case containing the Bonhomme Richard on another. Later, I wondered why my father hadn’t made a model of the Cutty Sark, but by then it was too late to ask.
In 1977 he sold Rabbies and a year later he died, aged 36. Soon afterwards, my mother went to the restaurant to bring home the Bonhomme Richard. The new owner said she could have it if she paid him what she thought it was worth. It was a trap. Newly widowed, she did not have what she knew it was worth, yet to offer less would diminish my father’s work. She tossed her head and left. But on her next birthday, there it was on the dining room table. My grandmother had haggled. I wasn’t told its cost, but I went to a Catholic school and recognised a parable when I saw one.
By the time my mother’s second husband died last January, dust clung to the model’s slackened rigging like sea fog. There was no room for it in her new flat, so my husband and I agreed to take it to our house in Glasgow. I posted a photograph of it on Twitter and in less than an hour received a message from Craig Wallace, curator of the Sogo Arts Gallery and an experienced model maker. Soon he had the Bonhomme Richard in his care. The first step, he said, would be to clean it with water and a small paintbrush. Then he’d treat the wood with linseed oil. He started sending me updates. A bowl of dirty water. Scalpels scattered across a table. Wood shavings on the floor.
I knew that the captain of the Bonhomme Richard had been a Scotsman called John Paul Jones: I had once passed through Kirkbean, the Kirkcudbrightshire village where he was born. And I was vaguely aware that Jones had been involved in a daring raid on Whitehaven in Cumbria, although – since he was said to be the father of the US navy – I assumed most of his fighting had taken place on the other side of the Atlantic. But now I read that the Bonhomme Richard had been involved in a sea battle off Flamborough Head in Yorkshire and that it still lay somewhere near the white chalk cliffs. In recent decades, both the US and French navies have tried to locate it, but there are hundreds of wrecks off that craggy coast and they failed to find anything that could be definitively identified. Then, in 2018, a company called Merlin Burrows, which claims on its website that it can ‘find anything that has been lost, forgotten or hidden’, said it had discovered the Bonhomme Richard using satellite imagery – not twenty or so miles out to sea, where the Americans had been looking, but close to the shore in Filey Bay.
In 1779 the War of Independence was in its fifth year. France, keen to exact revenge on Britain for the Seven Years’ War, had signed a treaty with the Thirteen Colonies, effectively declaring war on its old enemy. Spain, too, declared war on Britain, and hatched a plan with France to send a joint armada to the South Coast. The fleet was beset by bad weather and disease, but finally entered the Channel in mid-August. Jones, who was working for the revolutionaries, was tasked with diverting the Royal Navy’s attention from the supposedly imminent invasion.
This he did with gusto, sailing round Scotland, provoking panic in the undefended Firth of Forth and picking off merchant ships from Edinburgh to the Humber. In early September, a series of mishaps led to the abandonment of the Franco-Spanish invasion, but Jones, commanding a squadron of ships (the Pallas, the Vengeance and the Alliance), remained at large. On the afternoon of Thursday, 23 September, he led his ships north from the Humber towards Flamborough Head. Sailing in the opposite direction was a large convoy of merchant vessels laden with supplies for the British government. The US ships tried to attack the convoy, but its two Royal Navy escorts – the Serapis, commanded by Richard Pearson, and the Countess of Scarborough, commanded by Thomas Piercy – engaged the Americans, allowing the convoy to escape and shelter under Scarborough Castle.
The battle raged for hours. Hundreds of people came out to watch. Cannon balls bounced off the cliffs. The Bonhomme Richard was slower than the Serapis, and soon holed. As it fired its second broadside, two of its 18-pounders exploded, killing many in the gunroom. Jones tried and failed to board the Serapis. As the Bonhomme Richard took on water, Pearson asked Jones if he had ‘struck’ his colours – surrendered – to which Jones is said to have replied: ‘I have not yet begun to fight,’ one of the most famous lines of the American Revolution. The boats were so close that the Serapis’s jib-boom caught in the starboard mizzen-rigging of the Bonhomme. One of the Bonhomme’s crew crawled along the mainyard with a grenade and managed to throw it down the hatchway of the Serapis, where it hit a pile of cartridges, causing explosions the length of the ship.
