“Paul Jones's Victory”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: before 1839 (broadside, Bodleian Johnson Ballads 247)
Keywords: navy war ship battle
Found in: US(MA,SE) Britain(England) Canada(Mar) Ireland


John Paul Jones's [Bonhomme] Richard encounters two British ships. Despite being outgunned, Jones manages to capture the larger of the British ships.

Supplemental text

Paul Jones's Victory [Laws A4]
  Complete text(s)

          *** A ***

Paul Jones the Pirate

As printed by W. H. Logan, The Pedlar's Pack of Ballads and Songs,
p. 38. Immediate source not stated.

A noble frigate called Percy by name,
Mounted guns forty-four, out of L'Orient they came
For to cruise in the channel of old England's fame,
With their brave commodore, Paul Jones was his name.

We had not cruised above days two or three,
Than (sic.) a man from a mast-head a sail he did see;
A sail he did see, being a large forty-four:
He convoy stood in for the old Yorkshire shore.

At length the proud Richards came up along side,
With a loud speaking trumpet, "from whence come?" he cried,
"Come answer me quickly, I have hailed you before,
Or else a broadside I will in to you pour."

WE received the broadside from the proud Englishmen,
But soon our brave Yankies returned it again,
Broadside for broadside, -- five glasses we run
When the undaunted flag of the Richards came down.

Our gunner being frightened, to Paul Jones he came,
Saying, "our ship's making water, and is likewise in flame;"
Paul Jones, with a smile to the gunner replied,
"If we can do no better we will sink alongside."

Now, my brave boys, we have taken a prize,
A large forty-four, with a twenty likewise;
With twenty-five merchantmen loaded with store,
So we'll alter our course to the American shore.


The following biography has been heavily revised from that in earlier versions of the Ballad Index. I no longer know what references I originally consulted. I do know that Samuel Eliot Morison, in his biography _John Paul Jones_, (I use the 1981 Time-Life edition) accuses earlier biographers of simply forging large parts of the Jones story, which makes me feel a little better.

John Paul Jones (1747-1792) was born in Scotland with the name John Paul (Morison, pp. 1, 3). He went to sea at age 13 (Morison, p. 9), initially serving aboard merchant ships (Morison, p. 10), including time aboard a slaver (Morison, p. 13).

In 1768, John Paul saw both the master and mate of his ship die of fever. The only man aboard who could navigate, he brought the ship home and was given command of the _John_ (Morison, pp. 13-14). He was 21. He served well in this role for five years (Morison, p. 20).

Then he killed one of his sailors.

It wasn?t the first time he had been charged with brutality. In the course of a voyage in 1769-1770, Jones had had a sailor named Mungo Maxwell brutally flogged (Morison, p. 17). There had been some doubt about the Maxwell case; there was no question about this one. Calling at Tobago, John Paul had refused to pay his men an advance on their wages (which, we note, they had already earned, but which were not due until the ship returned to Britain). Several men apparently wanted to desert. John Paul stopped the mutiny by killing "the ringleader" (Morison, pp. 22-23). Legally, he was in the right -- but it was definitely not a smart thing to do.

It is not clear what happened next, but somehow John Paul ended up in the colonies and started calling himself by the surname "Jones" rather than his birth name of "Paul" (Morison, pp. 23-24).

When war broke out with Great Britain, Paul Jones joined the navy, apparently being the senior lieutenant in the entire service (Morison, p. 29). (We should probably add that "lieutenant" was, in effect, a higher rank then than now -- the approved ranks were captain, lieutenant, master, and midshipman. Thus a lieutenant was the equivalent of a "commander" today, ranked high enough to command a sloop or even a small frigate though not a hip of the line.)

Not that the continental navy was a very impressive service at first; Fletcher Pratt, _The Compact History of the United States Navy_, p. 11, reports that ?At the time the troubles broke out in Boston in 1775, there were not a few officers of the Royal Navy who came from the colonies, but... these officers stayed with the flag rather than join persons in revolt against due authority. A few men were available for the Continental Navy who had served with the Royal Navy earlier in their careers, but only one man is reported to have left the King's service to join the colonists in revolt, and his name has not survived."

The appointment process didn't help. According to Samuel W. Bryant, _The Sea and the States_, p. 79, "Never was the creation of a corps of naval officers handled with more regard for the political weight each aspirant carried; the commissions were frankly awarded on the basis of political expediency, and little regard for the appointees' abilities as leaders and marines." Pratt, p. 24, comments that the initial naval commands "were distributed on the combined principles of geography and nepotism, modified by political maneuver." Of the first batch of officers in the United States Navy, Bryant apparently considers Jones to be the only "happy choice," but such were this politics of the time that he would soon be known as the "North Carolina Captain."

