“Ya know, I’m a low-BS lady,” D.K. Abbass says, except she uses saltier language than “BS.”
We are sitting around a table at her bootstrapped research laboratory in Bristol, Rhode Island, and Abbass, the leading authority on the state’s underwater history, is holding forth. Topics range from Revolutionary War battles to Australian politics to the transit of Venus. But on this chilly day in late March, the most interesting subject of exploration is Abbass herself.
She made international news in February when she rejected an Australian museum’s claim to have positively identified the wreck of one of history’s most famous ships — Captain James Cook’s HMB Endeavour — in Newport Harbor.
But Abbass didn’t exactly say it wasn’t the Endeavour. She called BS: She said the announcement was a breach of the contract her own organization had with the Australian National Maritime Museum, its off-and-on collaborator for more than 20 years. She promised the sole legitimate report — hers — would be released in due course.
The shipwreck site in Newport Harbor known officially as RI 2394 might be Endeavour, Abbass acknowledges. But even after two decades of study, she says it was premature to say, and in any case, Abbass is the principal investigator. It wasn’t the Aussies’ call to make — it was hers.
Although she’s rejected interview requests that have poured in from around the world, she has agreed to speak — about the worldwide controversy, but also about her own approach. Which she calls low-BS.
“This is the reality of what it’s like to be an archaeologist,” says Abbass, who founded and directs the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, her nonprofit research organization. “If you’re just diddling around with little projects that nobody else is interested in, you can do whatever you want, as long as you satisfy whatever requirements there are for your permitting agency. But when you get into a big project like this, then the politics really comes out. And it can be brutal.”
“Low BS” is an interesting way to describe yourself, I told Abbass. Because it does imply that she is open to some BS.
Abbass jokes that she won’t reveal her age (she is 76) or what the D in D.K. stands for (the K is for Kathy). She started using initials early in her academic career to obscure her gender in a field dominated by men. Many simply call her “Doctor” in deference to her PhD from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Her critics would say there’s plenty more about Abbass that’s frustrating and opaque, and that it has led to dysfunction in the state’s efforts to understand its history. For them, the story of the Endeavour debate was not, as some media reports had it, Rhode Island versus Australia — it was Kathy Abbass versus the world. And it’s been that way for years.
“She can be very charming. She spins a great web of tales,” says Beth Cullen, a Newport community activist and onetime RIMAP supporter who has become disillusioned with Abbass. “But don’t cross her.”
Abbass’s organization rents space on the third floor of a building at the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol. The sparse decor matches the threadbare spirit of RIMAP, which relies on a cadre of unpaid volunteers. Some of her volunteer staff are retirees from Warwick, their long voyage (by Rhode Island standards) to Bristol serving as a symbol of their utter dedication to their RIMAP captain.
After earning her doctorate in 1979, Abbass worked in academia for a time, including post-doc stints in maritime history at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, as well as teaching at Norfolk State University, a historically Black institution. During a sabbatical she “ran away to the sea” and found her way to the Ocean State. She founded RIMAP in 1992.
In contrast to volunteers you might find at, say, a university, RIMAP’s unpaid workers (there have been about 1,000 of them over the years) aren’t “drugged out, hungover undergraduate students,” as Abbass puts it. They are engaged citizens who will protect the integrity of historic sites. “There are a few nonprofits around like us that are incorporating the public,” she says. “We’re probably one of the healthiest and most active around the country, and maybe even around the world.”
One condition of Abbass agreeing to talk was that I not describe the objects volunteers are studying. They’ve spent the past few months going through material brought up from the potential Endeavour site, every once in a while coming across...well, I agreed not to say. Abbass is concerned about the security of underwater sites; she also closely guards what she considers her organization’s intellectual property.
