American, Australian Researchers Clash Over Historic Ship Discovery

February 9, 2022Lauren Coontz
James Cook

A replica of the HMS Endeavour in Cooktown, Australia. The Endeavour is the ship with which British explorer and Royal Navy Capt. James Cook landed on and claimed eastern Australia for King George in 1770. Wikimedia Commons image.

After Australian maritime researchers announced recently that they believe they have found a famous British ship that sank off the coast of Rhode Island during the American Revolution, US researchers said the claim was premature and illegal. 

For more than two decades, maritime archaeologists from the two nations have been jointly investigating shipwrecks in a 2-square-mile area of Newport Harbor, Rhode Island. But Australian National Maritime Museum Executive Director Kevin Sumption drew a rebuke from his American colleagues after holding a press conference in Sydney Jan. 27 and announcing his conclusion that the HMS Endeavour — the ship with which British explorer and Royal Navy Capt. James Cook landed on and claimed eastern Australia for King George in 1770 — rests in Newport Harbor’s waters. 

James Cook
British Royal Navy Capt. James Cook was a pioneering explorer who made three significant voyages between 1768 and 1779. As commander of the HMS Endeavour, he landed on and claimed eastern Australia for Britain in 1770. Wikimedia Commons image.

“I am satisfied that this is the final resting place of one of the most important and contentious vessels in Australia’s maritime history,” Sumption said at the news conference, adding that “archival and archaeological evidence” convinced him. 

D.K. Abbass, executive director of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP), said in a statement released Feb. 2 that her organization “is now and always has been the lead organization for the study in Newport harbor” and that Sumption’s announcement is premature and violates a contractual agreement between the parties for how research results are shared with the public. 

“What we see on the shipwreck site under study is consistent with what might be expected of the Endeavour, but there has been no indisputable data found to prove the site is that iconic vessel, and there are many unanswered questions that could overturn such an identification,” Abbass said in the statement.

James Cook
The Australian National Maritime Museum’s HM Bark Endeavour replica ship once re-created Capt. James Cook’s voyage around the eastern coast of Australia. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Kieran Hosty, the manager of maritime archeology at the Australian museum, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. he was under the impression his group’s contract with RIMAP ended in November 2021, and he cited several examples of forensic evidence to dispute Abbass’ claim that Sumption’s announcement was premature.   

In 1768, the Royal Society of London initiated the voyage that sent the HMS Endeavour — commanded by then-Lt. Cook — to the South Pacific in an effort to bolster international scientific efforts to discover the distance from the earth to the sun, or the “Astronomical Unit.” Eager to discover and claim “Terra Australis,” or “The Great South Land,” King George III and the British government supported Cook’s voyage.

Cook claimed the eastern portion of Australia for Britain in 1770, naming it New South Wales. British forces landed there and established a penal colony 18 years later.

“Capt. James Cook was the man in history who explored more of the world than any other person,” Abbass says in a RIMAP video from 2017. “He went around the world the first time in the Endeavour.” 

Australian National Maritime Museum
The Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour, Sydney. The museum claims a shipwreck in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, has been positively identified as Capt. James Cook’s former exploration vessel, the HMS Endeavour. Wikimedia Commons photo.

When Cook returned to England in 1771, the Endeavour was refitted as a naval transport, and Cook got a new ship. The Endeavour was sold in 1775 and renamed the Lord Sandwich. It was conscripted into service for the British during the American Revolutionary War. It carried supplies, troops, and prisoners between ports until the French arrived with naval reinforcements in 1778. Instead of allowing their fleet of support ships to be captured, British forces scuttled the ships. The Lord Sandwich was among them. 

More than 2,000 vessels are lost in Rhode Island waters, and the bay has more wrecks per square mile than any other state, according to Abbass. It took RIMAP several years to identify the Lord Sandwich as the ship once commanded by Cook and more than two decades to identify which of the many sites might be the iconic ship.  

“RIMAP recognizes the connection between Australian citizens of British descent and the Endeavour, but RIMAP’s conclusions will be driven by proper scientific process and not Australian emotions or politics,” Abbass said in her statement. “When the study is done, RIMAP will post the legitimate report on its website.” 

Abbass declined to comment for this article.

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Lauren Coontz
Lauren Coontz

Lauren Coontz is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. Beaches are preferred, but Lauren calls the Rocky Mountains of Utah home. You can usually find her in an art museum, at an archaeology site, or checking out local nightlife like drag shows and cocktail bars (gin is key). A student of history, Lauren is an Army veteran who worked all over the world and loves to travel to see the old stuff the history books only give a sentence to. She likes medium roast coffee and sometimes, like a sinner, adds sweet cream to it.

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