The wreck of the Bonhomme Richard has been found. It lies beneath the waves of Filey Bay and its discovery could lead to a tourism boom for the Yorkshire coast. The Bonhomme Richard is one of the most famous shipwrecks in history, the story of which is taught to every American schoolchild. It is big history and the discovery of the wreck offers an equally big opportunity.
The Battle of Flamborough Head is one of the most famous event to have taken place in the waters of the North Sea. In 1779 the American War of Independence spread to the unlikely location of Flamborough Head. A joint Franco-American squadron, attempting to draw the British Home Fleet northwards so a joint Franco-Spanish invasion could take place in the south of England, stumbled across a large British convoy of Baltic timber off Flamborough Head. Two Royal Navy ships, vastly outgunned by their French and American foes, saved the convoy, but were captured or sank in the act.
However, the real significance of the battle wasn’t about ships sunk, it became emblematic of the pluck and courage of the fledgling American nation. The American commander John Paul Jones, who was in fact a Scotsman sailing in a French ship, became known as ‘the father of the American Navy’. His ship, the Bonhomme Richard, despite being sunk during the battle, is now a legendary name in American naval history and to this day there is a USS Bonhomme Richard and a USS John Paul Jones serving in the US Navy.
In December last year Bruce Blackburn, the chief executive officer of Merlin Burrows, gave a presentation at the White Lodge Hotel, Filey, where he explained the company’s work in tracking down the previously elusive remains of the Bonhomme Richard. The company thoroughly researched contemporary reports of the Battle of the Flamborough Head and worked closely with a Filonian team led by Tony Green, whose years of research into the vessel proved to be invaluable. They concluded that the wreck was likely to be in inshore waters.
Merlin Burrows began searching specific areas of Filey Bay using satellite technology to look for anomalies that would narrow the area to be searched by their specialist dive team. Their investigations came to a conclusion last year when their divers photographed the remains of canons, ships timbers and the other detritus of a wreck that has since been proven to be the Bonhomme Richard.
The fact that the wreck lies within Filey Bay offers a huge opportunity for Filey and the surrounding area. As the owner of the White Lodge, James Hodgson, explained, his American wife Kim, along with every American schoolchild, was taught about the Battle of Flamborough Head during her education. Now it has been discovered, the wreck site, and surrounding area, could become a site of pilgrimage for thousands of Americans.
One of Merlin Burrows staff has been liaising with the crew of the current USS Bonhomme Richard, a helicopter carrier, and they expressed a desire to visit the site of the wreck at some point in the future. The site of an American carrier in Filey Bay would in itself attract visitors to the area. Clearly, other events could be built around such a visit, or perhaps visits of many other passing US Navy ships in the future.
However such visits would be one-off events, what Yorkshire needs to be ready for is year-round tourism from across the Atlantic. In particular, Filey needs to have a series of sites for such visitors to view, otherwise their presence will be fleeting and it is likely to be York, or other larger towns, that will benefit from the discovery of the Bonhomme Richard. A popular itinerary for American visitors is London, York and Edinburgh. A diversion to Filey Bay would fit neatly into that well-trod path. There is a fledgling John Paul Jones trail emerging, a John Paul Jones Birthplace Museum has been established in the cottage where the Bonhomme Richard’s captain, John Paul Jones, was born in south west Scotland. The Beacon Museum in Whitehaven has a section on John Paul Jone’s raid on his former home town in the weeks leading up to the Battle of Flamborough Head. Aside from the storyboard in the Crescent Gardens, and the public house Bonhommes, there is precious little to attract American visitors to Filey at present.
So what of the wreck of the Bonhomme Richard itself? A French ship, sailing under an American flag, with a Scottish captain in British waters? Legal opinion is split, the French have often coveted the wreck, but maritime convention appears to suggest that as the Bonhomme Richard was fighting under the American flag, the wreck is the property of America. Merlin Burrows have registered the Bonhomme Richard with the Receiver of Wrecks in London, so there is also a possibility that the wreck could remain beneath the waves of Filey Bay. There is no possibility of a Mary Rose style raising of the wreck as the ship was virtually shot to pieces during the Battle of Flamborough Head. However, there are a great many other artefacts that could be placed on public display (and wouldn’t it be marvellous for Filey Museum to have something from the wreck), but until the legal wrangle over the ownership is resolved, the Bonhomme Richard will remain among the shifting sands of Filey Bay.
The opportunities that will emerge with the wreck of the Bonhomme Richard are almost limitless. Increased tourism, visiting warships, links with museums in America and France, historical and archeological events. The Bonhomme Richard was stretching its own horizons when it sailed in Filey Bay 240 years ago, now the ship offers the town of Filey an opportunity to widen its own horizon across the Atlantic and into one of the most lucrative tourist markets on the planet.