Archives For 18th Century

Bonhomme Richard

Battle of Flamborough Head
Photo: US Navy, Painting by Thomas Mitchell

One of the most famous battles in the US Navy’s history occurred 233 years ago today on September 23, 1779. Captain John Paul Jones and his converted East Indiaman USS Bonhomme Richard along with USS Alliance attacked a British convoy protected by HMS Serapis and Countess of Scarborough. In what became known as the Battle of Flamborough Head, Jones and his crew engaged the Serapis in a ship-to-ship duel. Captain Pearson of the Serapis demanded Jones’ surrender and in reply he uttered the now famous words, “I have not yet begun to fight.”

Though outgunned, Jones’ superior  fighting skills carried the day and the Serapis eventually struck its colors. Despite having defeated the British forces (Countess of Scarborough struck her colors as well), the Bonhomme Richard sank the next morning and Jones transferred his flag to the Serapis. Jones’ victory was not the last in which an American naval force engaged British forces while penning a famous phrase

The wreck of the Bonhomme Richard is considered one of the crown jewels of shipwrecks and has been the subject of several discovery expeditions. Unfortunately none have been able to locate the wreck and its final resting place off Flamborough Head remains a mystery. John Paul Jones is considered the father of the American Navy and his words “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way” are just as famous in naval circles as “I have not yet begun to fight.” Sadly, Jones never held a significant sea command in the US Navy after the Battle of Flamborough Head and died an Admiral in the Russian Navy.

jolly roger

CC Image Pirated From Scott Vandehey on Flickr

To recognize International Talk Like a Pirate Day, here are a few piratical items of note…

Captain Morgan, the Diageo owned rum distiller, funded excavations at the site of the real Admiral Morgan’s shipwreck this summer. No word if any rum has been found aboard the wreck or if the salvage crew were cited for operating an ROV under the influence.

Excavations continue on both Captain Sam Bellamy’s Whydah and Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge. Artifacts from both wrecks can be viewed at their respective museums in Provincetown, Massachusetts and Beaufort, North Carolina.

According to the Maritime Executive, there were 17 pirate attacks just last month. This month, pirates even fired upon an Italian naval helicopter. A map of pirate attacks in 2012 can be viewed here.

Last year, 35 people lost their lives while being held hostage by Somali pirates. As of August 30, there were 11 vessels and 188 hostages being held by Somali pirates. In addition to the human costs of piracy, experts estimate that the financial costs of piracy was around $6.6 – 6.9 billion in 2011 alone.

Piracy along the coast of Somalia has become such a problem that one of the primary reasons for the 2007 creation of the US’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) was the fighting of piracy. It’s rumored that the servicemen of AFRICOM will star in Disney’s upcoming film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Somali Tides.


CC Image courtesy of Enrique Ruiz Crespo on Flickr

Australian shipwreck diver Hugh Edwards believes he has located the wreck of the 18th century Dutch East Indiaman Aagtekerke in waters off the Abrolhos Islands in Western Australia. Lost in 1726, the Aagtekerke was en route from Africa to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta, Indonesia). This isn’t the first wreck Edwards has discovered in his 50+ year diving career. In 1963, Edwards located the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia which had wrecked on its maiden voyage in 1629. Over a period of four years from 1970 – 1974, marine archaeologists worked to recover and preserve artifacts from the Batavia and they are now housed in the Western Australia Museum in Perth. The author intends to make a site visit to the museum in the near future and will post his findings when he does so. Additionally, a replica of the Batavia serves as a museum ship in Leylstad, Netherlands.

In the same year Edwards found the Batavia, he located another Dutch East Indiaman, the Zeewyck, which had sunk in 1727. In subsequent trips to the wreck site Edwards discovered several artifacts including an elephant tusk that didn’t coincide with the historical record for the Zeewyck. After nearly 50 years of piecing together various clues, Edwards has come to the conclusion that the Zeewyck and the Aagtekerke sank within 300 meters of one another and their debris field intermixed. Translated journal entries from survivors of the Zeewyck indicate that they had come across debris from another shipwreck when their own ship sank and the presence of the elephant tusk (the Aagtekerke was carrying 214 tusks and the Zeewyck none) seem to confirm his thesis.

Edwards is continuing to explore the site and is hoping to locate the ~30,000 silver coins believed to be among the Aagtekerke’s cargo. Under Australian law, any artifacts raised from the site would belong to the Australian government, however, under generally recognized principles of admiralty/salvage law, Edwards might be entitled to a salvage award for any artifacts he recovers.

Ci Xi Marble Boat

CC Image courtesy of Kevin Poh on Flickr

Today marks the 111th anniversary of the end of the Boxer Rebellion. Inspired by anti-imperialist sentiment and religious mysticism, the Boxers were a nationalist Chinese group which rose up against Westerners across China in late 1899. Thousands of Chinese Christian converts, Western missionaries and other Western ex-pats were slaughtered in the ensuing violence. The Rebellion culminated in a 55 day siege of the foreign embassies in Peking which was finally lifted when 20,000 troops from Austria-Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Russia and the US fought their way into Peking.