Both sides suffered heavy losses, but in the end it was Pearson who struck his colours, and though the Bonhomme Richard burned and sank, Jones survived and sailed to Texel in the Netherlands with the Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough as his prizes. But while ‘John Paul Jones won the propaganda war,’ the historian David Pendleton told me, ‘much of that is down to his famous line, which he almost certainly never said, and the fact he brought the war to British shores. The convoy was carrying a cargo essential to the British war efforts. The Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough sacrificed themselves to save it.’
We had met on a gun emplacement at Scarborough Castle, along with Kim Hodgson of the research group Filey Bay 1779, which hopes the Battle of Flamborough Head could help to bolster tourism. She grew up in North Dakota and on moving to Scarborough realised that, while American pupils learn about the battle at school, in this country it is almost unknown. Below us lay the bay in which the convoy of 41 ships had taken refuge. Viewed in the distance through the drizzle, the cliffs looked like one long headland, but the map showed two: first Filey Brigg and then, on the far side of Filey Bay, Flamborough Head. ‘A red flag was hoisted from Scarborough Castle headland,’ Kim told me, ‘and there would have been warning beacons right along the coast.’ Gunpowder flashes and flames must have lit up the night sky. Shock and Awe.
Disrupting the dramatic arc, Captain Pearson was court-martialled, cleared and then knighted, while Jones died in poverty in Paris, but his exploits continued to be mythologised into the 19th century, by Alexandre Dumas in his novel Le Capitaine Paul, for example, and by Herman Melville, who wrote in Israel Potter about Jones’s capture of the British sloop-of-war HMS Drake:
It was … such a scheme as only could have inspired a heart which held at nothing at all the prescribed prudence of war, and every obligation of peace – combining in one breast the vengeful indignation and bitter ambition of an outraged hero, with the uncompunctious desperation of a renegade. In one view, the Coriolanus of the sea – in another, a cross between the gentleman and the wolf.
It wasn’t, however, until Theodore Roosevelt needed a hero on whom to hang his plans to expand the US navy that Jones was dug up and taken to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he lies in a marble sarcophagus to rival Napoleon’s.
Born in 1747, the son of the head gardener at the Arbigland Estate on the Solway Firth, Jones became master of the brig John at the age of 21 after sailing it to safety when its captain succumbed to yellow fever. But two voyages later, a ship’s carpenter died after Jones had him flogged for rabble-rousing, and he had barely recovered from this scandal when he shot the ringleader of another threatened mutiny in the West Indies. Fleeing to Virginia, he changed his name from John Paul to John Jones to John Paul Jones, and in 1775 offered his services to what was then the Continental Navy. After various voyages moving supplies and troops, and raiding British ships, he was sent to France as captain of the USS Ranger. He had argued with senior officers in Boston, but in France found an ally in Benjamin Franklin, the American commissioner in Paris, and a womaniser unfazed by Jones’s own sexual profligacy. In April 1778, Jones sailed the Ranger from Brest, intending to harry British ships on the Atlantic coast. Two weeks later he seized and burned Whitehaven’s southern fort. He burnished his reputation on St Mary’s Isle near Kirkcudbright, where, finding his hoped-for hostage, the Earl of Selkirk, away from home, he relieved his wife of the family silver. He then crossed across the Irish Sea to capture HMS Drake, which was taken to France as a prize.
His swaggering return to British waters a year later in the Bonhomme Richard laid the groundwork for his posthumous glorification, even if the immediate American response was muted. In France the battle provided some consolation for the failure of the armada, and Louis XVI presented Jones with a gold-hilted sword. But his retort on being told that Pearson had been knighted – ‘Should I have the good fortune to fall in with him again, I’ll make him a lord’ – carried a hint of bitterness. When the war ended, Jones was left without a commission. A spell fighting in the Black Sea against the Turks as a rear admiral in Catherine the Great’s navy ended abruptly when he was accused of raping a ten-year-old girl and in 1790 he returned to France in disgrace.
He died in Paris in July 1792 at the age of 45 and was buried in the Saint Louis Protestant Cemetery. A few weeks later, the Tuileries were stormed and the monarchy overthrown. The cemetery was sold and built over. But Jean-Baptiste Beaupoil, a former aide-de-camp to the Marquis de Lafayette, had paid for Jones’s corpse to be preserved in alcohol and placed in a lead coffin. When General Horace Porter, the US ambassador to France, went looking for it a century later, the only evidence of Jones’s interment was from an article published in Correspondance littéraire in 1859. Despite the refusal of Congress to finance the project, by 1905 the site of the old cemetery had been located. Shafts were sunk, allowing excavators to look for lead coffins. The first two had bronze plaques with other men’s names. The third bore no inscription. They prised it open and there was Jones, as well preserved as a medieval saint.
