There are four buoys bobbing on a patch of water off Newport, Rhode Island, on the east coast of the United States.
Set just off the northern end of Goat Island in Narragansett Bay, the buoys, which have reflective strips around them, are placed in a rough rectangle 400 metres in length and 150 metres wide.
Watercraft can pass through the marked-off zone, but may not anchor there or dive. Those that cross the rectangles are speeding over the remains of one of the most famous ships in history—His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour.
Her story began in Whitby, England, in 1764 and coursed through the South Pacific. Now, it has halted, the ship’s future caught in a land-based squabble—over money, prestige, control, and allegations that “the ugly underside of archaeology” has been breached.
For a ship that changed the world, you’d expect nothing less.
The story made a splash in early 2018; Captain James Cook’s Endeavour had been found—almost.
With the 250th anniversary of Cook’s historic first visit to New Zealand occurring in 2019, it was news custom-made for New Zealanders preparing to examine the cultural significance of that moment.
Opinions of the Royal Navy bark and the first of Cook’s three visits to the Pacific remain divided. For some, Cook was a science-loving navigator whose early interactions with Māori were governed by genuine curiosity and forgivable mistakes. To others, he was a divisive murderer who opened Aotearoa up to the violence of British colonisation. Tina Ngata, a Ngāti Porou researcher and advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples, points out that the depiction of the Endeavour as a positive symbol of discovery omits crucial details.
“From a Māori perspective,” she says, “it means little more than concern around how dominant groups may use this to continue to entrench colonial fictions about the glory of its deeds.”
Ngata, whose ancestors were among the first Māori to meet Europeans, lodged a complaint with the United Nations in April 2018 over the government’s plans to mark the 250th anniversary of Cook’s visit. The framing of the event, she says, fails to acknowledge the human-right abuses Cook and his crew committed, and that for Māori, it launched a tragedy that continues to unfold.
Until recently, the fate of the Endeavour eluded historians and maritime archaeologists. It disappeared from records in the late 1770s.
Six cannons from the ship, abandoned by Cook after he ran aground near Great Barrier Reef in 1770, were raised in 1969. One was given to New Zealand, and now sits in Te Papa.
Meanwhile, myths about the Endeavour have circulated. According to the Captain Cook Society, in the 1820s, a pensioner who claimed to have served aboard the ship said the ageing bark was moored on the Thames between Woolwich and Greenwich.
In the early 1900s, John Fairchild, the skipper of the New Zealand government steamer Hinemoa, was convinced it lay at the bottom of the South Island’s Dusky Sound. Both stories were easily disproved.
What remained certain was that after Cook returned in 1771 from his first South Pacific voyage, the Endeavour was immediately refitted as a naval transport.
The ship had been built as a collier, a coal transport, named Earl of Pembroke, but the Royal Navy changed her name when it purchased her in 1768. She wasn’t fast, but she was stable, and had a great deal of storage—and so at the end of 1771, she departed for the Falkland Islands, delivering provisions to the garrison there. It was to be the first of three trips to the Falklands; on the third, in 1774, the ship evacuated all British inhabitants, leaving only a flag and plaque behind.
On her return, she was decommissioned and sold to British shipping magnate James Mather for £645. This is where, for the past two centuries, the story ran cold.
It was picked up again in the 1990s by Australian historians Mike Connell and Des Liddy, who traced the Endeavour’s movements through former Royal Navy and merchant documents. The search was continued by American historian Kathy Abbass, executive director of the Rhode Island Marine Archeology Project (RIMAP), and Rod Mather, a professor of maritime archaeology at the University of Rhode Island (URI).
They discovered that the Endeavour had become a troop transport when the American War of Independence broke out—and her name had changed again.
In 1775, the Royal Navy needed vessels to carry soldiers across the Atlantic, and James Mather saw an opportunity to sell the Endeavour back to the Royal Navy.
He was rebuffed—Endeavour was judged unfit for service. He renamed her Lord Sandwich and tried again, but was declined. Repairs were made, the ship’s name was changed once more, to Lord Sandwich II, and on his third go, Mather made the sale.
On May 6, 1776, almost eight years to the day after she had sailed for the South Pacific, Lord Sandwich II departed for New York with more than 200 Hessian mercenaries on board—German soldiers contracted by Britain.
On arrival, the ship was redirected to the British attack on Rhode Island. By December, the colony and its strategically important coastal town, Newport, were in British hands.
