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RI HISTORY

Australian researchers defend finding of Captain Cook’s ship in R.I.: ‘Right where we said it was’

“Either it’s Endeavour, or we have seen a whole bunch of really crazy coincidences,” maritime archaeologist James Hunter said. “And I’ve never seen that many bits of information correspond so closely.”

James Hunter, a marine archaeologist, at the site of what the Australian National Maritime Museum says is Captain Cook's ship, the Endeavour, in the waters of Newport Harbor.Courtesy of Australian National Maritime Museum

Laden with scuba gear and clad in a drysuit, James Hunter, a maritime archaeologist working for a museum in Australia, would dive off a boat day after day into the murky depths 500 yards north of Goat Island in an effort to solve a centuries-old mystery.

Was this unassuming patch of water in the shadow of the Newport Pell Bridge the final resting place of one of the most famous ships in world history?

The answer was hard to see, and not just because nearly 250 years had passed since Captain James Cook’s Endeavour was reputedly sunk in Newport Harbor. The water was so dark and murky that Hunter often couldn’t see his hands even if he knocked them against his goggles, and so frigid that his first reaction on diving in was usually some version of: “Wow, that’s cold.”

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What remained of the ship, meanwhile, was just the bottom of the hull. The masts had all been cleared away by animals or anchors, the bow buried in muck. The skeletal remains were sitting in silt, mud and mussel shells about 35 feet down.

For years, suspecting but not knowing that the shipwreck was once the Endeavour, marine archaeologists like Hunter would dive down to the site called RI2394. They would take photos and measurements. They would clear the muck from the hull to reveal wood so pristine you could still see the tool marks from the 18th century shipbuilders.

But like most shipwreck sites, the vessel wasn’t labeled. Anything that might have said Endeavour or its later name, Lord Sandwich, was long gone. They’d need to make a largely circumstantial, historical case, by a preponderance of the evidence.

Hunter started doing field work there in 2017, but the work dates back much longer. In short, they compared the wreck off Goat Island with the historical record of the Endeavour, a ship that had seen the world.

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Hunter has his answer: They are one and the same.

“Either it’s Endeavour, or we have seen a whole bunch of really crazy coincidences,” Hunter said. “And I’ve never seen that many bits of information correspond so closely.”

The history of the Endeavour

The finding was announced this week by the Australian National Maritime Museum, for which Hunter serves as curator and maritime archaeologist. It made international headlines. The Endeavour – often called HMS Endeavour, but technically the HMB Endeavour, for His Majesty’s Bark – is one of the most famous and important ships in the history of navigation, especially for Australians of English descent.

Cook took the Endeavour to the South Pacific starting in 1768, a scientific trip to chart the transit of Venus by Tahiti. But it also represented Britain’s first contact with Australia, which Cook claimed for the empire. It remains a politically charged topic even today, especially in an election year in a country that grapples with the history of colonization.

After Cook’s voyage, the ship was sold, and later put into service for the Royal Navy to transport Hessians to American battlefields during the Revolution. By then it had the name Lord Sandwich. In August 1778, the Lord Sandwich, now a prison ship for captured American patriots in the star-crossed Rhode Island campaign, was facing a superior French naval force coming to help the rebels. The British sank it on purpose to block the harbor, along with 12 other ships. There where it stayed, part mystery and part surmise, for the last 250 years.

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That is until this week, when a team including Hunter said they had confirmed it.

But the finding has stirred up no less muck than a maritime archaeologist on a muddy harbor floor: A Rhode Island-based researcher, Kathy Abbass, said the finding was premature, and the release a breach of the contract her organization had with the Australian museum.

Abbass declined to be interviewed, but she said in a statement that the legitimate report about the Endeavour would be posted on the website of her organization, the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project.

“Meanwhile, RIMAP recognizes the connection between Australian citizens of British descent and the Endeavour, but RIMAP’s conclusions will be driven by proper scientific process and not Australian emotions or politics,” Abbass said.

Rhode Island researchers disagree

The state of Rhode Island, for its part, is also not ready to embrace the news as the final say.

“The (Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission) is reviewing the Australian National Maritime Museum’s draft report on the work that has been conducted at the underwater archaeological site known as RI2394,” Jeffrey Emidy, the commission’s interim executive director, said in an email. “We have not yet completed our review or prepared formal comments.”

Ruth Taylor, the executive director of the Newport Historical Society, said experts in Rhode Island aren’t casting doubt on the facts that the Australian museum is presenting. They just haven’t seen them or had a full chance to evaluate them yet.

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They’ve been burned before. Historians once thought they’d recovered part of the Endeavour from Narragansett Bay some years ago, Taylor said. They even sent this part of the sternpost up in into space — on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, naturally, Taylor said. But they later learned the sternpost was actually not from the Endeavour but a different wreck entirely. The piece of the ship came back down to Earth, along with everyone’s hopes. Taylor, who came to the organization after the episode, said she later hung the sternpost up in her office as a reminder “not to jump to conclusions.”

But Taylor said she’s keeping an open mind.

“I’m prepared to be excited,” she said.

In a Zoom interview, Hunter, an Indiana native who’s picked up a slight Aussie twang from the 13 years he’s lived down under, said he was a bit surprised by Abbass’ reaction. They’d sent her the findings at least a week or two ago, and they did not receive any indication she disagreed, Hunter said.

Hunter acknowledged that there is some uncertainty, as there always is, in identifications of this nature. As the old saying goes: If you get four different archaeologists in a room, they’ll come out with six different opinions.

But he stands by their findings. He is confident and calm that he has laid his own eyes and hands on the Endeavour. Any contract with Abbass’ group expired in November, he said, and “we don’t see any breach.”

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That sort of stuff about contracts is above his pay grade anyway. What he focuses on is the shipwrecks.

A key moment

One key moment came in 2016, when a member of the team found a record in London: A man named John Knowles, the agent for transports in Newport, had reported on what ships were scuttled in the harbor. But he also reported where they’d been sunk.

That allowed researchers to narrow down the list from 13 possible sites to just five: The Endeavour/Lord Sandwich was somewhere north of Goat Island.

And there were, indeed, multiple wreck sites north of Goat Island. But one of these shipwrecks was not like the other: Like RI2394 itself, the Endeavour was rather large. Like RI2394, the Endeavour was made out of wood found in Europe.

But when they overlaid what was known about the design of the Endeavour (formerly the Earl of Pembroke) over the shipwreck site, nothing matched up. The prevailing theory was that the ship was pointing north when it was sunk. What if it was pointing south? That would have made sense for prevailing winds in August. And when they simply flipped the image around in Photoshop, the Endeavour and several key points on the shipwreck site matched up perfectly.

Still, some pieces were missing. Even if things like the pump shaft and the pump well lined up on Photoshop, only 15 percent of the wreck remained. One big a-ha moment came when they calculated where the bow would be if it was actually the Endeavour, pointing south. This came during COVID, so Hunter wasn’t able to make it there himself. But they hired a team of U.S.-based archaeologists who went and dug exploratory holes in the bay floor.

“And there’s the bow,” Hunter said. “Right where we said it was.”

The museum has put much of its work online, with photographs and renderings of the site. Those images were mostly taken by Hunter, who brought a camera and other recording equipment down with him. A report is being finalized and will be peer reviewed, the museum says.

What will happen to the site next? Don’t expect the Aussies to try to come here and take it. Even if someone wanted to try to move it, it would cost way too much money. It belongs to the state of Rhode Island, and that’s where it should stay, Hunter said.

“We want it to stay in Rhode Island,” Hunter said. “Because from our point of view, it is a Rhode Island state heritage asset. That’s where it needs to be.”


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.