The Duc de Duras, a 900 ton merchant ship built in France for the French East India Company in 1765, transported freight between the Orient and France. She was placed at the disposal of John Paul Jones and the Continental Navy on February 4, 1779, by King Louis XVI of France as a result of a loan to the United States. Jones was an admirer of Benjamin Franklin because of his founding father roots and also perhaps because Franklin was an envoy to France as the Commissioner to Paris. Jones renamed the Duc de Duras the "Bonhomme Richard" when, translated in English, meant "Poor Richard" - the pen name Franklin used when he wrote his "Poor Richard's Almanac". Franklin used the journal to shape public will against the British crown using witty humor.
The French gave Jones the authority to use his own judgment as to where he would sail to attack British shipping. Jones now had the ship but needed officers and a crew. The ship also needed to be converted from a merchantmen to a ship of war. A few months were needed to find and secure cannon and stores so she could become a fighting frigate. By this time Jones was bestowed the title of commodore as other ships were also placed under his command. The Bonhomme Richard was not a new ship by any regard, having made many voyages in her cargo guise. As such, she had a tendency to develop leaks to the point that Captain Jones felt uneasy. With a new coat of paint and a new name she was finally ready for the sea.
Jones sailed the Bonhomme Richard out on June 19, 1779 along with his squadron of ships including the fine USS Alliance (a 36-gun frigate), the French warships Pallas (a captured British 32-gun frigate), the Vengeance (a 12-gun British brig), the cutter Le Cerf and a complement of troop ships. This voyage resulted in no contact with British shipping but in August the fleet set sail into the North Sea and captured 16 British merchantmen along with their cargos. After returning to port for repairs, Alliance and the Bonhomme Richard collided in a storm.
The squadron sailed again on the 23rd. While they were near the entrance to Dingle Bay, a lookout sighted the vessel Fortune. Jones approached and the Bristol-bound brig lowered its flag as it was clearly out-gunned. Two armed boats were lowered from Jones' flagship and took the Fortune as a prize. Jones placed a small crew on board and sent the Fortune back to France. Also that day, the Alliance's commanding officer, Captain Pierre Landais, a former officer in the French Navy who went to America and received a captain's commission in the Continental Navy, was given the Alliance due to his sea experience. Landais was not content to serve under Jones and whenever possible was quite to derail his commands.
The squadron now found itself close to the Irish coast with the wind calming down. Jones was concerned if his ships pursued vessels into the shoals they might be stalled and result in capture. Jones ordered Landais to not follow a particular vessel towards shore. To that, Landais boarded the Bonhomme Richard and told Jones face-to-face that he would no longer obey Jones' orders. This became the first American mutiny at sea.
Problems continued for Jones and his squadron for, that evening, when Bonhomme Richard had drifted dangerously close to the shoals, Jones ordered his barge lowered so it could tow the frigate into deeper water away from Ireland. The coxswain and the boat's Irish oarsmen were delighted to return home and decided to cut the lines and row their vessels towards shore. The Le Cerf became separated from the squadron while looking for the boats and had no choice but to return to home port. Pallas, the French frigate, broke her tiller and dropped out of sight. Landais took Alliance off on his own without permission, leaving the Vengeance and the Bonhomme Richard to sail alone.
The two ships continued in a generally northerly direction west of the outer Hebrides and then headed for Cape Wrath towards Scotland. On August 30th, Jones sighted three ships and quickly gave chase. He overtook the brig Union and persuaded her to surrender. Alliance netted with a prize named Betsy and Landais again touted Jones' authority. Within a few days Pallas rejoined the squadron and, on the next day, Vengeance captured an Irish brigantine on its way to England. The squadron passed the Shetlands then turned south to begin the last leg of its cruise around the British Isles. The definant Alliance took two more small ships and Landais again left the squadron unknown to Jones. Jones next wanted to attack Newcastle, England, to interrupt England's coal supply however this task eventually proved impossible. Instead, the Bonhomme Richard drove a ship ashore south of Yorkshire and took a British brigantine sailing from Rotterdam to Britain.
On September 23, 1779, the small fleet sighted the British Baltic Fleet of 41 vessels under the protection of a 44-gun frigate, the HMS Serapis, and the Sloop of War Countess of Scarborough, a 22-gun ship-of-the-line. At around 6:00 PM, the Bonhomme Richard engaged Serapis and Pallas, attacked the Countess of Scarborough in what became the Battle of Flamborough Head. The USS Alliance did not engage the British but fired on the Bonhomme Richard instead. This action resulted in a court martial for Landias upon his return to France. Bonhomme Richard rounded Serapis' port quarter and fired but two of its cannon exploded below deck killing many of the gun crew. In Jones' favor, Midshipman Fanning and his men succeeded in eliminating the British sharpshooters from the top sail of the Bonhomme Richard.
Four hours of intense fighting left the Bonhomme Richard battered. and Captain Pearson of the Serapis saw the enemy ship badly listing from shot and shell. Pearson suggested surrender to Jones with Jones returning to the British captain saying "I have not yet begun to fight." Jones maneuvered his ship close to the Serapis and rammed her. The ensuing, carnage on both sides was horrifying and all this occurring while the American ship was sinking.
The two vessels became locked together via grappling hooks for another two hours. Jones utilized his British prisoners to work the pumps to keep his ship afloat. His actions wore the enemy down to the point of collapse and with the Serapis on fire, the British finally surrendered to Jones by striking their colors. Jones' crew put out the fire and took stock of the Richard. He decided to transfer his crew to the British ship while the Bonhomme Richard was allowed to sink, this occurring on September 25, 1779 despite valiant attempts to save the gallant ship. Jones sailed the Serapis to port in the United Provinces in Holland. The Continental Navy had its first victory over a British ship and this occurring in Britain's home waters of all places. This battle catapulted Jones into hero status and he was heralded as "The Father of the American Navy". His battle cry of "not begun to fight" would go down in American naval history and quotation lore.