Finding the Bonhomme Richard has proved less straightforward. At Coble Landing in Filey, I met a diver called John Adams who in the 1970s came across what he believed to be its remains while retrieving trawler nets not far from shore. For a few years, he kept his discovery quiet. He set up the Filey Underwater Research Unit with his sons and a few friends, including Tony Green, who later went on to help found Filey Bay 1779. They took archaeology courses and made research dives from Adams’s boat. ‘It’s such a dynamic bay – the sand is always shifting,’ he told me. ‘And the depth [at which the wreck lies] depends on the winds and the tides.’
Then the news leaked out, and the US navy, National Geographic and a BBC documentary team turned up. A Royal Navy survey ship took side sonar scans. Green’s widow, Linda, remembers the excitement. ‘I was a district nurse and I came home one afternoon to find all these men eating fish and chips in my sun lounge. They were a diving team from Hawaii.’ Timber retrieved from the site was tested and shown to be the right age, and in 2002 the ship Adams found was added to English Heritage’s list of protected wreck sites. But it might not be the Bonhomme Richard: the Nautilus, a 16-gun British sloop-of-war, sank off Speeton Cliffs in 1799.
Adams is convinced that the currents would have brought the Bonhomme Richard towards the shore; but a series of expeditions conducted by the US-based Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration (GFOE) have focused on an area between fifteen and twenty miles off Flamborough Head. Peter Reaveley, one of the GFOE researchers, sent me thirteen handwritten pages about his analysis. ‘I derived the weather – visibility, winds, the sunrise and sunset, moon-rise and moon-set, and the magnetic variation,’ he wrote. ‘I built scale models [of both boats] and crewed a full-size wooden replica of a 1774 Royal Navy frigate, first-hand experience which explained many factors.’ He also tracked down the log book of the two Royal Navy ships that set off from Great Yarmouth in pursuit of Jones and came across debris from the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis about twenty nautical miles NNE of Flamborough Head.
Melissa Ryan, vice president of GFOE, led fourteen expeditions investigating dozens of wrecks across 1813 square kilometres of this patch of sea, finally settling on one, known as Target 131. These expeditions, carried out in collaboration with the US and French navies, made use of divers and high-tech equipment. Target 131 was discovered during a French navy survey in 2012 when a side sonar scan revealed planking and an anchor. Further investigation showed a mostly buried timber wreck and an anchor whose size and shape matched those of the kedge – the smallest anchor – of the Bonhomme Richard.
In 2014, French navy divers went down to the site with headlamps and flashlights. ‘They had enough divers for two dives a day, and they could stay on the bottom for up to seven minutes a dive,’ Ryan told me. ‘There is all this white coral down there. I used to curse it because it grows on everything and obscures what you’re trying to see, but it’s good for archaeology because it means things are well preserved.’ On one dive, the commanding officer removed enough white coral to retrieve something, but before he could return to the surface, something went wrong with his regulator and he passed out. ‘His diving buddy pulled him by the back of the suit and hauled him up,’ Ryan said. ‘They had gone out on a rubber boat and we saw it zooming back.’ The man was taken to a decompression chamber and recovered. He was holding onto ‘a block of dead-eyes, with the rope still in it’. Three-holed deadeyes with lanyards – just like the ones my father made.
So far, everything uncovered by Ryan’s expeditions is consistent with a late 18th-century French ship. But, for the moment, the GFOE’s hunt has ceased. Should the ship be found, France, Britain and America would all have a claim on it: France because it was theirs; America because it was flying a US flag; and the UK because it sank in British waters. These tensions led to the cancellation of the GFOE’s last joint expedition in 2019. A US ship was going to meet a French dive boat at the wreck site but ‘a week before we were due to go,’ Ryan told me, ‘I got word that no one wanted to touch anything, they only wanted to measure stuff. You can only measure what’s visible. The divers could have brought up whatever they could carry – it would have been perfectly legal – but [someone] got cold feet.’ The worry seemed to have been about the repercussions of removing historic artefacts whose ownership had not been established. But without that possibility, Ryan felt the cost could not be justified.