Early in the war, Jones was given command of the ship _Ranger_, which he sailed with some success (see "Paul Jones, the Privateer" [Laws A3]). This was all the more impressive because, according to Bryant, p. 96, he had only one set of sails (and only one cask of rum, if you can believe that.) But -- in one of those typically idiotic acts of the American congress -- he was deprived of command and put on the beach. (On the other hand, Pratt, p. 44, reports that he kicked one of his junior officers in the pants, which is hardly the way to win friends and influence people.)

He finally scrounged up the _Bonhomme Richard_, a converted merchant ship with forty guns so badly worn as to be rather dangerous. Bryant calls her a "floating antique with a castellated poop," and says that the former _Duc de Durac_ was "worm-eaten, crank, her old timbers exuding a heardy aroma of arrack, cloves, and tea" -- a reminder of her days trading to the East Indies (Bryant, p. 97). Paul Jones sailed her anyway, with a scrounged-up crew (Pratt reports that only 79 of his initial crew of 227 were Americans), and an assortment of five even more ill-favored consorts (see Albert Marrin, _The War for Independence_, p. 168).

Even though two of his ships had to return to France, Jones commanded a squadron of four ships, 124 guns, at the time of this battle (a flotilla financed by the French), although only the _Bonhomme Richard_ was completely engaged in the fight; his second-in-command, the French officer Pierre Landais, refused to take part.

Jones won the battle by using his marines: He lashed his ship to the big 44-gun _Serapis_, and -- having made his famous remark "I have just begun to fight" when called upon to surrender -- continued the struggle until the British gave up. The _Richard_ had, however, been reduced to a sinking condition (among other things, several of those worn guns had blown up; Pratt, p. 47), and only vigorous work at the pumps kept her afloat long enough to take the _Serapis_. Indeed, Jones would never have been able to board had not the _Serapis_ been so mis-handled as to bump into the _Richard_ (Marrin, p. 172).

This time, Jones's brutality paid off: Some of his men, with their guns silenced, the ship full of holes, the deck falling in, had tried to surrender. Jones knocked one of them unconscious and kept up the fight. You could make the case that he won because his men were too afraid to give in.

In any case, he succeeded only because of the British attitude toward prizes. Had the British navy paid sailors decently, and had a doctrine of just *sinking* the enemy, rather than capturing them, the _Serapis_ would have won the fight and John Paul Jones would be a guy who sank with his ship. The _Richard_ proved past saving and went down on September 24; had Jones not won, he would have been either a prisoner (possibly even regarded as a deserter, given that he was Scottish) or dead.

(I can't help but think how much this sounds like it could have inspired the Stan Rogers song "Barrett's Privateers," only Rogers gave it the ending it deserved.)

Laws classified this as an American song, and it probably was so in origin -- but it will be seen that it was found in British and Scottish broadsides at least. - RBW

In the Bodleian broadsides, the frigate is named Percy, Rachel or Richard. The opposing ship, if named, is Caraphus, Ceraphus or Percy. - BS

Historical references

Cross references



  1. Laws A4, "Paul Jones's Victory"
  2. BrownII 220, "Paul Jones" (2 texts)
  3. Creighton/Senior, pp. 225-226, "Paul Jones" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Mackenzie 78, "Paul Jones" (2 texts)
  5. Ranson, p. 51, "Paul Jones" (1 text, 1 tune)
  6. Chappell-FSRA 24, "Paul Jones" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. Leach, p. 713, "Paul Jones' (1 text)
  8. Friedman, p. 290, "Paul Jones" (1 text)
  9. FSCatskills 8, "Paul Jones" (1 text, 1 tune)
  10. Warner 153, "Paul Jones" (1 text, 1 tune)
  11. Scott-BoA, pp. 81-83, "Paul Jones's Victory (Poor Richard and the Serapis and Alliance" (1 text, 1 tune)
  12. Logan, pp. 32-38, "Paul Jones (Paul Jones the Pirate)" (1 text)
  13. MHenry-Appalachians, p. 233, (third of four "Fragments from Maryland") (1 fragment, consisting solely of the words "Paul Jones had a frigate"; I file it here because it looks more like this than the other John Paul Jones songs)
  15. ADDITIONAL: Maud Karpeles, _Folk Songs of Europe_, Oak, 1956, 1964, p. 259, "Paul Jones" (1 text)
  16. ST LA04 (Full)
  17. Roud #967
  18. BI, LA04