Uncovering the good ship Warwick
‘The loss of the good ship Warwick was not the only disaster that this cruel storm brought with it. It also meant the total ruin of the winter’s crop of corn, to such a great extent that all the inhabitants were very worried about a shortage of food. They had good reason to be anxious, for even though the islands were prolific enough in every respect, and had two harvests every year, yet careless wastage had become the custom with most of the people’ C.F.E. Hollis Hallett, Butler’s History of the Bermudas, 2007
On October 20, 1619, the third governor arrived in Bermuda at the behest of the Somers Island Company, the corporation that owned the 12,000 acres of the island.
The gentleman was Captain Nathaniel Butler, who succeeded in his position the first governor, Richard Moore (1612-15) and the second, one Daniel Tucker (1616-18).
Perhaps the most dynamic of the three, Governor Butler shook the seven-year old settlement into some semblance of normalcy, establishing a parliament in 1620 (now one of the oldest in the world), erecting forts and encouraging people to build in stone by the erection of the State House in 1621.
For history, perhaps Butler’s greatest achievement was his written account of the first 12 years of the settlement of Bermuda, lately published in modern English by the National Museum of Bermuda.
It is from that account that we have firsthand information on the demise in November 1619 of the Warwick, the “magazine” ship of Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick, who was one of the major shareholders of the Bermuda Company.
Having arrived six weeks or so earlier, Governor Butler recorded the disaster that befell the vessel that brought him to Bermuda:
“First came a terrible storm and hurricane, in which the Garland, riding at anchor in the King’s Castle harbour, which was very exposed to northwest winds, was forced for safety’s sake to cut down her mainmast to the ship’s side, and in this crippled state to ride out the storm for her life.
“But the Warwick, which was moored not far from the Garland, slipped all her anchors and was driven onto the rocks, and completely wrecked.”
Fast-forward three and a half centuries, when Mendel Peterson of the Smithsonian Institution and EB (Teddy) Tucker began an examination of the wreck of the Warwick, finding that a good part of one side of the vessel was preserved under a pile of ballast.
On that occasion, the expedition flew Flag #189 of the prestigious Explorers Club of New York.
In 2011, new work by the National Museum began on the shipwreck and Explorers Club member, Jason Paterniti, brought Flag #132 to the site in the southern reaches of Castle Harbour.
Previously, Flag 132 had been on Dr Robert Ballard’s search to find the German battleship, Bismarck, among other nautical projects.
The director of the new project, Piotr Bojakowski, has noted that “the 2011 Warwick excavation season has been an overwhelming success. It produced important information about how the vessel was designed, built, armed, rigged and what cargo it carried”.
For the project, the National Museum enlisted the assistance of experts in marine archaeology, who have been associated with the Mary Rose, Vasa and other shipwreck projects and they have given some opinions on the wreck of the Warwick.
Dr Jon Adams, Head of Archaeology at University of Southampton (who previously examined the Sea Venture, sank 1609) thinks that “the Warwick is one of the largest and most coherent sections of early 17th-century English ship structures ever found”.
He continued: “What is more, when it is normally only the lower hull that survives, with the Warwick we have the greater part of the one side of the ship. That is providing unparalleled data on hull design, hull form, construction and deck arrangement of a generation of ships that was instrumental in shaping the modern world.”
Dr Kroum Batchvarov of the new Maritime Archaeology program at the University of Connecticut said: “Very few wrecks of the early enteenth-century have been excavated and thus our knowledge of shipbuilding and seafaring in this period is limited.
“This makes the archaeological excavation and documentation of Warwick an important contribution to that body of knowledge. It is interesting to compare the Warwick with the iconic, only surviving complete seventeenth-century ship, the Vasa.
“Although the dimensions of the frames are similar, it is clear that Warwick was a very much smaller vessel: an archaeological confirmation of the popular belief that Dutch vessels were lighter-built than English ships. Among other interesting details, it is worth noting how finely finished Warwick was. In comparison with Vasa, Warwick looks like a yacht’.
Professor Kevin Crisman of the Nautical Archaeology Graduate Program at Texas A&M University wrote: “I first learned of the Warwick’s existence in 1993 from my colleague Dr. Fred Hocker (currently the Director of Research and Publication at the Vasa Museum).
“It was clear then that this wreck held enormous potential for educating archaeologists, historians, and the public. It could illuminate the early years of England’s great century of overseas expansion, a time when the first English colonies were being planted in North America and around the world.
“The site also promised to shed new light on English shipbuilding practices of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-centuries: few vessels from this period have been found, and even fewer have undergone systematic study by archaeologists.
“For these reasons, I’ve always hoped that Warwick would be further explored. It was welcome news, then, to hear that the National Museum of Bermuda planned to carry out an intensive, multiyear study of Warwick beginning in 2010.’
“During this season (in which I have been fortunate enough to participate as a volunteer), the Warwick is proving to be every bit as exciting as we anticipated. The site is yielding evidence of seafaring practices, shipboard life, and the exchange of goods and raw materials between Bermuda, North America, and England.
“Individually, the bits and pieces found on the bottom of Castle Harbor seem to be mundane items of everyday life: a pipe, cannon and musket shot, parts of barrels, ceramic fragments, rudder hardware, coal, lead scale weights, and navigational tools.
“Collectively these finds tell us an amazing story of changes being wrought in Bermuda and around the world by mariners, merchants, and colonizers.”
“The fabric of Warwick, its framing timbers, planks, beams, and knees, are also providing us (along with the famous Bermuda wreck, the Sea Venture) with a new benchmark for understanding the ships that England sent around the world in the seventeenth-century.
“Warwick is wonderfully preserved amidships, with parts of the hold and stoutly-constructed deck surviving well above the vessel’s waterline.
“We already know much much more about the materials, design concepts, and assembly practices of early English shipwrights than we did at the start of the excavation.”
Unfortunately for them, in the heat of August, the archaeologists did not find what Governor Butler did when he checked out the wreck in the spring of 1620: “Some floating barrels of beer were taken out of the hold, but only after a lot of trouble; some of these were in much better condition than was expected, even though they had lain under water for almost six months.”
Or perhaps they did!
The Warwick 2011 Project has been supported by Rosewood Tucker’s Point, the Perot Foundation, Global Exploration & Oceanographic Society, KPMG Bermuda, Jason and Stephanie Carne, Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Texas A& M University, Terry Pryse and the National Museum of Bermuda.
Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum of Bermuda, incorporating the Bermuda Maritime Museum. Comments may be made to director[AT]bmm.bm or 704-5480.
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