Exploring HMS Serapis

29. November 2008 10:37


Defence of Captn Pearson in his Majesty's Ship Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough Arm'd Ship Captn Piercy, against Paul Jones's Squadron, 23 Sept 1779, by Robert Dodd

For anyone who's ever wanted to explore an old wreck, maybe this is the next best thing. A new blog has just started up, detailing dive by dive the archaeological expedition at a wreck thought to be HMS Serapis. The Serapis was involved in one of the fiercest ship-to-ship battles of the American Revolution (pictured). On 23 September 1773 she engaged the US warship Bonhomme Richard in the North Sea, just off the coast of Yorkshire. The British had never been beaten in their home waters and called on the Bonhomme Richard to surrender but her captain, John Paul Jones, cried the now-famous words: "I have not yet begun to fight". He lashed the two ships together, which meant the Serapis couldn't aim her cannons at her opponent. The Bonhomme Richard sprayed the Serapis's deck with gunfire, and even though the US ship ended up sinking, Jones won the fight, and the British handed the Serapis over. She later ended up under the command of the French, who were US allies, and she sank off the coast of Madagascar in 1781, in a fire apparently started when a sailor dropped a lantern into a tub of brandy.

A historian and underwater archaeologist called Dick Swete spent years researching the battle and led a project which in 1999 discovered a wreck off Madagascar that's thought to be the Serapis. Unfortunately he died of malaria not long afterwards but the project continues and archaeologists are now exploring the wreck to confirm that it really is the Serapis and record everything they find. The divers are keeping a blog, and Mike Krivior described the first dive on 21 November. The wreck is about 22 metres down, and so far they've found glass bottles, ceramics, cannons, an anchor and copper sheathing around the hull - all in line with what you'd expect on an 18th-century ship. I'm fascinated by archaeology in general but there's something special about wrecks - I think it's because ships generally sink quite suddenly so you get a snapshot of all the details of daily life, one particular moment frozen in time for anything up to thousands of years. I'm looking forward to the next installment from the Serapis.