LONDON—It was the ship that sparked the colonization of an entire continent. But just years after carrying Captain James Cook on his epic journey from England to the eastern shores of Australia, the HMS Endeavour slipped out of commission, and out of the history books, her whereabouts a mystery.
Now, marine archaeologists believe they may have identified the long-sought wreck, beneath the waves of a busy U.S. harbor in Rhode Island.
Cook’s Endeavour was the first European vessel to reach the west coast of Australia, setting in motion events that culminated in the British colonization. But the location of the historic ship had been a mystery for centuries, with one theory putting it at the bottom of the Thames River in London.
About two decades ago, however, new records came to light, showing that the Endeavour had been renamed, repurposed as a British prison ship, and eventually scuttled off Rhode Island during the American war of independence.
Since then, marine archaeologists have been trying to identify the wreck, narrowing the search to five out of 13 wrecks in Newport Harbor.
On Sept. 18, Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP) stated that a new development in their research would be revealed at the end of the week.
In Search of the ‘Unknown Southern Land’
“We can say we think we know which one it is,” Kathy Abbass, director of RIMAP, told Fairfax Media, speaking ahead of the official update. “This is a vessel that is significant to people around the world, including Australia.”
The Endeavour landed in Australia on April 29, 1770, two years after Cook set sail on a secret mission in search of the “Unknown Southern Land”—Terra Australis Incognita. Cook claimed the land for Britain.
On its return to England, the Endeavour was sold into private hands in 1775, and renamed as the Lord Sandwich.
On Sept. 18, RIMAP said it had “identified a possible site in Newport harbor that might be the Lord Sandwich ex Endeavour,” noting that “detailed work must begin to prove it.”
The investigation has been a slow process, said Kevin Sumption, director of the Australian National Maritime Museum, which has worked alongside RIMAP.
The wrecks are in shallow water (scuttled to create a blockade) in a very busy harbor, with poor visibility, hampering divers’ investigations. The wreck site is also a “very, very complex puzzle,” Sumption told ABC radio.
“The ships are a jumble of timbers and stone ballast. They have been disturbed by shipping moving over them, by things like having anchors dragged through them,” he said.
Testing for English Oak
Sumption said that at the moment they don’t have definitive proof.
The dimensions of the timber samples, however, fit with what would be expected from the Endeavour—recorded as a 366-ton ship, with a beam of 29 feet and a length of 97 feet.
Definitive proof will come from forensic tests on the timbers. Most of the scuttled ships were built from American or Indian timber, but the Endeavour was made of English oak, Sumption said.
“We need to take it to a lab and analyze it to see if it was grown in a British forest in the north of the country,” he said.
Investigators will also look for evidence that the wreck belongs to a prison ship—the last usage of the Endeavour was for carrying prisoners of war.
While final confirmation could come in time for the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Endeavour in Australia, in 2020, it’s very unlikely the wreck would be in any condition to make the final return journey to Australia.
“It won’t be like a Mary Rose, where the whole vessel is raised out of the water,” Shirani Aththas from the Australian National Maritime Museum told News.com.au. “It’ll be bits of wood and vessel that might be recovered.”
The Rhode Island state government claimed official ownership over the 13 shipwrecks in Newport harbor in 1999.