Cook shipwreck ID – have Australians jumped gun?

Cook shipwreck
Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour (Wellcome Collection)

The wreck of Captain James Cook’s famous ship HMS Endeavour has been positively identified – or, at least, it has been according to the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM).

But shortly after today’s (3 February) declaration by museum director and CEO Kevin Sumption, his assertion was being described as premature by US maritime archaeologists who have spent 22 years diving on and researching the shipwreck.

The British barque was one of five troop transports known to have been scuttled in Newport harbour, Rhode Island in August 1778, during the American War of Independence. By then renamed Lord Sandwich after a period in private ownership, the barque was sunk along with the smaller Earl of Orford, Mayflower, Peggy and Yowart to create a blockade.

Sumption described the announcement as an important historical moment, referring to the vessel’s earlier role in exploration, astronomy and science and strong connections with Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the USA.

Launched as the Earl of Pembroke in 1764, the barque was renamed Endeavour four years later by the Royal Navy before it set sail under Cook to the Pacific. Initially the scientific expedition was to record the transit of Venus in Tahiti in 1769 but Endeavour went on to search for the “Great Southern Land”, and succeeded in charting the New Zealand and Australian coasts in 1770. Captain Cook died in Hawaii a year after the sinking of his old ship.

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

“Since 1999, we have been investigating several 18th-century shipwrecks in a 2sq mile area where we believed that Endeavour sank. However, the last pieces of the puzzle had to be confirmed before I felt able to make this call. Based on archival and archaeological evidence, I’m convinced it’s the Endeavour.”

“Although only around 15% of the vessel remains, the focus is now on what can be done to protect and preserve it,” he said. “The museum continues to work closely with maritime experts in Rhode Island and of course with the Australian, Rhode Island and US governments to secure the site.”

Breach of contract

However, no sooner had Sumption paid tribute to the work of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP) team than its lead investigator Dr Kathy Abbass was rejecting his claim, describing it as breach of contract and saying that he had jumped the gun. 

“The ANMM report that the Endeavour has been identified is premature,” she stated. “RIMAP is now and always has been the lead organisation for the study in Newport harbour. The ANMM announcement today is a breach of the contract between RIMAP and the ANMM for the conduct of this research and how its results are to be shared with the public. 

“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.”

Abbass said that once the study was complete, RIMAP would post the “legitimate” report on its website. “Meanwhile, RIMAP recognises 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.” 

Further discussion

Historical evidence indicates that the five British ships were all scuttled just north of Goat Island in Newport harbour, with Endeavour by far the largest. The length of the surviving hull is almost identical to that recorded for the ship, while the structural details and shape closely match historic plans, including keel construction, joinery used in the bow and the positioning of the fore- and mainmasts. Timber samples strongly suggest a European vessel.

“We are currently in the process of finalising our report on the site and are looking forward to that report being peer-reviewed and published in due course,” said Sumption. “The archaeological work continues, and we anticipate further discussion of the evidence over the coming months. We look forward to continuing the work in Rhode Island as we move to the next phase.”


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Scuba Steve
Scuba Steve
2 years ago

Hmm. I wonder if they would get mad at anyone for grabbing some SCUBA gear and taking a look?!

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