At 7pm on Wednesday 23 September a small ceremony will take place in the garden of the White Lodge Hotel to make the 241st anniversary of the Battle of Flamborough Head. The Serapis flag will be formally raised on the hotel’s flagpole, a rocket fired to make the beginning of the battle, a brief overview of the events given and a toast made to the 300 plus sailors who died in the battle.
On 23 September 1779 the American revolutionary captain John Paul Jones led a joint American and French force into Filey Bay. They attacked a convoy that was guarded by two Royal Navy ships, one being HMS Serapis. Although outgunned, the Royal Navy engaged the American and French ships. In the ensuing action the convoy was saved but HMS Serapis was captured by the much larger crew of the Bonhomme Richard. The Serapis had done her job by saving the convoy and in fact battered the Bonhomme Richard so badly that the American ship sank a blazing wreck somewhere beneath the cliffs at Speeton.
The so-called Serapis flag was reportedly flown by captain John Paul Jones when he sailed the heavily damaged Serapis into a port in neutral Holland. He was attempting to avoid claims that he was a pirate rather than a representative of a nation state. Hence the Serapis flag was rapidly fashioned by the ship’s crew and raised on the mast. The flag was accepted by the Dutch and thus the flag, like the Battle of Flamborough Head, passed into American folklore.
The battle is taught to every American schoolchild. The story of John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard is a legend of the US Navy. For several years Filey-based historian Tony Green has been forging links with Calvert County in the United States. The ceremony on Wednesday is the first step towards making the anniversary of the battle into a regular part of the Filey year. Hopefully, it will begin to grow and attract tourists from the United States to Filey. Clearly, the pandemic has caused this year’s events to be considerably scaled back, but for 2021 there are hopes for a mini-naval conference and perhaps a few high-profile visitors. Watch this space!