For the next 18 months, the Lord Sandwich II served as a prison ship for Americans captured in battle. By the middle of 1778, however, the British were on the ropes in the Revolutionary War. The Yankees were drawing up plans to retake Newport, with assistance from their allies, the French.
To prevent the French from entering Newport Harbour, the British decided to create a breakwater of scuttled ships, and the Lord Sandwich II was one of 13 selected. On August 4, 1778, it was sunk, along with four others, in the area between Goat Island and North Battery, an artillery placement north of Newport.
With the harbour entrance blocked, the Americans attacked the town by land, and the British successfully defended it. (They would abandon Newport about a year later.)
Cook, meanwhile, was on his third and final voyage to the Pacific. Six months after his former ship hit the bottom of Narragansett Bay, he was killed in Hawaii.
If you ever find yourself 20 metres under the water just off the coast of Newport, don’t expect to see much.
Thanks to algae and the busy harbour—which hosted America’s Cup racing from 1930 to 1983—visibility down below is less than two metres on a good day.
On a bad one, the fine, silty mud covering the seafloor requires only the slightest movement to turn the water murky.
“It can get pretty damn dark,” says James Hunter, a maritime archaeologist at the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM).
Hunter is from Florida but lives in Sydney, and has dived extensively off Newport as part of the ANMM’s long-standing research partnership with RIMAP.
Rhode Island has more shipwrecks per square mile than any other state in the US—there’s even a German U-boat—while Narragansett Bay is home to the highest concentration of Revolutionary War wrecks. So which one is Cook’s old bark?
Nigel Erskine, ANMM’s head of research, made a breakthrough in 2016 while researching the Lord Sandwich II in Britain.
He discovered a report written in the late 1770s by John Knowles, a Royal Navy lieutenant, detailing the ships sunk off Newport.
Though Knowles wasn’t always accurate, he provided physical descriptions of each ship and, importantly, where they were scuttled relative to local landmarks. Among the five sunk between Goat Island and North Battery, wrote Knowles, only the Lord Sandwich II and the Peggy had similar tonnage.
RIMAP and ANMM used 3D photogrammetry to map the seafloor, and after an increasing number of dives over the past two years, Abbass, the iron-willed head archaeologist on the Endeavour project, told The Sydney Morning Herald she is “80 per cent” confident the team has identified the wreck among the five Knowles indicated.
But that’s still a guess. Definitive identification will require excavation of the wreck, and careful analysis of its features. Researchers hope to find a number of clues: aspects of the hull described by Knowles in the 1770s, different types of timber from repairs, and artefacts contained within.
Shackles would indicate its history as a prison ship, while items such as military uniform buttons, or any material that was German in origin, given the Lord Sandwich II transported Hessians across the Atlantic, would provide compelling evidence.
It’s likely that several more seasons of fieldwork are required.
“We may have, at the end of next season, measurements that are consistent with it being the original construction of the Endeavour,” says Abbass. “We may have repairs that are consistent with how we know the vessel was repaired many times in its history.
“Everyone wants to find the Endeavour. We want to find the Lord Sandwich II. If we can prove we have the Lord Sandwich II, then we know we’ve got her.”
Hunter has been down to the likely wreck several times. It sits at a depth
of 18 to 20 metres, its remains only
just visible on the seafloor as a line of timber boards several metres long. They peek out of the sediment like a child’s emerging teeth.
“They’re just barely sticking up—you can barely make them out,” says Hunter. “The average punter would swim right over them and not even notice.”
RIMAP and ANMM researchers believe the boards are ‘floors’, which form the bottom of the ship. The direction they lie in the sediment indicates there’s a good chance a “nice continuous hull” is buried under the seabed, says Hunter.
He reckons up to 15 per cent of the hull is buried—it likely sits on an angle under the sediment, he says. The mud that makes visibility so poor could be the very thing protecting the hull. Because the mud is so fine, it forms an anaerobic environment—one devoid of oxygen—for the centuries-old white oak.
“It buries the timbers and seals off the oxygen,” says Hunter. “What that means is bacteria can’t thrive in it and macro-organisms can’t survive in it. Nothing can survive that can chew those timbers up.”
Samples of the wood are currently being tested. Of the small areas of timber that researchers have excavated, signs are promising: “You can actually see tool marks on them.”
To obtain permission to excavate the wreck, RIMAP must demonstrate that it’s capable of preserving anything brought to the surface.
