Despite appalling weather the 241st anniversary of the Battle of Flamborough Head was marked by a short ceremony in the garden of the White Lodge Hotel.
At 7pm a rocket was fired to mark the opening shots of the battle and to remember the four hundred sailors who died when an American-French force attempted to intercept a British convoy of some forty merchantmen. The resulting battle has entered American folklore and the captain of the Bonhomme Richard, John Paul Jones, is now known as the ‘father of the American Navy’.
As ever the reality of the battle is far more complicated. The two Royal Navy ships escorting the convoy were outnumbered and outgunned by the American and French flotilla. Despite that the Royal Navy ships placed themselves between the convoy and the onrushing attackers. The convoy escaped to the safety of Scarborough where they would be guarded by the guns of the castle. At 7pm the Bonhomme Richard opened fire on HMS Serapis.
Captain Pearson in command of HMS Serapis must have realised that the odds were stacked against him. His two ships had a combination of 64 guns, whilst the American-French force of five ships had 124 guns. But in the ensuing battle Captain Pearson came within an ace of winning. He riddled the Bonhomme Richard with fire. The twenty gun HMS Countess of Scarborough made such a nuisance of herself that it took two French frigates to subdue her. All the while the valuable convoy was disappearing towards the safety of Scarborough.
The course of the battle changed when the Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis became entangled. Seizing the moment John Paul Jones ordered his crew to board the Serapis. The crew of the Bonhomme Richard was a hundred larger than their Royal Navy foes and thus, after a hard fight, they managed to capture the British ship. It came not a moment too soon as the Bonhomme Richard was little more than a blazing wreck. She later sank, some believe beneath the cliffs at Speeton, and passed into the pages of history.
John Paul Jones sailed the badly battered Serapis to neutral Holland. When they arrived the British ambassador claimed that Jones should be arrested for piracy as he did not represent any nation state. The crew of the Serapis fashioned a flag and hoisted it. That flag was recognised by the Dutch and it is today know as the ‘Serapis flag’.
So why should the people of Filey remember a battle that ended with the capture of two Royal Navy vessels? From a purely commercial point of view, given the huge significance of the battle to American history, it is worth attempting to tap into a potentially lucrative vacation market. But, we should also remember that Captain Pearson of the Serapis, despite being outgunned, took on the American and French ships and did his job of protecting the convoy. Additionally, from a crew of 380 on the Bonhomme Richard, 64 were British and 21 Irish. The captain himself, John Paul Jones, was Scottish born and raised in Whitehaven in Cumbria.
This year the commemorations had to be scaled back, but for 2021 it is hoped that a much larger event will take place on the days around the anniversary of the battle. Watch this space!