In a strange twist, the Boxer Rebellion owes much to the marble edifice pictured above – the Marble Boat on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Peking. Originally built in 1755, the structure was renovated in 1893 by order of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi with funds intended for modernizing the Chinese navy. Instead of funding the construction of a modern navy that could have kept Western forces at bay and prevented the further divvying up of China between competing Western nations, the Chinese built a ship useful only for delighting courtesans and guests of the Empress.


Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard
Photo: Wiki Commons

An archaeological team from the North Carolina Underwater Archaeology Branch will spend eight weeks excavating the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the flagship of famous pirate Blackbeard. The vessel was discovered in 1996 near Beaufort, NC and several excavations have been conducted by the state’s Underwater Archaeology Branch over the past few years. Numerous cannons, the ship’s anchor and approximately 16,000 artifacts have been recovered thus far. A permanent exhibit at the Beaufort branch of NC’s Maritime Museum opened in June 2011 to display the artifacts and educate visitors about the life of a pirate. Blackbeard’s name has become synonymous with 18th century piracy even though his career lasted a mere two years before he was killed in 1718 during a fight with Royal Navy forces near Ocracoke, North Carolina. The Queen Anne’s Revenge is only the second pirate ship to be discovered and excavated, with the other being the Whydah off the Massachusetts coast.

Pouto Point Shipwreck

CC Image courtesy of NASA on Flickr

Thirty years ago locals discovered the remains of a wooden ship off Pouto Point in New Zealand. The group salvaged a few wooden timbers before the vagaries of the sea buried the wreck under more than 90 feet of sand. Through the use of radio carbon dating and tree ring sequencing, scientists now believe the ship to have sunk around 1705 – making it 65 years earlier than Captain Cook’s exploratory voyages to New Zealand.

New Zealand was first located by European explorers in 1642 when Dutchman Abel Tasman landed on the islands. Although numerous places and items have been named after Tasman, he is perhaps best known for the Tasmanian Devil Looney Tunes character. The current historical narrative asserts that the next European to visit the islands was Captain Cook in 1769; however, the dating of this ship calls into question whether Cook was indeed the next European to visit the islands. The types of wood recovered have led researchers to believe the ship was refitted at Genoa or Java before wrecking off Pouto Point, New Zealand. British admiralty maps dated 1803 suggest the Portugese may have discovered New Zealand in the 1550s. The wood recovered from the wreck and the timing of its sinking in 1705 would be in line with the supposition that the wreck was the result of another expedition to New Zealand as both Genoa and Java were transit stations for Portuguese ships. One researcher had believed it to be the wreck of the Portuguese ship Cicilla Maria, however the new dating information now precludes that possibility. Irregardless, the dating of the wreck sheds further light on the origins of European settlement in New Zealand.

Robert Ballard Cyprus

CC Image courtesy of Erik Charlton on Flickr

Legendary underwater explorer Robert Ballard has added two more shipwrecks to his already incredible list of discoveries (RMS TitanicBismarck, USS Yorktown and John F. Kennedy’s PT 109). Ballard and his team spent two weeks off the Cypriot coast exploring the Erastosthenes Seamount, a 120km by 80km undersea mountain that was previously above water. The expedition’s chief goal was to survey the seamount’s geology through the use of submersibles and high definition cameras. Ballard plans to return in several weeks after the Nautilus is equipped with a new sonar system that will allow him and his team to map the seamount. Previously the seamount was believed to contain only limestone, but the expedition located a formation of volcanic rock that doesn’t fit the area’s geologic profile. Additionally, the team found a curious methane source on the formation which requires further investigation.

It was in the process of completing their geologic mapping that the team discovered the two wrecks. One ship is believed to have sunk 2,300 to 2,500 years ago and carried cargoes between Greece and Cyprus. Among the artifacts photographed at the scene are a variety of ceramics, two anchors, a possible bun ingot and several other unidentified objects. The second ship appears to be an Ottoman war galley and an 18th century flintlock pistol and black rum bottles were located amongst the wreckage. One question left unanswered by the expedition is the speculation that Ballard’s team was searching for a WWII-era wreck containing a gold cargo. There exists little grounds for such speculation, though, as Ballard is known for not seeking to directly profit from his underseas exploration.

Prior to this month’s expedition, Ballard helped Turkey locate the two Turkish pilots lost when their F-4 crashed under mysterious circumstances near the Syrian border.

Photo: Wiki Commons

British archaeologists have finally deciphered a perplexing puzzle found beneath an English millwright’s floorboards. In 1995, workers discovered the timbers of what appeared to be an 18th century warship – it’s just that no one knew what ship the timbers belonged to. Now, 17 years after the initial discovery, archaeologists have been able to identify the ship as the HMS Namur based on an investigation of its structure and fittings. In particular, the ship’s round bow helped archaeologists pinpoint the exact identity of the ship.

HMS Namur served as a ship-of-the-line in Britain’s Royal Navy and was Admiral Edward Boscawen’s flagship at the Battle of Lagos fought 253 years ago today (August 18 – 19, 1759). The ship was later broken up at the Chatham Royal Dockyard in 1833 and her timbers were placed beneath the millwright shop’s floors.

