Thursday, May 18, 2006

 

US researchers find 18th-century British warships

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Long Island Press
By Richard C. Lewis
May 16, 2006


NEWPORT, Rhode Island - Four ships from a British fleet used during the U.S. Revolutionary War have been found off Rhode Island, and one may be the vessel 18th century explorer Captain James Cook sailed on his epic voyage to Australia, archaeologists said on Tuesday.

Researchers with the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project said they believe the four ships, and two others previously discovered, are part of a 13-vessel transport fleet intentionally sunk by the British in Newport Harbor in 1778 to keep French ships from landing to aid the Americans' drive for independence.

Using historical materials and sonar, the archaeologists discovered the ships in Narragansett Bay, within a mile (km) of Newport, Rhode Island's shoreline.

Divers found ballast piles about 30 feet underwater, with the ship's keel and other parts embedded in the sea floor. They also found at least one cannon, an anchor with a 16-foot (4.9-meter) shank and a cream-colored fragment of an 18th-century British ceramic teapot.

According to the team of archaeologists, one of the 13 ships in the sunken British fleet was the "Lord Sandwich," which records show was once the Endeavour, the vessel Cook used to sail the Pacific Ocean, map New Zealand and survey the eastern coast of Australia in 1768-1771.

Cook, acknowledged by historians as one of the greatest navigators of all time, is credited with surveying Australia's east coast on the Endeavour expedition.

'47 PERCENT CHANCE'

Archaeologists said it was unclear which ship could be the Endeavour. Seven of the ships in the British fleet have not been found. But they said the latest find raises the chances that one of the discovered ships is the Endeavour.

"There is a 47 percent chance that we have our hands on the Endeavour," said D.K. Abbass, executive director of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to studying the state's maritime history.

She added it was unlikely anything on the ships would provide a direct link to Cook.

"Quite frankly, we could be working on her right now and never be able to prove it," Abbass said.

It may take years to fully investigate the shipwrecks found so far, Abbass said.

Historically, the finding is significant because it helps tell the story of the siege of Newport, marking France's first attempt to aid the American insurrection against the British.

Though the effort failed, leaders from each side, George Washington representing the Americans and Comte de Rochambeau for America's French allies, met in Newport two years later, to formalize their cooperation for subsequent battles.

The French ultimately helped the Americans entrap British forces on a peninsula at Yorktown, Virginia.

"So, what you have here is the British are geared up for the colonial rebellion and now they're looking at an international conflict," said Rod Mather, a British citizen and associate professor of maritime history and underwater archaeology at the University of Rhode Island.

The shipwrecks are Rhode Island property, Abbass said. There are no plans to raise them. Officials estimate more than two dozen ships from the Revolutionary War period lie beneath Rhode Island's waters. They include British Royal Navy frigates, vessels from the Continental Navy and a French ship.


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