It would technically not break any rule, however, if I were to point out that one RIMAP report on file with the state historical preservation office — which I got through a public records request — makes reference to a lead weight once used to determine water depth found at what’s possibly the Endeavour’s grave, some 40 feet below the surface. It would also not technically violate any edict if I mused that if you saw such an object in person, in Bristol, in March of 2022, you might feel some deep connection across the ages with the 18th-century craftsman who scored Roman numerals into it to identify its weight. Here is a 24-pound emblem from a seafaring past that relied on gumption, not GPS.
But these artifacts are not, notably, in a museum or kids’ textbooks or on the minds of many Rhode Islanders — or even technically in this story. Rhode Island has a lot of maritime history, but doesn’t always do a great job of appreciating it.
What role does D.K. Abbass play in that? It’s possible that, through sheer stubbornness and vainglory, she’s getting in the way of our understanding of our past. It’s also possible that she is the only reason we know what we know.
Picture, if you will, an ancient shipwreck: the ornate figurehead regal under a blanket of algae, a few cannons strewn about, maybe even a moldering skeleton of the captain, still wearing an eye-patch, with a parrot skeleton on his shoulder, wearing a smaller eye-patch.
Now forget everything except the cannons, add a pile of angular ballast stones and a few soggy pieces of wood and you’ve got the right idea. The remains of what could be the Endeavour are not much to look at, but they mean quite a lot to Australians of English descent.
The ship began life as a three-masted coal transport, christened the Earl of Pembroke in Whitby, England, in 1764. Four years later, the Royal Navy requisitioned her for service on James Cook’s voyage to the Pacific. The purpose was scientific — to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti — but the British Admiralty gave Cook secret instructions, too: Take possession of the fabled great southern continent.
By then the ship had been renamed His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour. That surely fit the occasion: Cook’s three-year voyage would represent England’s first contact with Australia, whose east coast he promptly claimed for the empire.
When Lynette Russell, now a professor at Monash University, was in primary school in the 1970s, she and other Australian students received a coin with Cook’s visage on it to mark the 200th anniversary of the journey. “I can’t imagine what the Aboriginal kids in remote and rural Australia might have made of this,” says Russell, who now teaches Aboriginal history. “I’m sure it was quite puzzling.”
Cook’s legacy in Australia is complex the way Christopher Columbus’s is in the United States. Russell wonders whether his impact was actually all that significant. The Dutch had already reached the continent, and First Nations people find the idea that Cook “found” their home for millennia offensive. Yet, Cook has become an emblem of Australian pride — especially under a socially conservative government, Russell told me in April as the country prepared for an election. “The schools, we’re told, need to be taught history that students can be ‘proud of.’”
That pride often manifests in the form of Captain Cook and his vanished ship.
So what about the Endeavour’s final resting place? Mystery clouded the ship’s fate for two centuries. The widely accepted story was that she’d been sold, rechristened La Liberte, and put into service as a French whaling vessel. But in 1997, two amateur Australian historians delivered a nautical bombshell: The name was wrong. Endeavour had actually become the Lord Sandwich.
Word of this discovery reached Kathy Abbass in Rhode Island. For five years, she had been looking into a fleet of 13 Revolutionary War transport wrecks dating to 1778, when the British purposely sank them to block a superior French fleet coming to help the Americans. One of them, historical records indicated, was called the Lord Sandwich.
This was potentially huge, but it was still short of confirmation: There were other ships called the Lord Sandwich out there, and what if those amateur historians were wrong?
Abbass was anything but an amateur. Trained as an anthropologist, she’d served for a time as the executive director of a Rhode Island yachting museum, and helped explore a shipwreck site in Lake George, in upstate New York, because of boat-building expertise she’d developed. In the early 1990s, a state official asked: Why not look at Rhode Island’s shipwrecks? We’ve got plenty. Abbass’s founding of RIMAP followed.
Several years in, she got word that one of those 13 wrecks might be Cook’s and hopped on a plane to England to see the historical records for herself. There, she found confirmation that Endeavour did indeed become the Lord Sandwich. The vessel had served at one point as a prison ship holding American patriots, including famed Newport cabinetmaker John Townsend, and then the Brits sank her in Newport Harbor.