Bruce Blackburn and John Hart, the directors of Merlin Burrows, believe the same territorial attitude lies behind the US navy’s dismissive attitude towards its own find, which lies so close to shore you could wade to it. ‘I think they are particularly peeved that a few ne’er do wells who aren’t even maritime experts have found it when they have spent hundreds of millions and couldn’t,’ Hart told me. But there has been a similarly wary response to most of Merlin Burrows’s finds, which they claim include the Blessing of Burntisland, a ferry that sank in the Firth of Forth carrying a large quantity of gold and silver belonging to Charles I, the tomb of King Alaric I and treasure from King John’s baggage train. Oh, and the lost city of Atlantis. What Merlin Burrows is selling often seems too good to be true, but Blackburn says that its late founder, a ‘spectral analysis’ specialist called Timothy Akers, worked out a way to turn image data from commercial satellites into X-rays. ‘We can find something as small as a 5p piece in a field,’ Blackburn told me. The problem is that the company is reluctant to search until someone pays them; and no one is willing to pay until they’re sure there’s something there. A similar conundrum surrounds their technology. Because it’s based on existing software, it can’t be patented, so they won’t show it to anyone, and, because they won’t show it to anyone, it’s difficult to assess its credibility.
Blackburn and Hart showed me images they said resembled a bell and a lion’s head, and the more I looked, the more those shapes became visible. The pair have also collected 32 ‘charred’ timbers. A retired US naval commander called Jim Poole stumbled on one when out walking with them on Filey Bay. ‘It took three people to get it off the beach,’ Hart said. Obsessed with the Bonhomme Richard since childhood, Poole is a trustee of the John Paul Jones Cottage Museum at Kirkbean, which he rescued when it looked set to go under in 2019. I wanted to talk to him, but he had suffered a stroke and was on a life support machine. I asked Blackburn and Hart to show me the timbers. When they told me they were stored in tanks, I pictured large containers in a purpose-built hangar; in fact they were in troughs in Hart’s back garden. At first, they were obscured by sludge, but Hart rolled up his sleeves and pulled them onto the grass. The last one was Poole’s. It bore rust marks, which Hart said were traces of corroded iron knees and fastenings. Following its rough contours with my hand, I chose to believe that this piece of blackened wood was part of the Bonhomme Richard.
On 21 September, I returned for the Filey Bay 1779 annual dinner: bangers and mash in a sea cadets’ hall, decorated with fairy lights and banners. At the head of my table was Jim Poole: he had discharged himself from hospital, crossed the Atlantic and was knocking back wine while handing out miniature Serapis flags (the US ensign mocked up to secure the seized ship’s entry to Texel). At the neighbouring table, Lieutenant Commander Michael Sturm, deputy US naval attaché at the embassy in London, and his wife, Rachel, sat next to Lieutenant Jonathan Aylett of the Royal Navy. Sturm was dressed in ceremonial uniform and was beaming; Aylett was in his civvies and had the air of a man who’d known better Saturday nights.
Sturm told me he loved the Battle of Flamborough Head because it demonstrated the difference between a tactical and a strategic victory, and because it brought home the reality of war to local people. ‘It also reminds us of the importance of partnerships,’ he added. ‘It’s awkward to say that when England was our foe, but, over time, we have become the closest of allies.’ Aylett described Jones as a privateer, but was equally heartfelt on the subject of collaboration. I asked Sturm who would keep the spoils if the Bonhomme Richard was found. ‘According to US law, any US military ship that goes down in international waters belongs to the retired US admiral in charge of the naval history and heritage command,’ Rachel answered. ‘So, there’s an understanding it would be returned as we would return a British ship found in our waters.’ ‘I think it would be classed as a war grave,’ Aylett said. ‘It would not belong to anyone.’
Before leaving for Filey, I had picked up my dad’s model from Craig Wallace. He had mended the rigging, carved new balustrades and sorted the squiggly white streak along the bottom. ‘Your dad was a great craftsman,’ he said, ‘but he couldn’t draw a straight line.’ That made me laugh. I have heard wild tales about my father: that he fled to Jersey to escape the police after a job turned sour; that he once won enough on the horses to buy us a new kitchen. But there are many things I will never know, such as the reason he decided to make the Bonhomme Richard. Wallace asked if I had any sense of what a model like my father’s would fetch. Later, I found something similar on the internet that had sold for £2750. As for what it’s worth to me, that’s a different matter.
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