2012-08-23 / News

Capt. Cook museum proposed, Jamestown a possible location

It’s a long shot, but RIMAP is not ruling anything out

Inside the Old State House on Benefit Street, a small but lively group debated how to raise millions for a new international heritage museum connected to ocean archaeology and world explorer Capt. James Cook. One of the communities brought up as a possible home to the museum was Jamestown.

The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project met on Aug. 12. Dr. Kathy Abbass, the group’s founder, said that if built, she hopes the new museum will draw tourists from far and wide to the Ocean State to see the remnants of sunken ships once connected to Cook.

Cook, she said, was the greatest navigator who ever lived. His former ship, the Endeavour, sank to the bottom of Newport Harbor during the Revolutionary War. Today, Abbass and a team of researchers believe they may have found the site where the ship went down. And that may be only the beginning.

“What Rhode Island has that nobody else has,” she said, “is the possibility of finding two of four vessels that went around the world with Cook.”

Butts Hill Fort in Portsmouth remains the first choice for the location of the new museum of international heritage tourism. The National Parks Service funded the master plan for restoring the fort, and the next step is to develop a business plan.

According to Patrick Conley, Rhode Island’s first historian laureate, Butts Hill stands out among the possible locations due to its significance as the site associated with the Battle of Rhode Island. “There ought to be a museum of Rhode Island history there.”

Conley says that it would give proper recognition to the oneday long Battle of Rhode Island, which was, “in essence, America’s Dunkirk.”

By the time the ships entered Narragansett Bay, they weren’t under the command of Cook. When they went down in Rhode Island waters, they were at the end of their service and not on one of Cook’s voyages. One ship, believed to be the Endeavour, had been sold and renamed the Lord Sandwich when the British scuttled it with the rest of the fleet in 1778 to avoid capture by the Patriots.

But as HMS Endeavor, according to Abbass, the ship remains for Australians and New Zealanders as important as the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria for Americans. She hopes that international tourists will come to see the artifacts of the ship, and their arrival will create jobs for hotels and restaurants.

Her hope is to raise money to build a museum to store the ship’s artifacts and later to showcase them for international tourists.

If the money can be raised, the plan is to open the museum on June 3, 2019 – the 250th anniversary of Cook’s arrival in Tahiti – where he witnessed a Transit of Venus.

While the Portsmouth location drew the most attention, Jamestown’s name did come up during the discussion due to its location across from Newport. Also making the island an attractive choice is the existence of old forts in need of repair. According to Abbass, the garrisons could serve as settings for the Cook museum.

But there are drawbacks for locating the museum on Conanicut Island, she said. There are lessthan ideal traffic patterns, along with a sense that residents would not support the concept. Charlestown, Quonset and Bristol are other options.

Abbass asked for ideas to raise money. Linda Jenkins of Tiverton suggested jewelry related to the Endeavour. Other options were replicas of porcelain mugs and other artifacts found with the wrecks. Abbass said the site would have to include a restaurant for the tourists, as well as a museum. Abbass said the cost would run into the multimillions.

The ship’s artifacts, which divers have not yet begun to excavate due to the lack of a lab to study and store them, could be used to positively identify the vessel as the Cook ship. Though the reality is, it won’t be the divers, but rather the scientists, who will someday verify the discovery in a laboratory. According to Abbass, the work is not like discovering the Titanic, which is an intact and recognizable shipwreck.

These sunken ships are in pieces and much has disintegrated, although a possibility remains that the hulls may have been preserved under ocean mud. As many as four Cook vessels – one at Point Judith, one by Prudence Island and two in Newport Harbor – could be discovered.

Few realize, Abbass said, that more than 2,000 sunken ships lie at the bottom of Rhode Island waters. But, she added, none carried treasure at the time they went down.

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