2012-02-16 / Front Page

Sunken British ships are focus of Newport archaeology project

According to Jamestown historian, submerged boats are from Revolutionary era

The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP) is currently engaged in a multi-year search to locate and identify 13 British transport ships that sunk in Newport Harbor in 1778. The British navy scuttled the ships in an effort to blockade the French fleet that was threatening the city.

RIMAP is an organization that is interested in the state’s maritime history. Its goal is to locate, identify and study cultural resources in Rhode Island waters such as shipwrecks, debris fields, submerged man-made structures and inundated terrestrial sites. Such discoveries can include Native American watercraft and Colonial and Revolutionary war wreckage. It also studies local slaving, steamship and naval histories.

Carolyn Frank is a Jamestown resident who teaches history at Brown University. At one time she participated in RIMAP wreck dives, including those in Newport Harbor, and she has followed the progress of the search since that time.

During the Revolutionary War, the French fleet came into Newport, Frank said. “There were British ships that had been anchored around Newport Harbor. When the French fleet sailed in with bigger guns than the British had, they decided that the best plan would be to scuttle their vessels and try to create a blockade around Newport so that the French ships couldn’t sail in because they would get hung up on the sunken vessels. They took everything off of the ships and sunk them right before the Battle of Newport.”

RIMAP is particularly interested in explorer Capt. James Cook. Cook circumnavigated the globe three times, exploring more of the world than any person in history. Two of Cook’s four ships saw their last duty in Narragansett Bay. Royal navy men who sailed with Cook served in Newport during the Revolution.

The current RIMAP search is particularly focused on a transport called the Lord Sandwich, which was one of the 13 scuttled ships. The reason for this focus is that the Lord Sandwich was formerly known as the Endeavour, the bark that Cook sailed on his first circumnavigation of the globe.

“One of the vessels, the Endeavour, had sailed in Capt. Cook’s fleet,” Frank said. “When the ship became derelict it went into private service and became a ship called the Lord Sandwich. During the Revolution it was sailed back to the United States.”

The transport had carried German troops to Newport in 1776 when the British occupied the city. For the next two years the Lord Sandwich was used as a prison ship to house American patriots.

“It was an old vessel,” Frank said. “The British tried to use these ships for as long as they could, to save money. It was a once illustrious vessel that was being repurposed. It was scuttled along with the other vessels that the British scuttled in order to create the blockade.”

In July and August of 1778, the French fleet arrived in Narragansett Bay to provide support for American forces that were preparing to attack Newport. The British responded by burning or sinking 10 Royal navy ships to avoid having them captured. On Aug. 3 through Aug. 5, the 13 transports were scuttled.

Following the Siege of Newport and the Battle of Rhode Island, American and French forces withdrew from the area. The British raised some of their sunken ships, but the transports remained on the floor of the outer harbor.

Cook, along with his crew and a group of scientists, sailed the Endeavour from 1668 to 1671. Their voyage took them to the eastern coast of Australia. The surveying work they did allowed Great Britain to lay claim to the continent and colonize it.

According to RIMAP director and founder Kathy Abbass, this is the reason that the Endeavour is revered by Australians in the same way that the Mayflower is admired by New England history buffs.

According to Frank, RIMAP has been trying to determine which one of the sunken vessels, if any of them, is Lord Sandwich, aka the Endeavour. “There are things that you can do archaeologically to determine whether or not a vessel is the ship in question,” Frank said. “One is by measuring the hull and by looking at different characteristics that the Endeavour had. It was repaired in the South Pacific, so if you can get a wood sample, and it’s an exotic wood from the South Pacific, you know you’ve probably got the boat. It also had a stepped keel, so that’s something they would be looking for.”

Frank added that it’s not any one of those things that would determine the vessel – a number of key pieces of evidence need to be put together.

“It’s very, very important that these ships remain undisturbed so they can be properly recorded,” Frank said. “Only when you put all of that information together can you know what you’ve got. Maybe there’s another significant ship down there in addition to the Endeavour. There is a lot of sport diving on shipwrecks in Rhode Island, and people love to do that for fun. But when you’re disturbing the site, you’re disturbing the evidence and maybe the possibility of finding out more about the ship’s registry.”

Over a 20-year period, RIMAP has employed remote sensors including side-scan sonar, sub-bottom profiler and magnetometer to allow divers to map eight potential 18th century sites in Newport Harbor that might be the sites of the scuttled transports.

During the time that Frank was diving with RIMAP, artifacts were not removed from any ships. Their presence was recorded, and they were photographed or drawn. The historian says that all that remains of the sunken ships is the bottom of the hull, the keels and some ribs. One ship, the Cerberus, was a large frigate that carried cannons and the dive teams reported that the cannons were still there.

“They were not in great condition,” Frank said. “They were buried. Newport Harbor is heavily trafficked, so there has been a lot of agitation, and a lot of chemicals in the water. Unfortunately I think the ships got buried pretty quickly and settled.”

Although the organization remains hopeful that the Endeavour site is among those found, to date there is no conclusive diagnostic evidence that this is the case. RIMAP hopes that continued exploration of the sites will reveal which – if any of them – is the site of the Endeavour. It is important to note, according to RIMAP, that given the history of Newport Harbor, it is not likely that all of the transports have survived.

“There are some pretty good records about which ships were where when they were sunk,” Frank said. “Most of the ships I was participated in dives on, we ended up finding out what the ship was, and they were not the Endeavour.”

Frank said that to her knowledge no shipwrecks from the Revolutionary War era have ever been identified in Jamestown waters. Given the amount of diving that goes on at Fort Wetherill, if something was there it would likely have been found by now. Her opinion was shared by Bill Munger of Conanicut Marine Services who said that there are no wrecks in local waters as far as he knows.

According to Jamestown Harbormaster Sam Paterson, the only shipwreck that he is aware of in Jamestown waters is the Cape Fear, a 260-foot, cement-hulled Liberty ship. The Cape Fear was T-boned by a ship called the City of Atlantis in 1921 and went down in 172 feet of water between Fort Wetherill and Hammersmith Farm. The ship went down in 15 minutes and a crew of more than 30 perished in the disaster.

Paterson has dived on the wreck several times and reports that it is a difficult dive because the wreck is in the shipping channel and can only be approached at slack tide.

RIMAP will hold a press conference on June 3 to share details of its findings thus far.

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