The documents were the relatively easy part, however.
The hard part — the part that may never be resolved to Abbass’s satisfaction — would be finding where exactly the ship was. She was just one of 13 transports, after all, and most of them still hadn’t been located by the late 1990s. And then there was the question of which state or country controlled them. That matter would wind up in court.
“State of Rhode Island, Plaintiff,” the case was titled in part, “v. The Unidentified, Wrecked, and Abandoned Vessels, among which is believed to be the Lord Sandwich which, in turn, is believed to have formerly been the H.M.S. ENDEAVOUR.”
It was 1999, and then-Rhode Island Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse had filed paperwork to “arrest” the Newport Harbor shipwrecks — in other words, to take them into the legal custody of the state. His office worked extensively with Abbass on the case. “She was the one who was doing the research and figuring out where these things might be,” says Whitehouse, now a US senator and still an Abbass admirer.
The gambit worked. The Brits, who may have had a legal claim, didn’t make one. Whitehouse even held a ceremony with the US Marshals Service to arrest the sites. Abbass was there, of course. She signed an affidavit swearing that a piece of broken pottery in her hand was from one of the 13 sunken transports before handing it to a chief deputy US marshal. Whatever they were, Rhode Island now had control of them, as they passed — figuratively or literally, depending on your perspective — through Abbass’s hands.
Abbass, meanwhile, got the exclusive permit from the state to puzzle out the mystery of where the 13 wrecks were, and which of them might be Endeavour. But there’s not a lot of money in archaeology, especially not when you’re thousands of miles away from the country (Australia) that actually cares about what you’re looking for. Abbass’s fledgling organization quickly partnered with the Australian National Maritime Museum, which is operated by the country’s government.
In the years that followed, a team from the Australian museum would fly to the United States to work with Abbass and the Rhode Islanders. Abbass was the principal investigator, and she held the permit from the state. The Australian museum, meanwhile, provided about $20,000 a year in funding starting around 2015, Abbass says.
Americans and Aussies alike would go out to the various sites in Newport Harbor for dives, carefully excavating. Abbass would supervise from the boat, write up the annual reports, call the news conferences, and generally serve, in the way she once described herself, as the “empress.”
“I quite loved watching her be a stubborn genius, and seeing all these people who are just itching to throw their arms around this site,” says Marilyn Johnson, whose book, Lives in Ruins, features a section on Abbass. “I admire her tremendously.”
Not everyone saw things that way. That first year of research, then-RIMAP volunteers Beth Cullen and her husband, Mike, let the Australian divers stay at their house in Newport. The Australians would come back after a long day, hang up their wetsuits, and start drinking and telling stories about the search.
Abbass treated them “like crew,” Beth Cullen says, rarely taking their input seriously.
“They were pulling their hair out nightly,” Mike Cullen adds. “It was very painful from the start for the Australians.”
Despite the friction — which Abbass acknowledges, but blames on Australian intransigence, not her own — additional shipwrecks were located in the harbor over the years. One site dubbed RI 2394, or the Kerry site — named for Kerry Lynch, a professional archaeologist and RIMAP board member — looked promising, if badly decayed by time.
The team took measurements to see if it lined up with the historical record of Endeavour. Members sampled wood to determine where it came from. They examined an old bilge pump well and other nautical features. The work took place, off and on, for more than 20 years.
Finally, in February of this year — a little past the 250th anniversary of the voyage — the Australian National Maritime Museum said it was ready to answer the question without an official report from RIMAP: Shipwreck 2394 at the Kerry site was, more likely than not, Endeavour.
Abbass was livid about the announcement, saying, among other things, it could put the sites at risk of disturbance. She says she would have sued if she had the money for it.
The Cullens say they’d urged the Australians behind the scenes to ignore potential legal threats from RIMAP and release their report. The real risk Abbass was worried about, they say, was not looters but the plundering of her own glory. Mike Cullen says he told the Australians, “She has no financial wherewithal to retain any Rhode Island law firm. No Rhode Island law firm is going to take this.”
