Sea Discovery

Underwater Search for 13 British Transport Service Vessels Continues

Image: RIMAP The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP), a tenant activity at Naval Station Newport, is conducting underwater surveys of Newport Harbor in search of 13 British transport service vessels sunk in 1778 near historic Fort Adams that was blockaded by the Royal Navy during the War of 1812. “Much of local Rhode Island maritime history is naval history,” said RIMAP Director D. K. (Kathy) Abbass, Ph.D. According to Abbass, the exposed portions of a wooden ship and its organic artifacts have deteriorated and disappeared in Rhode Island’s saltwater environment after 200 years. “What is left behind is a pile of ballast stone that sometimes remains and that may cover wooden remnants protected by silt,” she said.

RIMAP is an education and research entity that studies the Revolutionary War in Rhode Island, local maritime history, and the submerged cultural resources in Narragansett Bay. One of RIMAP’s missions is to protect these resources from damage, theft, and vandalism. According to Abbass, Narragansett Bay has the largest collection of Revolutionary War shipwrecks found anywhere in the country. The list of ships includes four Royal Navy frigates burned and sunk along the west coast of Aquidneck Island, three smaller armed vessels burned and sunk in the Sakonnet River, two or three Royal Navy ships and 13 transports sunk in Newport’s outer harbor. Other vessels were lost in the vicinity of Prudence Island, Point Judith, and in other waters of Rhode Island.

Most of the British ships were lost between July 29 and Aug. 5, 1778, a period leading up to the Siege of Newport and the Battle of Rhode Island, she said. The British Royal Navy ships were burned and sunk to avoid capture by a fleet of much larger French ships. The privately owned British transports were sunk, Aug. 5-9, 1778, to blockade and protect Newport.

RIMAP’s current research effort is in determining the location in Newport Harbor of British explorer Capt. James Cook’s vessel, HMB Endeavour. The work has generated international interest. Abbass briefed U.S. Senator Jack Reed, Jan. 30, about the progress of RIMAP’s research and the search for the Endeavour. Endeavour carried Cook, his crew and scientists around the world in 1768 to 1771. On this trip the Endeavour surveyed the eastern coast of Australia, leading to the later British claim and colonization of that continent. “This is why the Endeavour is revered by Australians in the same way that the Mayflower is revered by those interested in early New England history,” Abbass said.

Endeavour was later used as a Navy store ship and in 1775 was sold to a private owner who offered the vessel back to the British transport service under her new name of Lord Sandwich. RIMAP, through historic maps and narrative descriptions, has a good idea where the transports were sunk, but finding Endeavour has been a long-term process. Over the last 20 years, RIMAP divers have conducted remote sensing surveys of Newport Harbor using side-scan sonar, sub-bottom profiler and magnetometer to identify potential targets for investigation.

RIMAP divers have mapped eight potential 18th century sites.
“That means we have a 60 percent chance that we’ve located the Endeavour,” Abbass said. “This is a good example of how the Department of Defense can work with a non-profit entity in which both gain a benefit and share success.”

Incorporated in 1992 to study Rhode Island maritime history, RIMAP has investigated more than 55 archaeology sites in Rhode Island, not only underwater but on land. “Marine history is not just about the ships; but also about the labor, finances, and industries that supported those ships,” said Abbass.

RIMAP research offices were located in spaces set aside on NAVSTA Newport’s Pier 2 approximately 10 years ago until it was relocated to Building B-11 two years ago. RIMAP relies on trained volunteers who participate in the survey work and other local maritime history and archaeology projects.

RIMAP’s focus on “Ocean State” shipwrecks includes pre-historic Native American craft, Colonial and Revolutionary War vessels, steamships and industrial barges, the 19th century gilded age of yachting, small craft and Naval ships of all periods and from a number of countries, and ships lost in the modern era. “There’s not a community in Rhode Island that didn’t contribute to our maritime history,” Abbass said. Details of RIMAP’s past work and future plans will be highlighted at a press conference on June 3.

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