For many years now in my hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, on countless occasions, I have sailed past or kayaked over a patch of water just north of Goat Island, marked off rectangularly by a series of floating buoys. There are few secrets along any waterfront, especially Newport’s, and everyone in town knew exactly what was happening beneath the surface: A team of marine archaeologists were mucking around in the murk, searching for the remains of great British explorer Capt. James Cook’s famous ship, HMS Endeavour.
Now, according to Kevin Sumption, the director and CEO of the Australian National Maritime Museum—which has been instrumental in the research because Cook and Endeavour played a key and controversial role in his nation’s origin story—it’s official. “I am satisfied that [Newport] is the final resting place of one of the most contentious vessels in Australia’s maritime history,” he announced in a press release earlier this year.
To which Kathy Abbass, executive director of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, basically replied, “Er, hold your horses, mate.” Or, as she officially said, “The report is premature.”
There’s much to unpack here, but there are salient facts beyond dispute. In 1768, in his retrofitted coal ship, Cook set off from Britain bound for the Pacific, ostensibly to survey the east coast of Oz. But Cook overstepped his mission, and in a major way: Despite having no official authority to do so, in 1770 he claimed the entire bloody coastline for the crown. Some 250 years later, there are plenty of “true blue” Aussies who still can’t stomach it.
By 1776, Cook had returned home, and Endeavour, under the new name Lord Sandwich (I am not making this up), was pressed into service to transport mercenary Hessian soldiers to the United States to fight for the Brits in the American Revolutionary War. (Part of the mystery—and confusion—over the years stems from the fact that another renamed ship, La Liberte, was believed to be the original Endeavour.) By August 1778, Endeavour/Lord Sandwich was serving as a prison ship off Newport Harbor when, along with several other vessels, it was sunk deliberately to protect the harbor’s northern flank. And there it sat, for more than two centuries, with Cook ending up killed in Hawaii in 1779 in a subsequent expedition aboard HMS Resolute.
If you’ve ever sailed into Newport, the wreck site lies in about 35 feet of water a few hundred yards north of Goat Island. If you’ve driven in over the Newport bridge, it’s to your right by the mooring field just before the exit ramp. I’ve strapped on scuba tanks nearby on a couple of occasions after stupidly dropping stuff overboard, and I can assure you that the bottom of the harbor is one nasty place: very cold and very dark, with limited visibility and a very gross, squishy seabed. I do not envy the folks who’ve been toiling there for years.
There are plenty of historical wrecks around this location, a fact that made the work difficult. The Boston Globe’s Brian Amaral reported on a key “aha moment” in the search: “The prevailing theory was that the ship was pointing north when it was sunk,” he wrote. “What if it [were] pointing south? That would have made sense for prevailing winds in August. And when they simply flipped [an overlaid image of the ship’s dimensions] around in Photoshop, the Endeavour and several key points on the shipwreck site matched up perfectly.”
“And there’s the bow,” marine archaeologist James Hunter told Amaral. “Just where we said it would be.”
Hunter has no doubts whatsoever about the discovery. He says about 15 percent of the ship remains and has been identified, and there are no plans to attempt to raise any of it. As for the Rhode Island doubters, they insist that they hope it’s all true but say they have yet to see the corroborating evidence. “I’m prepared to be excited,” said Ruth Taylor of the Newport Historical Society.
All that said, we native Newporters have known and are certain that it’s Endeavour settled right here in our shadowy waters. No questions at all. Nope.
Unless, of course, it isn’t.
Herb McCormick is a CW editor-at-large.