Shipwreck found in US confirmed as Captain Cook’s Endeavour after 22-year search, museum says

By rnz.co.nz and is republished with permission.

Australian maritime experts claim the final resting place of Captain James Cook’s ship, Endeavour, has been found, in an announcement that has drawn criticism from the principal research team as “premature”.

The wreck of Captain Cook's Endeavour may have been discovered in Newport Harbour, off Rhode Island.
The wreck of Captain Cook’s Endeavour may have been discovered in Newport Harbour, off Rhode Island. Photo: Australian National Maritime Museum

Endeavour, which was scuttled in the harbour as part of the American War of Independence in 1788, has a prominent place in Australian history.

In 1770 it became the first European vessel to reach the east coast.

At an event in Sydney this morning, the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) announced a wreck in Newport Harbour, off Rhode Island in the United States, had been confirmed as the ship.

But an hour later, the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP) stepped in, labelling the revelation a “breach of contract”.

The project’s principal investigator Kathy Abbass said any conclusions would be “driven by proper scientific process and not Australian emotions or politics”.

“What we see on the shipwreck site under study is consistent with what might be expected of the Endeavour, but there has been no indisputable data found to prove the site is that iconic vessel, and there are many unanswered questions that could overturn such an identification,” Dr Abbass said.

“When the study is done, RIMAP will post the legitimate report on its website.”

Kieran Hosty, from the ANMM, claimed Dr Abbass had been sent a report 10 days ago outlining the museum’s findings.

“I can’t answer the question about breach of contract, as far as I’m aware the contract with the Rhode Island project expired in November last year.

“Going onto the actual jumping the gun that we haven’t got enough information, I disagree with that.”

He said the wreck had several points “which correspond to what we know about Endeavour.”

In making the initial announcement, ANMM director and CEO, Kevin Sumption, had a different perspective.

“I am satisfied that this is the final resting place of one of the most important and contentious vessels in Australia’s maritime history,” he said.

Maritime archaeologists have been investigating several 18th century shipwrecks in a 2 square mile (5.2 square kilometres) area, known as RI 2394, since 1999.

“The last pieces of the puzzle had to be confirmed before I felt able to make this call,” Sumption said.

“Based on archival and archaeological evidence, I’m convinced it’s the Endeavour.”

Originally launched in 1764 as the Earl of Pembroke, four years later it was renamed Endeavour by Britain’s Royal Navy.

Over the next three years, the ship voyaged to the South Pacific, firstly on an astronomical mission to record the transit of Venus in Tahiti, before charting Australia’s east coast and the coast of New Zealand in 1770.

The vessel lay forgotten for more than two centuries, after it was sold to private owners and deliberately sunk in 1778 by British forces.

While only 15 percent of the vessel remains, efforts are now focused on how to protect and preserve it.

Researchers say several key markers distinguished Endeavour from four other ships sunk in Newport in August 1778:

  • historical evidence indicates the ship was sunk just north of Goat Island in Newport Harbour, along with four other British transports
  • the ship was the largest of the five scuttled transports in that area
  • archaeological evidence indicates RI 2394 is significantly larger than any other 18th century shipwreck site
  • the length of the surviving hull is almost exactly the same as that recorded for Endeavour
  • the structural details and shape of the remains closely match historic plans of Endeavour
  • diagnostic clues such as the construction of the keel along the bottom of the wreck, the joinery used in its bow at the front and the placement of the vessel’s fore and main mast are identical to those shown on 18th century plans of Endeavour
  • timber samples strongly suggest a vessel built in Europe, not America.

The research team are finalising their report on the site, which will be peer-reviewed and published in the months ahead.

In making today’s announcement, Sumption acknowledged his American counterparts.

“We pay tribute to the work of Dr Kathy Abbass and her team at the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project for their ongoing commitment to the site and its history,” he said.

“It’s an important historical moment, as this vessel’s role in exploration, astronomy and science applies not just to Australia, but also Aotearoa New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.”

Federal Arts Minister Paul Fletcher also spoke at this morning’s announcement in Sydney.

He also acknowledged his American counterparts.

“We pay tribute to the work of Dr Kathy Abbass and her team at the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project for their ongoing commitment to the site and its history,” he said.

“It’s an important historical moment, as this vessel’s role in exploration, astronomy and science applies not just to Australia, but also Aotearoa New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.”

To mark the occasion, an interactive website has also been launched featuring immersive videos, animation, underwater footage and photogrammetry data sets.

-ABC

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