Why Researchers Are Clashing Over Proposed Identification of Captain Cook’s ‘Endeavour’

Australian archaeologists say they’ve found the wreck of the British explorer’s research vessel. American scholars called the announcement “premature”

giant wooden three-mast ship parked in harbor at Sydney.
A replica of Lt. James Cook's H.M.B. Endeavour docked in Sydney. Australian reserachers say they have identified the real shipwreck off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island.  Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Last Wednesday, researchers in Australia announced that they’d identified the wreck of the H.M.B. Endeavour—a research vessel captained by James Cook on his first expedition to the South Pacific in 1768—off the coast of Rhode Island’s Newport Harbor. An hour later, however, American archaeologists issued a rebuttal, declaring the claim both “premature” and a breach of contract, report Cecilia Connell and Jamie Travers for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

The clash stems from a two-decade partnership between the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) and the Rhode Island Marine Archaeological Project (RIMAP). Beginning in 1999, the institutions collaborated on a series of archaeological expeditions off of Newport Harbor, scouring the seafloor for evidence of the Endeavour, which was scuttled by the British in August 1778 amid the chaos of the American Revolution. ANMM identified RI 2394, a two-square-mile shipwreck site, as the Endeavour after comparing it and four other ships sunk in the harbor in 1778 to historical descriptions of the famed vessel, according to a preliminary, 128-page report on the findings.

“Either it’s Endeavour, or we have seen a whole bunch of really crazy coincidences,” James Hunter, a maritime archaeologist at ANMM, tells Brian Amaral of the Boston Globe. “And I’ve never seen that many bits of information correspond so closely.”

Deep sea diver examining ruins of ship
Marine archaeologist James Hunter examines a wreck believed to be the Endeavour at the bottom of Newport Harbor in Rhode Island. Australian National Maritime Museum

In a statement, Kathy Abbass, executive director of RIMAP, calls ANMM’s announcement “a breach of the contract ... for the conduct of this research and how its results are to be shared with the public.” (Hunter, for his part, says the organizations’ agreement expired last November.)

Abbass adds, “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.”

The Endeavour is one of the most iconic ships in maritime history. In August 1768, Cook, a British navigator and cartographer, and his crew of more than 90 men set off in search of the fabled, “unknown southern land” of Terra Australis Incognita. By the time the vessel returned to England in July 1771, Cook had claimed the east coast of Australia as British territory and mapped the entire coastline of New Zealand.

After the expedition, wrote Abbass for RIMAP in 2019, the Royal Navy sold the Endeavour to a private owner, who renamed it the Lord Sandwich and allowed the British government to use it as a troop transport during the American Revolution. The British reportedly scuttled 12 transports, including the Endeavour, as a blockade and set a 13th ship on fire ahead of the Battle of Rhode Island.

remnants of a ship canon covered in barnacles and moss at the bottom of the ocean
Possibly one of four cannons from the Endeavour  Australian National Maritime Museum

As the ANMM report notes, the archaeologists identified RI 2394 as the Endeavour based on a “preponderance of evidence.” To narrow the pool of candidates down, writes Manan Luthra for the New York Times, researchers surveyed the 18th-century wrecks’ construction details, cross-referenced historical records and modeled the ships’ original form based on the surviving wreckage. (Only 15 percent of RI 2394’s wreck remains.)

In a separate statement, ANMM outlined seven key pieces of evidence that sparked the identification. Among other indicators, the museum pointed out that RI 2394 is significantly larger than the four other scuttled transports in the area, aligning with records that state the Endeavour was the largest of the five ships. The length of the wreck’s surviving hull is almost exactly the same as the Endeavour’s recorded measurements, and its structural details, shape and construction closely match historic plans of the ship. Finally, timber samples taken from the wreck suggest it was built in Europe, not America.

“I am satisfied that this is the final resting place of one of the most important and contentious vessels in Australia’s maritime history,” says ANMM director and CEO Kevin Sumption in the statement.

RIMAP, meanwhile, is preparing its own “legitimate report” on the Endeavor and plans to publish the findings on its website once ready.

“[Our organization] 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,” says Abbass in the RIMAP statement.