Carolyn Frank

Sunken British ships are focus of Newport archaeology project

By Ken Shane - Jamestown Press


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.

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