(Courtesy of our dear friend Rick Sanders)
September 23, 1779, 236 years ago, John Paul Jones carried out one of the great exploits of naval history; 10 days later, the Dutch saved Jones from being hanged from the yard arm of a British man-of-war.
In the year 1777, in a brilliant flanking move, the Continental Congress chose John Paul Jones to command the Ranger, with orders to attack enemy commerce in British waters which he did brilliantly, but he also did more. The arrogant British were used to having control of the oceans, and would often swoop down out of nowhere and commit their usual raping, looting and murder on the local inhabitants: ask the people in Central America about British atrocities from the time of Francis Drake on; ask the people of Copenhagen about being bombarded by the British fleet in 1807.
But Jones took the battle right to Britain itself. And he was perfect for the job. He had started his maritime career in Scotland at the age of 13 and had gotten to know British coastal waters, sometimes like the back of his hand. Now was the time to put the fear of God into the British. On numerous occasions Jones would sweep in, but not to commit British-style atrocities, but to undermine British morale and wreck their war-fighting capacity by burning their ships in the harbor. Then Jones would vanish in the night or the mist. His greatest feat, that tops them all, was the September 23, 1779 battle of Flamborough Head, in the North Sea off the coast of Yorkshire, and is emblematic of the defeat of the British in the war as a whole. John Paul Jones commanded an inferior ship, the Bonhomme Richard, pitted against the Serapis, one of the British Navy’s newest warships. For details you can read James Fenimore Cooper’s account of this battle. To make a long story short, since Jones’ ship was less maneuverable, he used his disadvantage by grappling the Serapis, and lashing his ship to it, so that when his own ship began to sink, he was already in command of the Serapis and ultimately had to cut loose his own and let it sink.
Now he was in a precarious position because although he had captured several British ships as prizes, his own ship could barely sail since he had shot the mast off himself during battle. So they scraped together whatever sticks and broken rigging they could salvage, rigged a scrap of sail and limped towards the nearest port in Holland. Fortunately for him, and all of us, the British seem to have gone on a wild goose chase towards France.
Fortunately also, the weather stayed mild or else he would have ended up at the bottom of the North Sea. On October 3, 1779, John Paul Jones limped into the harbor of Texel. Soon the British fleet arrived and blockaded the port, demanding the extradition of the “rebel”. The Dutch refused. The Dutch people greeted Jones as a hero, and even composed a song that was sung in the streets in his honor. Jones in turn lauded the Dutch people: They are for us and the war … every day these blessed women came to the ships in great numbers – mothers, daughters, even little girls – bringing with them for our wounded, all the numberless little comforts of Dutch homes; a tribute that came from the hearts of the people, and therefore far overlaid in effect all statecraft and all diplomacy against us.