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To understand how a ship carrying no treasure became one of the most sought after vessels in the sea, you must first understand the ship’s history. That tale starts in 1779 when a 32-year-old Scottish-born seaman named John Paul was offered a commission by the newly formed Continental Navy, having scored some impressive victories against the seemingly invincible Royal Navy. His brief: Raid and harass English shipping; bring the war into British waters; and provide the French with whatever encouragement they needed to enter the war on the American side.

The French, for their part, were only too happy to bleed their old enemy by donating a ship to the American cause—a former merchant vessel from the French East Indies trade that had been refitted as a 42-gun warship. Louis XVI turned it over to the Americans in February 1779, and in August of that year it set sail from Lorient on its mission around Britain, having by then been renamed Bonhomme Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman, inventor, and publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanack.

Captain John Paul Jones, its new commander, was a tough, uncompromising naval officer in what history would come to think of as the Captain William Bligh mold. "Jones," the surname by which we know him today, was the unimaginative alias he’d adopted to evade British law after a sailor he’d flogged on a voyage to Tobago died of his injuries. Rather than hang around and see what a maritime court might have to say about the incident, he scampered off to Virginia and, as John Paul Jones, became a planter, looking after the estate of his late brother. He was there when the rebellion broke out, and, having little love for the English, he offered his services to the Americans. After scoring some swift, morale-boosting victories over the Royal Navy, he was given command of the Bonhomme Richard.

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