As this year’s recovery season winds down, noted exploration company Odyssey Marine is wrapping up two deep water recoveries (the SS Gairsoppa and SS Mantola) and currently on hold with the excavation of HMS Victory.  The 2012 season marked several firsts for Odyssey – the completion of a shipwreck salvage under government contract, the validation of their deepwater recovery methods and the beginnings of legitimacy for their role in “academic” archaeology with their efforts on the HMS Victory. What lies ahead for Odyssey is a question of much debate.  Below are five of the most discussed targets for Odyssey along with pros and cons for each.

1.  Merchant Royal – widely believed to be the target of Odyssey’s “Atlas” search, the Merchant Royal went down in a storm off Great Britain in 1641 with a cargo of gold and silver valued around ~1 billion in current dollars. This is the Holy Grail of shipwrecks and would be an incredible find both for the monetary and publicity windfall. Apart from the difficulty involved in locating the wreck, there are no significant cons to recovering the Merchant Royal.

2.  Prins Frederik – sunk in 1890 after a collision with the Marpessa in the Bay of Biscay, this Dutch mail steamer carried 400,000 silver rijksdaalders in its bullion room. Disputes over the actual location of the ship (and thus who was to blame for the collision) have created a wide search area and significantly affect the depth of water it could be located in – 500 feet if where the captain of the Prins Frederik claimed or 6,000 feet if where the captain of the Marpessa claimed. A British company claimed to have found the wreck in shallow water in 1994 which could generate legal issues for Odyssey if it is indeed the Prins Frederik. Odyssey could also face legal claims from insurers who paid out on claims or the Dutch government as the cargo was for payment of colonial forces in Indonesia. The Prins Frederik would be an excellent target for an arrangement similar to the Gairsoppa and Mantola where the Dutch government receives a portion of the proceeds after expenses.

3.  I-52 – re-discovered in 1995 by Paul Tidwell, the I-52 was sunk by American naval forces in 1944 while en route from Japan to Nazi Germany. The I-52 was carrying 2.2 tons of gold and now sits in 17,000 feet of water. While Odyssey’s deepwater recovery methods would enable recovery of the wreck, apart from a multi-party agreement on salvage rights between Tidwell, the Japanese government and Odyssey no recovery is possible. Tidwell has also stated he is pursuing recovery of the sub and it is doubtful Odyssey would be brought in on the deal.

4.  Port Nicholson – a British freighter loaded with $3 billion in platinum, the Port Nicholson was torpedoed off the coast of Massachusetts in 1942 and was located in 2008 by Sub Sea Research.  Sub Sea Research gained title to the ship in 2009 and planned recovery in 2012. No word has emerged on whether or not the group has been successful in their salvage and there are doubts as to whether the platinum even exists onboard.  If Sub Sea is unable to recover the wreck due to a lack of expertise or funding, then a collaboration with Odyssey would benefit both parties and be the most valuable recovery yet, surpassing even Odyssey’s Black Swan recovery (and subsequent loss).

5.  Bonhomme Richard – John Paul Jones’ famous flagship went down after his epic battle with HMS Serapis. The past few years have seen renewed efforts to find the ship, but any recovery would be limited by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Because the Bonhomme Richard was an American warship it cannot be salvaged without the permission of the US government. An arrangement with the US government similar to that of the HMS Victory one is a possibility, but doubtful because the upside isn’t nearly as high as it is for other wrecks.

There are dozens of other wrecks Odyssey could be pursuing – the company claims to have dozens of high value shipwreck targets in its proprietary database. Based on Odyssey’s stated business model of pursuing high value targets with easily ascertainable legal ownership and inaccessible to normal salvors, Odyssey will most likely pursue deepwater commodity shipwrecks where the cargo can be quickly monetized and not the storied Spanish Galleons of treasure hunting lore.

Disclosure: I am an Odyssey Marine shareholder.

A little known fact of the Revolutionary War is that Captain James Cook’s bark, HMB Endeavour, was purposely sunk by the Royal Navy in the waters off Providence, RI. British leaders ordered the ship, along with ~13 other transports, scuttled to prevent Continental and French forces from entering the harbor. The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project recently launched a $300,000 fundraising effort to finance operations to identify HMB Endeavour from among eight Revolutionary War era shipwrecks it has previously discovered.

HMB Endeavour is most widely associated with Captain James Cook’s 18th century expeditions throughout the Pacific Ocean and exploration of Australia.  A full-size replica was built in 1993 and serves as a floating exhibit of the Australian National Maritime Museum.  Also designed for exploration, NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour, was named in honor of Captain Cook and his ship.  Following Captain Cook’s voyages, the Royal Navy sold off the bark and it was renamed Lord Sandwich (incidentally, Captain Cook named what is today Hawaii as the Sandwich Islands in honor of the 4th Earl of Sandwich, the then First Lord of the Admiralty).  Lord Sandwich was contracted in 1776 by the Royal Navy as a transport and was employed as a prison ship prior to being scuttled in 1778.