'I Have Not Yet Begun To Fight'

John Paul Jones in the thick of battle
John Paul Jones in the thick of battle

by Ray Setterfield

September 23, 1779 — John Paul Jones, the war hero known as the father of the US Navy, achieved a dramatic victory against the British on this day.

Commanding the 42-gun USS Bonhomme Richard in the North Sea, Jones took on the superior 44-gun British frigate HMS Serapis. The two vessels exchanged gunfire for about three hours, but realising that he could not win a battle of big guns Jones decided to lash his ship and Serapis together.

His attempts left the Bonhomme Richard burning and sinking, causing the British to call out asking if he was ready to surrender. Jones reportedly and famously replied: “I have not yet begun to fight!”

Serapis was soon badly damaged when a grenade caused a gunpowder explosion and it was the British who were forced to surrender. Jones’s against-the-odds victory over the powerful British Navy ship turned him into a national hero in the United States.

Born simply as John Paul at a small cottage in Scotland in 1747, his father was a gardener, but early in life the boy felt the call of the sea and he joined the British Merchant Marine at the age of 13, starting as a cabin boy. He was a merchant shipmaster by the age of 21.

Five years later, in 1773, acting in self-defence, he killed a mutinous sailor on the island of Tobago. Doubtful that he would be given a fair trial, John Paul fled to America and to conceal his identity changed his name, first to John Jones and later to John Paul Jones.

He went to live in Virginia and volunteered early in the War of Independence against Great Britain to serve in his adopted country's infant navy, then called the Continental Navy. He was commissioned a lieutenant on the first American flagship, Alfred.

According to the Naval History and Heritage Command website: “He raised with his own hands the Continental ensign on board the flagship of the Navy's first fleet.”

Jones was quickly promoted to captain in 1776, and while in command of the sloop Providence he destroyed British fisheries in Nova Scotia and captured 16 prize British ships.

In the next two years while commanding USS Ranger, he carried out daring raids on British shores. In recognition of his exploits, he was given command of five French and American vessels.

In November 1777 he had sailed in the Ranger to France where he established a rapport with the American Commissioner in Paris, Benjamin Franklin. When peace came Jones returned to Paris to collect prize money for the officers and men of the Bonhomme Richard.

Whilst there, Thomas Jefferson, the new American Ambassador, recommended him for service with Russia. In 1788 he was made a Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy by Empress Catherine II and as Kontradmiral Pavel Ivanovich Jones he served with distinction in the Russo-Turkish war.

According to the John Paul Jones Cottage Museum: “At the Battle of Liman, he reconnoitred the Turkish Fleet in a rowboat during the night. He repulsed Turkish attacks killing about 3,000 Turks, destroying 15 vessels and taking over 1,600 prisoners at a cost to his squadron of one frigate and 18 killed.”

John Paul Jones was an enormously popular figure in Paris, especially among ladies who saw him as a dashing war hero, and he is said to have had a number of romantic relationships.

But his health deteriorated and he spent his final years in his Paris apartment writing letters. He died on July 18, 1792 aged just 45 from kidney failure and pneumonia.

Though he was buried in a local cemetery, more than a century later in 1913, amid great ceremony, his remains were brought back to the United States in USS Brooklyn accompanied by three other cruisers. Seven battleships met them off the American coast and as a single column sailed into Chesapeake Bay.

There, according to JPJ Cottage Museum, the first four battleships peeled off firing 15-gun salutes while the Brooklyn sailed on to Annapolis. Jones was laid to rest with full military honours in a magnificent marble sarcophagus, modelled on the tomb of Napoleon, in the chapel crypt of Annapolis Naval Academy. It now stands as a national shrine.

Published: September 15, 2021
Updated: September 17, 2021

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