The Wreck of the HMS Somerset (III)
The remains of HMS Somerset lie beneath the sands along the outer beach of Provincetown. She was a powerful third-rate line of battle British warship that helped shape the course of American history. With 64 mounted guns and a crew of 400, the Somerset brought British power to the North Atlantic and Mediterranean in the 18th century. Her early missions included the Seven Years War (1756- 63), known as the French and Indian War in North America. She played a pivotal role in helping the British capture Louisburg and Quebec from the French. During the American Revolution, her role in the rescue of British troops after the battles of Lexington and Concord, and the bombardment during the Battle of Bunker Hill, influenced the outcomes of both battles. After sailing in later military campaigns, an intense storm drove the Somerset onto the shallow Peaked Hill Bars on November 2, 1778.
Aftermath of the Wreck
By the time the Somerset had wrecked, Cape Codders had suffered greatly from the British blockade during the American Revolution. Commercial fishing and whaling were virtually shut down. Some local people engaged in privateering and smuggling along the coast, while others turned to the land for subsistence. When the giant Somerset wrecked on the Cape, there likely was a strong emotional reaction by the local populace. According to the official account of the ship’s captain, George Ourry, only 21 men were lost during the wreck.
Captain Ourry was forced to walk under guard to Providence, RI, where he was exchanged for 2 American officers. The officers and crew, numbering over 400, were escorted to Boston. Towns along the route provided militia to escort and support the prisoners. A tremendous amount of scarce war material was chopped or pried away from the wreck by Cape Codders before the state put a guard over what remained. Eleven 18-pound
and five 9-pound cannon and powder were entrusted to Colonel Paul Revere to be used in fortifying Castle Island in Boston Harbor. Salvage of the Somerset’s cargo
was dangerous and difficult. Provisions in the lower hold were only accessible for a few hours a day at low tide. Severe winter storms in December finally broke the remains
of the ship apart, moved it closer to shore, and eventually buried it under tons of sand. It took several more months of bitter court proceedings to sort out who owned what in the aftermath of salvage operations.
An International Treasure
The remains of the Somerset, along with the timbers of thousands of other shipwrecks within the boundary of Cape Cod National Seashore, are preserved as federally
protected archeological resources for future generations to research and study. Some shipwrecks have been documented by National Park Service archeologists, but most remain hidden under sand, or offshore. The Somerset is also protected under international law, and is the sovereign property of the United Kingdom. Since 1778, the Somerset’s remains have only surfaced twice: once in the winter of 1885-86, and again in 1973. The
National Park Service preserves some of the large timbers from the wreck. In 2005, the park superintendent presented a few pieces of the Somerset to the commander and crew of the British navy’s modern HMS Somerset (IV). She is a Type 23 Frigate based in Plymouth, England. Ironically, she has spent most of her career fighting alongside the U.S. Navy in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. From the American Revolution, to today’s war on terror, the story of the Somerset offers a moving lesson in cooperation between old naval foes who now work together as allies.