As I have mentioned previously, I have been enjoying rewatching the 2015 TV series Poldark during this latest lockdown. It is set in Cornwall and the coast and sea are featured as much as the main protagonists.
Back in the late 18th century when the stories are set, when a ship got into trouble in sight of the coast, there would be great excitement on land because any spoils that floated ashore would then become the property of whoever it was who owned the ground upon which it arrived. It did lead to some disputes, especially with the original owners of any salvaged cargo, which could be very valuable.
There are many wrecks that lie at on the ocean floor around our coastline, many of which are casualties of World War II. But we also have our fair share of 18th century timber ships too, and one of the most famous in Yorkshire is the U.S. warship Bonhomme Richard. According to my dad’s column from 7th February 1981, the 42-gun ship sank off Flamborough Head after a three and a half hour battle with the British Serapis on September 25th 1779 during the American War of Independence. It was captained by the infamous John Paul Jones, described by some as more of a pirate than a noble seaman, and the fact that this ship was in action at the very dawn of the U.S Navy is why it is of such importance to American historians.
When Dad wrote that column, no wreckage of the ship had ever been discovered, but since then there have been claims by two separate parties who have valid reasons for declaring they have found the remains of the Bonhomme Richard.
One claim was made by Harrogate-based company Merlin Burrows (MB), who specialise in using satellite imagery to locate lost archaeological treasures. In 2017, they said they had X-ray imaging showing what looked like a ship’s bell and a figurehead in the same place that the 1779 battle had taken place, and in 2019, they displayed some burnt timbers that they had retrieved from the waters below.
However, the claim is disputed by American experts who used eye-witness accounts and ship’s logs (also available to MB), alongside their own knowledge of how wreckage might drift underwater. They suggested that the location pinpointed by Merlin Burrows was not accurate. The discovery of the timbers place MB’s findings in the right timeframe, but there is little else revealed so far to suggest it is that particular ship.
Melissa Ryan, an ocean exploration expert, has worked with U.S., British and French navy officials since 2006 searching for wooden wrecks, including the Bonhomme Richard, and she says there are up to 1,500 boating carcasses littering the ocean floor around our coast, some, she says, dating back as far as Viking times. She believes the Bonhomme Richard lies further out to sea as an eye witness described the fatally damaged vessel ‘disappearing over the horizon’ before it sank.
A few miles out from the Yorkshire coast is what is known as ‘Torpedo Alley’, thanks to the abundance of shipping sunk by German submarines during both world wars. Most of these wreckages are made of metal, but, according to Ryan, in 2012 they found a wooden carcass among it all. They also found an anchor and rigging material that suggests it is of the same era as the Bonhomme Richard.
When Captain Jones acquired the merchant ship Duc de Duras in 1779, he adapted it so that it was ‘war ready’, added cannons and ‘iron knees’ to brace the ship, then changed its name to the Bonhomme Richard. Finding any of these items would strengthen the case of either claimant. The ‘Holy Grail’, though, would be to locate the ship’s bell which would bear the original name Duc de Duras and prove once and for all who is right.
Looking for ships at the bottom oceans is a very expensive business, and I believe lack of finance is hampering further explorations, so it looks like we may not get an answer to the conundrum for some time to come. But if either party is ever proved right, I do hope that one day we will all get to discover more about at the ancient ship that fought its last battle just off the coast of our great county.
Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 12th February and the Gazette & Herald on 10th February 2021