Abbass released a statement that blamed politics and Australian “emotions” for what she called the contract breach, and the newspapers ate it up. But the narrative that emerged from Abbass calling BS — a “feud with America,” one headline proclaimed — didn’t get things quite right, says Ruth Taylor, the executive director of the Newport Historical Society. A feud suggests substantial forces gathered on opposing sides. “I don’t know anyone in Rhode Island who is angry right now except for Dr. Abbass,” Taylor says.
Taylor is also the chair of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, the state agency that regulates archaeology and issues permits for work on historical sites. But she emphasized she was speaking for herself when she said this: When scientists are “incredibly proprietary,” it doesn’t do a lot of good for the public. “Many folks who have found themselves distressed with RIMAP, it’s because of that.”
No matter whose side you’re on, there is some evidence to support Abbass’s claim that the Australian museum had politics in mind when it made its announcement.
In early February, as the museum was preparing to release its report, then-director Kevin Sumption gave Abbass a heads-up. His e-mail made its way to the state, then to me through a records request. “Given the significance of our conclusions,” Sumption wrote, “I have consulted with my Federal Minister, the Hon. Paul Fletcher. As Australia is approaching a federal election, he has urged us to make a definitive statement about the identity of RI 2394. Based on the preponderance of evidence included in the report, I have agreed to state that I am convinced that RI 2394 is the shipwreck of Lord Sandwich, formerly HMB Endeavour.”
Later that week, Sumption left his job at the museum (he’s now CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum). “Any inference [that politics was involved] is regrettable and simply not the case,” he told me via e-mail. He did not feel another year of search dives was necessary, and that time and resources would be better spent on preserving the Endeavour. A spokesman for Fletcher, the federal minister, said he had no role in the museum’s conclusion that the Endeavour was found; the museum, meanwhile, says that it would not have made its announcement if it wasn’t confident in its decision.
Lynette Russell, the Australian professor, is no longer so sure politics wasn’t involved. More than two months after the announcement, I read her the Sumption e-mail. She was stunned. “I just want to hope that that sort of political interference doesn’t happen,” Russell told me. “Another example that it does.”
You may have noticed, by the way, that there’s one big Rhode Island institution that hasn’t been mentioned yet.
The University of Rhode Island is the state’s flagship public university. Robert Ballard, the world’s most famous undersea explorer — the man who found the Titanic — is a professor there. But, in recent years URI has had nothing to do with the Endeavour; Abbass has fought to keep it that way.
In 2017 and 2018, a URI assistant professor from New Zealand named Bridget Buxton made overtures to RIMAP about collaborating. Buxton got her doctorate at Berkeley as a Fulbright scholar in ancient history and Mediterranean archaeology. She suggested technology she could lend, and other ways to work together. RIMAP had tried and failed for years to raise the funds for a multimillion-dollar headquarters on Butts Hill in Portsmouth that could store some of Endeavour’s artifacts. Maybe URI could lend some of its plentiful free space?
Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to parse tone in e-mails. Not Abbass’s when she’s talking about Buxton. Take the e-mail she wrote to a group of supporters in 2018 about Buxton’s interest: “In the past she has underestimated our project and the quality of team members, but that may just be the abrasive quality of a New Zealand woman trying to succeed in the male dominated world of marine technology (and the university is not a good place to work, either).”
Or, consider the e-mail Abbass wrote to Buxton herself, who she saw as engineering a thinly disguised hostile takeover of the Endeavour: “Before you start planning anything, you should understand what resources, including technology, that RIMAP might already have access to, and you should respect that the RIMAP research design may not need what you offer. And you should quit underestimating the quality of the people we have assembled for this work.”
