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Unearthing Endeavour – His Majesty’s Bark (HMB)

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Unearthing Endavour
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Photographs by James Hunter, Australasian Pioneers’ Club Collection and Boston Public Library

In February 2022, the world learned the shipwreck site of one of history’s most well-known and contentious vessels of exploration -His Majesty’s Bark (HMB) Endeavour – which had been identified in the waters off Newport, Rhode Island, in the United States.

The announcement, made by the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM), was not without controversy, as the museum’s American-based research partners, the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP), disagreed with the findings and felt the determination was premature.

The museum, however, was – and continues to be – confident about the wreck site’s identity, which was confirmed through more than 20 years of methodical research.

But what was Endeavour, a vessel best known for Lt James Cook’s first voyage of exploration to what is now the east coast of Australia in 1770, doing in Rhode Island in the first place, and why did it end up on the bottom of Narragansett Bay?

That story is the catalyst that prompted a series of events, resulting in the wreck site’s eventual discovery and identification. It also places Endeavour in a second pivotal historic event that led to the British invasion and occupation of Australia, and reveals the vessel was, at the time of its loss, far from the iconic symbol it would later become.

Endeavour after Cook

Following the conclusion of Cook’s first voyage, Endeavour was refitted as a naval storeship and used to transport soldiers and supplies to Great Britain’s far-flung military outpost at Port Egmont in the Falkland Islands.

The vessel undertook three return voyages to the Falklands, the last of which resulted in the evacuation of the British garrison and most of its arms and equipment in April 1774. Endeavour was paid off five months later and sold to civilian James Mather.

With the outbreak of the American War of Independence in April 1775, the British government began contracting civilian vessels to transport troops and military materiel to its rebellious North American colonies.

Endeavour was tendered for consideration as a transport, but the Admiralty rejected it on account of its poor condition. Following repairs, the vessel – now named Lord Sandwich – was finally accepted for service in February 1776 and assigned as a troop transport.

Three months later, Lord Sandwich took on a contingent of more than 200 Hessians, joined a fleet of 100 ships (nearly 70 of which were transports), and departed Portsmouth for New York, arriving off Sandy Hook, New Jersey on 15 August 1776.

While at Sandy Hook, the convoy was joined by several more transports and store-ships. The combined fleet arrived at Staten Island shortly thereafter and supported the British assault on New York.

Archival plans of the endeavour
Archival plans of the endeavour

Following New York’s capture from the Americans, British military leaders turned their attention to Newport, which was held by American forces and represented a threat to British control of New York and its surrounds.

In November 1776, Lord Sandwich collected another contingent of Hessians and joined a convoy bound for Rhode Island.

British troops and the German mercenaries in their employ quickly seized control of Newport, but were unable to completely subdue the Americans, who controlled the shores surrounding Narragansett Bay.

After the British surrender at Saratoga in October 1777, France entered the war on the side of the Americans and plans to retake Newport commenced in earnest.

By the summer of 1778, the Americans and their new allies agreed upon a combined assault that would involve Continental Army and French forces approaching Newport from the north in conjunction with French naval bombardment from the harbour.

The overwhelming size of the French squadron, which included 11 ships-of-the-line, prompted the British at Newport to intentionally burn all the Royal Navy warships present in Narragansett Bay to prevent them falling into enemy hands.

In addition, 13 transports were scuttled in Newport’s Outer Harbour to block access to the Inner Harbour and provide a barrier between the city’s land-based artillery batteries and the attacking French warships.

Lord Sandwich was one of these vessels scuttled in early August 1778. The French fleet commenced its attack on Newport on 8 August, but withdrew the following morning to engage a newly arrived British fleet under the command of Admiral Lord Richard Howe.

Ultimately, the British retained control of Newport and several of the scuttled transports in the Inner Harbour were later re-floated. Lord Sandwich, the vessel that under a different name ferried James Cook on his history-making voyage to Australia, wasn’t considered worth the effort and abandoned on the seabed to suffer the effects of time and tide.

Within five years, the Americans would win their war for independence and leave the British government scrambling to find a new location in which to offload its convicts and undesirables and to combat the growing influence of the French.

The first one chosen, Botany Bay (or Kamay in the language of its traditional owners the Dharawal people), found one of its strongest advocates in Joseph Banks, who was among Endeavour’s complement when the vessel made landfall there in April 1770.

The search begins

The modern effort to locate and identify Endeavour’s shipwreck site began in 1998, when two Australian historians, Mike Connell and Des Liddy, determined the vessel’s fate via archival research. RIMAP’s Director, Dr Kathy Abbass, built upon their work and in 1999 Rhode Island’s government laid claim to the wrecks of all ships scuttled in Newport Harbor in 1778.

ANMM commenced working with RIMAP in 1999 to locate Lord Sandwich/Endeavour and a series of archaeological expeditions were undertaken in Newport Harbor in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004.

Investigations included remote sensing, underwater survey by divers, and analysis of artefacts and samples recovered from a range of shipwreck sites of 18th-century vintage. None of these wrecks, however, exhibited characteristics consistent with historical knowledge of Lord Sandwich/Endeavour.

ANMM’s collaborative work with RIMAP resumed in 2015. That same year, the museum’s former Head of Research, Dr Nigel Erskine, discovered archival evidence that revealed Lord Sandwich was scuttled with four other ships between Goat Island and Newport’s North Battery (a gun emplacement situated at the north end of the city).

