Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Marley R Brown

Committee Member

Kathleen Bragdon

Committee Member

Neil L Norman

Committee Member

Barry Gaulton


The English fifth-rate frigate Saphire was set on fire by its commander in Newfoundland during an attack by a French squadron in September 1696. Prior to its untimely sinking, this small warship had served the Royal Navy for over two decades, primarily in the Mediterranean, acting as convoy and escort to English shipping. This study combines multiple lines of evidence, including archaeology and material culture recovered from the wreck and contemporary documents, art, and illustrations, to explore the significance of the Saphire through a series of multi-scalar and diachronic interpretive lenses. The approach is inspired by an analytical framework for the study of wrecks first proposed by Muckelroy in 1978, while employing a multi-disciplinary methodology informed by social theory to orient the ship in its social and historical context. The first lens considers the Saphire at the broadest level, as an entangled tool of the Royal Navy built and operated at great cost to advance the imperial ambitions of England’s Stuart rulers in the late 17th century. Contemporary records allow the formulation of a biography of this small warship from its launching in 1675 to its loss in 1696, situated against the backdrop of the major political, military and social events of 17th century England. Although the ship was not fully excavated, available archaeological information, naval correspondence and contemporary images illuminate the material processes of constructing, outfitting, operating and maintaining the Saphire as a complex technological artifact. The second lens focuses on the significance of the Saphire at the regional level by examining the social and economic relationships between naval personnel and the settlers and fishers of Newfoundland in the late 17th century. At that time, naval commanders played a role not only in defense, but also in government and judicial affairs of the island. A comparison of material culture recovered from the Saphire with the archaeological record of settlements such as Ferryland illustrates how seaborne trade led to an increasingly globalized material culture that represents a growing consumerism. The third lens examines social relationships and daily life on a small warship in the late 17th century through the material culture from the wreck and contemporary documents. It looks at how naval hierarchy was established, expressed and contested. The concept of assemblages of practice is used to better understand how the artifacts recovered from the wreck reflect the habitus of the daily lives of 17th-century seamen.



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