2012-06-07 / News

Long-lost ship Endeavour located?

British ship was brought to Narragansett Bay in 1778
BY KEN SHANE

A fascinating 20-year journey through the history of this region took a major step forward Sunday. The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project announced that eight of the 13 sites from the 18th century that they have been seeking in Newport Harbor have been identified. The sites are the final resting places of 13 British transport ships that were scuttled into the harbor in 1878.

While all of the sites are potentially important, by far the most interesting aspect of the search is that one of the ships that was sunk by the British in an effort to blockade the harbor against the French fleet was known as the Lord Sandwich. That ship, in an earlier part of its career, was known as Endeavour, and it was on that bark that Capt. James Cook accomplished his first circumnavigation of the globe.

According to Dr. Kathy Abbass, director of RIMAP, the findings mean that there is now a 63 percent chance that Endeavour has been found. While work will continue in an effort to locate the remaining five sites – which may no longer exist – the priority for RIMAP now is excavation of the sites that have been located, which means that funds will be needed to create a lab in which artifacts from the sites can be analyzed, and a museum to house them. The organization, which takes no state or federal funds, has launched a capital campaign to raise the required funds.

“The search for the Endeavour is a really big deal,” Abbass said. “It is also a big deal for international heritage tourism, and in this economy that could be very signifi cant for the state.”

Although the fundraising process is expected to take several years, Abbass hopes that the building can be open by June 3, 2019, a date that would mark the 250th anniversary of Cook’s observation of the transit of Venus while in Tahiti.

Cook’s Endeavour is of great importance with regard to the maritime history of the United States, but the ship has even greater meaning to the people of Australia. It was Endeavour, sailing between 1668 and 1671 with a group of scientists aboard, that first surveyed the eastern coast of Australia. Their work allowed Great Britain to lay claim to the continent and colonize it. It is often said that Endeavour is to Australia what the Mayflower is to the United States.

Abbass admits that there remains a possibility that Endeavour will not be found, or that it will be found but there will be no way to prove the finding. In any event, RIMAP is closing in on the truth, and the only way to get to it is by excavating the sites. That’s where artifact management comes in, and since no such facility exists in the area, it will be necessary to build one.

The project has taken longer than expected largely due to the absence of the advanced technology that exists today. Research thus far has been funded by grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and has involved the use of remote sensing gear.

“The hard part in the early years is that we knew there were targets in the area based on the historical materials that told us where they would be,” said Abbass, “but we had great difficulty getting back to each of the sites.”

By 2004, two of the sites had been mapped. A second grant from NOAA allowed it to buy top-of-the-line equipment and hire operators to find more sites. Once the eight sites were identified, they had to be mapped.

“We have completed preliminary maps on eight of the sites in Newport Harbor that appear to be 18th century shipwrecks,” Abbass said. “We’ve got some more mapping to do on some of the sites we’ve already looked at.”

Due to the lack of taxpayer funding, the facility that Abbass envisions would have to be selfsustaining. She believes that this can be accomplished by taking advantage of worldwide interest in Capt. Cook and his history. In other words, heritage tourism might be the path to making the facility self-supporting. According to Abbass, economic studies are needed, including one related to tourism.

In an interesting side note, Abbass told the story of a ship called La Liberte, which came to Newport Harbor in 1793. The ship was identified 35 years later as Endeavour, and artifacts were given to the Newport Historical Society and the Australian National Maritime Museum. RIMAP’s early research discovered that that La Liberte was not Endeavour at all, but more likely Resolution, which was Cook’s ship on his second voyage around the world. At that point it became apparent that the ship they were looking for was Lord Sandwich, one of the 13 sunken British transports.

Abbass encourages citizens to become involved with RIMAP as the effort to locate Endeavour continues.

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