A few months later, Buxton and a colleague had a meeting with a longtime RIMAP supporter, Harry Anderson. Anderson, who has since died, wanted RIMAP and URI to work together, and circulated a memo to RIMAP’s directors summing up their meeting. For her part, Abbass replied that Anderson had “no standing” to broker a relationship between the two institutions. She also sent e-mails to the historical preservation commission, pointing out that she had the exclusive right to search for the Endeavour. Allowing Buxton in, she said, could interfere with RIMAP’s ability to raise money for a lab. An attorney for RIMAP wrote to URI leaders, too, trying to shut things down.
Buxton, who did not have tenure at the time, feared losing her job, and got a message from higher-ups that she needed to stay away from the Endeavour, the Cullens claim.
Buxton herself declined to be interviewed for this story. “I’m really happy to hear someone is looking into the history of the management of the state’s underwater cultural heritage,” she told me, choosing her words carefully. “However, due to the threats that have been made against me personally and against the university in the past, I have no comment to make, and I can’t get involved.”
In 2019, Buxton was quoted in New Zealand Geographic about her efforts to collaborate. “I’ve learned since then that Dr. Abbass found these offers insulting,” Buxton was quoted as saying. “I suppose they want their $5 million museum” — a reference to the dreamed-of Butts Hill facility — ”or nothing.”
Abbass freely acknowledges that she does indeed have a “take no prisoners” approach, which, she says, would be more palatable to her critics if she were a man. As for URI and Buxton, she has no regrets. “Why would we want to work with someone who’s been dishonest with us in the past?” Abbass says, her voice rising. “Who tells you what to do and when you say, ‘Sorry, it’s my decision,’ they get really nasty and say things in the press that are wrong? Do you understand how she lied about us in print? That is really — see, I’m losing my temper.”
One of the RIMAP volunteers, Stanley “Swede” Johnson, looked at me and joked: “You pissed off the doctor.” Everyone laughed, including Abbass.
Critics of Abbass would soon get a measure of recompense.
A few months after the blowup, the state Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission voted to end RIMAP’s exclusive permit to search for the Endeavour. The commission’s then-executive director, who had also tried to get URI and RIMAP to work together on Endeavour, concluded that giving RIMAP the exclusive permit was no longer in the best interests of the state. He did not explicitly link it to the URI contretemps, but RIMAP’s exclusive permit came to an end.
Or did it? Abbass refuses to even recognize the decision. She says both sides had to agree, as if they were turning the keys on a nuclear launch. In a familiar refrain, she says they’d have sued if they had any money.
Meanwhile, those attempts to get RIMAP and URI to play nice now seem like ancient history. “The official opinion of my office is, we can’t dictate who gets along with who, and we’re grateful to RIMAP, and there’s a lot of room in the ocean for anyone else who wants to do underwater archaeology,” says Charlotte Taylor, an archaeologist at the state historical preservation commission.
Taylor’s relationship with RIMAP and Abbass has sometimes provoked criticism — the Cullens say she’s “hook, line, and sinker” for Abbass, and others grumble privately about the proximity between RIMAP and its regulator. Taylor served on a RIMAP fund-raising vehicle in the early days of the project, for instance, though Taylor says she had permission and she didn’t get paid.
As a regulator, Taylor calls RIMAP on issues when needed. But if the central tension here is whether Abbass has been a benefit or a hindrance to maritime archaeology in Rhode Island, Taylor has a firm view. “Without RIMAP, we would not have any deep understanding of maritime archaeology in Rhode Island,” she says. “Without RIMAP, there would be almost nothing. The State of Rhode Island is very grateful to Kathy Abbass for her contributions to Rhode Island marine archaeology.”
Rhode Island, it is said, has more shipwrecks per square mile than any other state.
It is said by Abbass, who admits she just sort of came up with that line. It stuck, and has become lore. But there are at least 1,000 shipwrecks in Rhode Island waters, according to the state, just waiting to be discovered: Revolutionary War transports, a German U-boat, run-of-the-mill coal barges. They might be nothing any longer but piles of stone ballast. But they all hold a treasure: The story about where Rhode Island came from, and how it became what it is today.