This area of Newport Harbour was designated the Limited Study Area (LSA) and became the project’s primary focus. Between 2017 and 2021, the team investigated five 18th-century shipwrecks within the LSA. Historical sources revealed Lord Sandwich was the largest of the five scuttled vessels, and efforts soon focused on two sites.

One of them, known by its Rhode Island state archaeological site number RI 2394, represented the largest vessel in the group and the most likely candidate for Lord Sandwich/Endeavour.

Prior to commencement of investigations within the LSA, the museum’s maritime archaeology team and its RIMAP counterparts developed and agreed upon a list of comparative criteria between the historical and archaeological records that, if met, would provide sufficient evidence to identify one of the transport shipwreck sites as Lord Sandwich/Endeavour.

Based on this ‘preponderance of evidence’ approach, the museum’s maritime archaeology team identified attributes of RI 2394’s surviving hull that closely or exactly matched features of Endeavour’s design and construction recorded in historical sources and provided definitive evidence that RI 2394 was Endeavour.

The final resting place of the Endeavour
The final resting place of the Endeavour

It was clear from the outset that RI 2394 represented the remnants of a relatively large, wooden-hulled sailing vessel. Detailed records of Endeavour’s design and construction are contained in surveys of the vessel conducted by the British Admiralty following its acquisition for naval service in 1768, and prior to it being sold out of naval service in 1775.

Among this bounty of archival sources is a list of scantlings (height and width measurements) for timbers used in its construction. Measurements for several different timbers on the shipwreck site all compare favourably to those listed in the 1768 survey.

Another significant line of evidence connecting RI 2394 and Endeavour are the types of timber species used to construct the hull – 18th-century British shipwrights preferred to use English oak (Quercus robur) in the construction of framing components, while English or Dutch elm (Ulmus procera or Ulmus hollandica) were desired as keel timber.

Timber sampling of RI 2394’s hull components between 2018 and 2021 revealed the majority were hewn from oak. The lone exception was the vessel’s keel in the midships area, which was manufactured from elm.

The exclusive use of oak and elm in the shipwreck’s construction indicates it was British built, as the North American colonies tended to use a diverse range of domestic timber species that were abundant and much easier to access.

Several structural features encountered on RI 2394 were either identical to, or a close match for, the same elements shown on the Endeavour plans. These include the arrangement of the surviving bilge pump and pump well, which when drawn to scale, superimposed over Endeavour’s lower hold plan, and scaled to the same size, aligned perfectly with their counterparts on the archival document.

Superimposition of the wreck site plan and 1768 draughts also allowed the museum’s maritime archaeologists to predict the location of the bow end of the shipwreck’s keel, which was confirmed during investigations of the site in 2021.

Discovery of the bow in turn revealed a distinctive scarph (join) in the surviving keel timber that attached it to the vessel’s stempost (which is no longer present).

Examing in the wreckage
Examing in the wreckage

The survival of the keel-stem scarph – a highly diagnostic feature – was critical to the identification of the wreck site as Endeavour for two reasons.

First, it permitted the project team to obtain a measurement from the stem (bow) end of the keel to the projected location of the mainmast, which almost exactly matched the same distance shown on archival plans of Endeavour.

Second, documentation of the scarph provided critical details about its design and construction. RI 2394’s example is a rare form of stem attachment known as a ‘half-lap’ scarph joint. When compared with the keel-stem scarph shown on Endeavour’s 1768 Admiralty plan, it was an exact match in terms of form and size.

Other hull features noted during the project provided additional evidence of the shipwreck’s identity as Lord Sandwich/Endeavour. These included the presence of two crude scuttling holes in the lower hull planking.

In the late 18th century, the act of scuttling would have involved the creation of multiple openings in a vessel’s hull beneath the waterline to allow seawater to flood in and ultimately sink it.

As the possibility existed that a scuttled vessel could later be re-floated and reused, holes used to sink it were relatively small and created with a variety of hand tools, ranging from augers to axes.

Evidence of hull repairs was observed in the form of frames in the bow section that are unfinished on their upper surfaces and retain the curve of the tree limbs from which they were hewn, rather than flat, squared-off surfaces typical of finished ship timbers.

Endeavour suffered extensive damage to its forward section when it struck an unmarked shoal (now known as Endeavour Reef) on the Great Barrier Reef in June 1770.

Some frames in the vessel’s forward section may have been repaired or replaced at this time, or perhaps later when the vessel arrived at Batavia (modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia) and underwent a more comprehensive refit.

Other archival sources note the poor overall condition of Endeavour’s hull at the time it was sold out of naval service in 1775, including that several elements of framing were ‘bone rotten’.

Under civilian ownership additional repairs were made to the hull so that it would be accepted by the Board of Transport for use in the American War of Independence.

Given the latter repairs were made hastily as a matter of wartime expediency, this could account for the larger size and unfinished condition of some of the floor timbers.

Unique diagnostic artefacts – such as a ship’s bell, name board, or an artefact bearing the name of a crewman, passenger or prisoner associated with Lord Sandwich or Endeavour – have not been encountered on RI 2394.

However, given Lord Sandwich was intentionally scuttled, it would have been stripped of anything of value before ending up on the bottom of Newport Harbor.

Consequently, its wreck site is unlikely to retain diagnostic artefacts, and this is reflected in the relative dearth of small finds encountered on RI 2394 so far.

Therefore, identification of the site has hinged on the surviving hull and the evidence it contains.

Enough correlations have been drawn between the archaeological and historical records to identify RI 2394 as James Cook’s Endeavour and there is now an urgent need to secure the highest possible level of legislative and physical protection for the site, given its historical and cultural significance to Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.


This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #78

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