And that’s where things have stalled. RIMAP is a volunteer organisation, set up by the state of Rhode Island to educate the public about wreck conservation, and it has overseen more than 900 volunteers on various projects over the years. Abbass has been director since its inception in 1992. She has lived and breathed the historic bark for the past 20 years, all on a shoestring budget.
“We’re open to the public in ways that are very unusual,” she says. “If folks want to get involved in the search for the Endeavour, there’s an opportunity.”
With no funding from the state of Rhode Island, RIMAP has survived on a series of federal grants, and despite recent global media interest in its work, it’s been tough.
Between 2000 and 2012, RIMAP operated out of the US Naval base in Newport, using office and storage space, but was forced to leave due to a change in base security policy. It is now based at Abbass’s home in Newport.
Despite RIMAP’s financial circumstances, Abbass has planned a storage, lab and museum facility for the Endeavour’s remains, a US$5.5 million (NZ$8 million) building for Newport she hopes will preserve the entire hull and any artefacts found.
“Good work doesn’t have to have a really big budget, although you’ve got to have a certain amount of money when the crunch comes—and now we’re at crunch time,” she says.
At the moment, RIMAP does not even have funding for its next two years of fieldwork on the wreck, which Abbass estimates will cost around US$250,000 (around NZ$365,000). In October 2018, she set up a crowdfunding account; it had raised US$660 out of $250,000 at the time this issue went to press.
Meanwhile, Hunter is sceptical such a facility—storing and displaying the entirety of the remaining hull—would be worth the investment. Instead, he favours excavating large sections of the hull on the seafloor.
“I think, with this shipwreck, all you are going to find is the very bottom of the hull,” he says. “It’s definitely cool if you know what it is, but it’s not as compelling as, say, what the Vasa is, or the Mary Rose, where you’ve almost got an entire ship.”
And not everyone sees a benefit in raising the Endeavour, or marvelling at its remains.
“I wish it would stay where it was,” says Tina Ngata. “Under the water.”
The future of the wreck is as murky as the silty Narragansett Bay water that surrounds it. The more the story of the Endeavour emerges, the larger Kathy Abbass looms as a key figure in its progress—and the lack thereof.
In 1999, Rhode Island’s state government, through its Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission (HPHC), subcontracted RIMAP as the official agent for wrecks in Narragansett Bay, making it responsible for protecting them.
Further to that, the state said it would grant the volunteer organisation permission to excavate if it provided a curation facility, and a long-term storage plan for artefacts, which all parties agree could be shared with New Zealand, Australia or other nations.
While RIMAP’s partnership with ANMM has allowed it to take the first steps in identifying the wreck, its lack of funding and reliance on volunteers have placed clear limits on the project. (The organisation has not excavated a shipwreck before.)
Abbass has excellent collaborators available to her—and they’re local. Rod Mather and Bridget Buxton of URI have already offered their significant resources to RIMAP. Both have impressive résumés; Mather, whose research helped fill in the blanks of Endeavour’s story, holds a reputation in the United States for his knowledge of Revolutionary War shipwrecks. Buxton, a Wellington-born, Berkeley-educated maritime archaeologist, was originally brought to URI by Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who located the RMS Titanic in 1985. Over the past decade, she has worked on several significant Mediterranean shipwrecks, and will be leading the science team on the mission involving OceanGate Expeditions’ Titan submersible to the Titanic in 2019.
Buxton has been enthusiastic about the Endeavour project since she arrived at URI in 2006. She approached Abbass to volunteer for RIMAP, but Abbass told her to undertake a basic underwater archaeology course if she wished to be involved. Buxton, a veteran diver, had already established an international reputation in maritime archaeology, so declined to do so.
In the meantime, Buxton worked to assist the project, reaching out to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is also the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, for an endorsement of efforts to locate the ship, which she could use to raise funds and support within the United States. (The government has been considering the matter since July.)
Then, Buxton proposed to help RIMAP excavate one of the smaller Goat Island wrecks as a team-building exercise—to help both parties better understand the local challenges, and each other, before major fieldwork on the Endeavour began. It’s good archaeological practice to begin with less-important ruins, says Buxton.
“When the great British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley discovered the royal tombs of Ur, he decided to spend a few years digging up the lesser tombs before tackling the kings and queens. In archaeology, you have one chance to get it right, and experience is key.”
