As luck would have it, in May 2016, I was visiting Newport, Rhode Island, on a rare trip to North America. I kept up-to-date with local news from home by using the website of the newspaper New Zealand Herald. The news about the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project’s (RIMAP) forthcoming announcement about Endeavour was, as one would expect, on the main web page.1 I followed the link to RIMAP and realised that their Press Conference was scheduled for the very next day. So I drove up to Providence, founded in 1636 as a refuge from the puritanical Puritans of Plymouth Plantation, and sat in on the presentation. To be surrounded by all of these Captain Cook fans and jaded journalists working a hot story was the highlight of my trip.
In a packed room at Providence, Rhode Island’s Old Statehouse on 4 May, the media scrum jockeyed for position as Dr DK Abbass, Executive Director and Principal Investigator of RIMAP, announced to the world that they were “80% sure” that RIMAP had discovered the final resting place of Endeavour. As cameras clicked, camcorders whirred and scribes scribbled, the intensity of the event proved the point: Anything to do with Captain James Cook is worldwide news.
Dr Kathy Abbass began with a brief summary of what was already known about HM Bark Endeavour. According to the 1779 edition of Lloyd’s Register, she had been renamed Lord Sandwich, and was carrying troops out of London. Dr Abbass had followed up this clue with a research trip to London and found that the Lord Sandwich had been leased to the British government to transport Hessian mercenaries to Newport in support of their war effort.2 Lord Sandwich had been one of up to 13 transports and prison ships scuttled in the harbour in August 1778. RIMAP had mapped the possible sites of the remains of eight of these ships, but no one was sure which of the remains belonged to the Lord Sandwich, ex-Endeavour.
Now for the fun part. Using a small grant from the Australian National Maritime Museum, Dr Abbass related how she had travelled to London for more research. This trip had proved exceedingly productive. She found a document confirming that Lord Sandwich was one of five transports, tied bow-to-stern about 100 metres apart, that were scuttled directly to the north of Goat Island. RIMAP had already mapped the remains of four of these five transports.
So Dr Abbass felt she could claim with confidence that they had an 80% chance that they had found the bones of Endeavour. With a bit more ground truthing and hands-on investigations, they had prepared digital maps of the known artefacts at each of the four wreck sites. This site (pictured) has a 20% chance of this being the final resting place of Endeavour. And even if it’s not, the real remains are within 500 meters. They hope to find evidence of the fifth wreck this summer.
What next? Dr Abbass pointed out that identifying the possible sites is just the beginning. They would need to carefully map and explore the sites, look for any physical evidence that might pinpoint which remains might be Endeavour, and analyse the results. She was significantly larger than the other transports, so that would be a clue. Maybe they could recover timber from the hulls and look at tree ring patterns. Or perhaps find a cache of buttons or insignia that matched the same Hessian regiment that shipped out of England.
However, even if they found a few clues, they would still need more research before they could unequivocally say “We found the final resting place of Cook’s Endeavour”. Dr Abbass, ever the professional, wouldn’t make any predictions until much more research had been undertaken.
But before RIMAP can move forward, they need funding, up to US$1 million for fieldwork and $7½ million for a conservation lab, research facility and museum. Dr Abbass said that RIMAP will not undertake any excavations until they had access to facilities to conserve, analyse and display any artefacts. “We hope to have all of this in place within the next 10 years”, she added, “to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Rhode Island’s independence from Great Britain”. She pointed out that Rhode Island has more 18th century buildings than any other American state, and that a Cook connection would be a huge boost for tourism.
So best of luck to Dr Abbass and RIMAP. As Lives in Ruins points out,3 Dr Abbass is the right person for the job. We’ll be following the story with interest.
- Cook’s Log, page 15, vol. 36, no. 1 (2013).
- Johnson, Marilyn. Lives in ruins: Archaeologists and the seductive lure of human rubble. Harper Perennial. 2015. Pages 101-119.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 6, volume 39, number 3 (2014).