Part of that story is the HMS Gaspee, a British Royal Navy ship patrolling Narragansett Bay for smugglers in 1772. One night in June, Gaspee Captain Lieutenant William Dudingston decided to chase a Rhode Island ship, only to run aground. Enraged Rhode Islanders shot him in the gut and set his boat on fire.
Abbass is looking for Gaspee, too, and she’s glad that this time people in Rhode Island actually seem to care. “The Endeavour didn’t shock the local politicians into understanding how important all this is,” she says. “We’re hoping the Gaspee interest will.”
Gaspee has a powerful local champion: Joseph McNamara. A Warwick state representative and the state’s Democratic Party chairman, he is perhaps best known from the 2020 DNC roll call, as the person standing next to the person holding the plate of calamari and proclaiming the calamari comeback. He recently secured $2,500 in state funding for RIMAP’s Gaspee research. And in May, the state — and Abbass — announced that with the help of private donations, they were ready to move forward with the next phase of the search.
But here, too, Abbass has managed to attract critics. Taylor Stoermer, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and a filmmaker, became fascinated by the story of the Gaspee and its local celebration, Gaspee Days, after moving to Rhode Island. He decided he wanted to make a documentary about it and he was told that Abbass was the person he had to go through.
When he made an initial overture in February 2020, Abbass sent him a five-page document outlining RIMAP’s typical response when approached regarding Endeavour. It said media coverage in May 2016 alone in Australia amounted to $19 million, and RIMAP saw nothing. “Others may be impressed with being featured on the Disney Channel, PBS, BBC, History Channel, etc.,” Abbass wrote, “but it is a bad business deal when everyone else gets paid and all RIMAP gets is publicity.”
Stoermer dropped the idea of a Gaspee documentary. A few years later, when he was reading about the Endeavour and Abbass, he had a feeling of dejà vu. It seemed to him that the vast potential of heritage tourism and public history in Rhode Island was being thwarted by a gatekeeper yet again. In both cases, the gatekeeper was the same person. “In Rhode Island, you run into a lot of people who think that history is a fiefdom,” Stoermer says. “That it really just belongs to a narrow clump of people, and you have to be allowed in.”
Abbass says she doesn’t remember talking to Stoermer, but that it’s true that she doesn’t want to give anything away for free. “RIMAP doesn’t need publicity,” she says. “RIMAP needs money.”
Money, or the absence of it, is a constant theme in the story of RIMAP. Abbass herself lives so modestly that if her landlord raises rent she says she’ll need to find a new place to live. In the chapter about her in Marilyn Johnson’s book, much attention is paid to the junky car Abbass drives. She doesn’t even have the junky car anymore — she sold it. She gets rides from other people or takes the bus now.
So it’s not personal wealth that motivates her.
What is it then? I put the question to her back in March. She was surrounded by her volunteers, who are paid only in pastries from a Portuguese bakery and the pleasure of listening to Abbass hold forth on Rhode Island’s history.
“Some people would say I’m on an ego trip,” Abbass says.
That gets a big laugh from her volunteers.
“Shut up,” Abbass says, provoking more laughter.
“I didn’t say a word, Doc,” one says.
“It’s because this is important work,” Abbass says, “and this needs to be done.”
Abbass is now preparing for August, when she says her own report on what may or may not be Endeavour is due. When I asked her recently whether it would make any sort of definitive statement, she said that the bigger issue is not whether RI 2394 is the Endeavour, but about who has control and responsibility — not just for that ship but all the wrecks in Newport Harbor. It’s been her life’s work for 30 years. Even her critics — who would say that “control and responsibility” means her control and her responsibility — know she’s not going to give it up now.
In Australia, the National Maritime Museum had been planning to hold a symposium on its finding in April. But it soon decided to delay that until September or maybe October — enough time, as it happens, for Abbass to have the final word.