Buxton suggested using a ‘dig-ski’ recently built by her students. The adapted jetski uses its propulsion to excavate sentiment around shallow-water wrecks, making it a potential asset for future Endeavour fieldwork. The plan was supported by the state government’s HPHC.
Abbass turned down Buxton’s offer. Mather has made similar proposals of collaboration over the years, which have similarly been declined. (Abbass also rebuffed New Zealand Geographic’s request to dive on the wreck site in order to photograph its remains.)
There has been co-operation between RIMAP and URI in the past—oceanography students have volunteered for RIMAP, and Mather led a sonar survey in 2005 to help pinpoint wrecks north of Goat Island—but their current relationship has reached an impasse.
Abbass says she’s concerned that the more URI gets involved, the more the general public will be cut off from the project.
“[Buxton] doesn’t have the resources in place, either, as yet, so maybe it’s a race?” asks Abbass. “We can raise the money or not. She can raise the money or not. But it needs to be a collaboration; it can’t be just one institution absorbing the other.”
She’s also critical of others “boasting” of better credentials to work on the wreck, saying RIMAP has seven archaeologists participating in its fieldwork, including Hunter and Kieran Hosty from the ANMM, as well as RIMAP vice-president Kerry Lynch, an archaeologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and consultant Garry Kozak, a wreck-recovery expert who worked on the search for WWII wreck the USS Indianapolis.
“We’ve been the ones who have brought this project to the condition it is at now, and it’s too bad if somebody else wants to take advantage of all our hard work,” she says.
“We don’t mind sharing, and we have shared a great deal in the past. But what we don’t want is for someone to be insulting to us, for someone to say our work is not as worthy as theirs might be, or that they have resources that, quite frankly, we don’t need, or that they have skills we don’t have.
“This is the ugly underside of archaeology,” she adds. “It’s really nasty. All of those years that we spent, 25 years, getting to the point where we actually identified a site, all of those years, where were they? Now, they won’t do it under RIMAP’s leadership. It’s very clear that this is a power struggle. It’s a hostile takeover, no doubt about it, and it all comes down to how much money we can raise.”
Abbass’s focus is on fundraising for her lab facility. In 2015, at a Comic-Con event in Providence, Rhode Island, RIMAP had a booth, hoping to gain donations. Abbass attempted to appeal to Star Trek fans by arguing that the inspiration for Gene Roddenberry’s Enterprise was the Endeavour and that Māori influenced the Klingon species.
RIMAP is still the official state agent for the wrecks, but its limited resources and lack of ability to care for artefacts mean obtaining permission to excavate is unlikely in time for fieldwork scheduled for next September.
Meanwhile, Buxton has grown exasperated at the rebuffed attempts at collaboration, which she maintains have always been respectful and sincere.
“URI has always supported RIMAP—we’re a listed supporter on the RIMAP website,” she says. “This past August, I offered RIMAP the use of my excavation jetski, site-mapping systems, and our digital laboratory; I also suggested we work together to get a self-funding conservation lab set up at URI, and offered to help with fundraising for the Endeavour.
“I’ve learned since then that Dr Abbass found these offers insulting. I suppose they want their $5 million museum or nothing.”
Given the state government’s priority is the shipwreck itself, it reserves the right to change that agent at any moment.
In November, Rhode Island voters endorsed a state bond initiative to give US $40 million to URI’s oceanography school, which will pay for a bigger dock, a new ocean technology centre and a new marine operations facility, some of which could be advantageous to the Endeavour project.
Meanwhile, a number of new buildings recently constructed at URI have freed space in older ones for potential wet and dry labs, which could conserve and store artefacts. While nothing has been decided upon, Buxton believes a lot could be achieved at URI with a relatively small investment.
Combined with greater access to potential donor funding, URI could foreseeably provide the facilities necessary to preserve what is left of the Endeavour.
Otherwise, the chances of making a final discovery seem remote in the near future.
One day, those four buoys just to the north of Goat Island will be pulled onto a boat and taken away.
Only then will the story of Endeavour resume. Will it involve a significant new funding stream for RIMAP, a healthy partnership between the volunteer organisation and the university, or a decision to transfer the wreck’s official agency? Endeavour’s next chapter looks likely to take one of these courses.
Only then will Cook’s former Royal Navy bark embark on its next voyage—one that could see it, eventually, return to New Zealand shores.
“Sometimes you get an easier wreck and sometimes you’ve to got to work for it,” says Hunter. “With this one, you’ve got to work for it. But it is my hope that the ends will justify the means.”