Archaeologists Investigate 18th Century Scilly Isles Fireship Wreck

By Caroline Lewis | 27 July 2006
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engraving of 18th century ships on rough waters

The loss of Shovel's fleet, depicted here, spurred on the search for longitude. Courtesy University of Bristol

Researchers and students from the University of Bristol are investigating a fireship that sank off the Isles of Scilly nearly 300 years ago in one of the worst maritime disasters in British Naval history.

The dive will be the first archaeological survey of HMS Firebrand and the first physical study of this type of British Royal Navy ship. It sank along with a fleet led by Sir Cloudesly Shovell returning from Gibraltar in October 1707, when navigational error took them on to rocks.

Firebrand was launched at Limehouse in 1694, serving in the Caribbean and Mediterranean until her disastrous final voyage. Fireships were loaded with incendiaries with the potential to cause a huge amount of damage sailed against enemy fleets at anchor, but they were most often used as a threatening patrol or to escort sloops in convoy.

“This survey will contribute to a new chapter on the significance of small warships to the British Royal Navy,” said Kimberley Monk, leading the team. “The English were considered to be the very ‘Devils with their Fire’ since, under certain conditions, fireships could inflict more devastation than any weapon at the navy’s disposal.”

Firebrand could carry 45 men and was fitted with an arsenal of eight cannon, and had a tonnage of 268. The tragedy took the lives of more than 1,500 Royal Navy seamen in all, along with ships HMS Association, HMS Eagle and HMS Romney, and highlighted the pressing need for an accurate method of calculating longitude.

Following the disaster, the British Longitude Act created the Longitude Prize for anyone who could devise a practical method of determining longitude at sea (achieved by John Harrison).

Leading the field school with Kimberley Monk are freelance maritime archaeologist Kevin Camidge and Martin Read, a conservator from the Isles of Scilly. It will run until August 7 2006.

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