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Britannia Rules... Volume 55 Number 5, September/October 2002
by Eric A. Powell

The British government has acted to protect the remains of an American ship that was once the scourge of the Royal Navy. Now lying some five miles off the northeast coast of England, the wreck believed to be the Bonhomme Richard, John Paul Jones' legendary flagship, had become a tempting target for salvage crews. Acting on information that salvors were preparing an imminent dive on the ship, Britain's Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) extended an emergency order barring divers from coming within 300 yards of the site.

Reviled as a buccaneer by the English, Jones scored the first major victory for the young American navy in 1779, when he commanded the French-supplied Bonhomme Richard to victory against the British warship Serapis in a battle off the Yorkshire coast. After refusing a demand from his opponent to surrender with his famed "I have not yet begun to fight" reply, Jones boarded the Serapis, ultimately seizing control of it and dealing the British a humiliating setback. The badly damaged Bonhomme Richard, named in honor of Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack, sank two days after the battle.

Some 223 years later, the ship faces a threat of a different kind. "We saw that there were salvors ready to dive on this important wreck and that they might have caused lasting, permanent damage," says Tony Green of the nonprofit Filey Underwater Research Unit, which first identified the wreck and pushed for the protective order. "Thankfully that threat has receded." The unit is now conducting a non-destructive survey of the vessel, collecting data to bolster its identification as John Paul Jones' flagship.

The fact that the British are safeguarding a reminder of an embarrassing defeat was not lost on the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James', William S. Farish, who praised the government's "generosity of spirit" in letting bygones be bygones. Green was also quick to congratulate the DCMS' handling of the matter, noting that the protective order was issued "despite the fact that Jones was obviously a pirate."

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America