“I have not yet begun to fight!”

The USS Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis

From W. Thomas Smith, Jr.’s “This Week in American Military History” article in Human Events:

Sept. 23, 1779: The famous battle of the North Sea opens between Continental Navy frigate Bonhomme Richard under the command of Capt. John Paul Jones​, and Royal Navy frigate HMS Serapis.

During the height of the fighting, Serapis’ Captain Richard Pearson issues an appeal to Jones that the American ship surrender. Jones refuses.

According to the story, the British captain – aware that Bonhomme Richard is badly damaged and sinking – shouts across the water between the two dueling ships, inquiring as to whether or not Jones has lowered or struck his colors. Jones shouts back, “I have not yet begun to fight!”

It has since been widely reported that Jones reply was, “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike!”

In fact, Bonhomme Richard does sink: But not before Pearson himself surrenders (believed to be “the first time in naval history that colors are surrendered to a sinking ship”), and Jones transfers his flag to his newly captured prize, Serapis.

The American fleet sailed the Dutch port of Texel Roads, but Jones had to transfer the entire fleet – minus the USS Alliance – to the French due to political pressure. Jones may have lost his fleet, but his remarkable victory would earn him the title “the Father of the American Navy.”

Author: Chris Carter

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