Endeavour preliminary report

Below you can find the museum’s preliminary report on shipwreck site RI 2394. Two versions of the report are available, differing only in image quality and download size. The executive summary from the report is also included.

Based on the report and an assessment of the evidence, on 3 February 2022 the museum’s Director, Kevin Sumption PSM, announced that ‘after a 22-year program of archival and archaeological fieldwork and, based on a preponderance of evidence approach, I have concluded that an archaeological site known as RI 2394, located in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island, USA, does indeed comprise the shipwreck of HM Bark Endeavour’.

In consultation with the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission (RIHPHC), the museum has provided an amended report in which one figure has been altered to remove shipwreck site location information. In all other respects the report below is identical to the preliminary version provided to the RIHPHC on 24 January 2022.

Archaeological identification of shipwreck site RI 2394 in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island, USA

Executive summary

His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour is an important vessel in Australian maritime history and one that elicits mixed opinions. For some the Pacific voyage led by James Cook over 1768–71 embodies the spirit of Europe’s Age of Enlightenment, while for others it symbolises the onset of colonisation and the subjugation of First Nations Peoples. Less well understood in Australia is Endeavour’s afterlife as a British troop transport and prison ship caught up in the American War of Independence. It was in this capacity – and renamed Lord Sandwich – that the vessel was deliberately sunk in 1778.

This report outlines the archival and archaeological evidence that may lead to the identification of the shipwreck site of Lord Sandwich, formerly HMB Endeavour. The site, known as RI 2394, is in Newport Harbor, in the state of Rhode Island, USA. As the culmination of a 22-year program of archival and archaeological research, the identity of RI 2394 as Lord Sandwich (ex-HMB Endeavour) could be made on a ‘preponderance of evidence’ approach.

When Endeavour returned to England in 1771, it largely passed out of public view. The vessel was instead used as a naval transport before being sold to private owners, who renamed the bark Lord Sandwich and used it to carry troops to America in support of British campaigns. In 1778, this vessel was in poor condition and relegated to gaoling American prisoners of war in Newport Harbor. When American and French forces besieged the British-held town, Lord Sandwich was one of thirteen vessels scuttled (deliberately sunk) to act as a submerged blockade. It was never salvaged and remained where it sank.

In 1998, two Australian historians established the final fate of Endeavour via archival research. Their work was extended by members of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP), and in consequence the state of Rhode Island in 1999 laid claim to the wrecks of all ships scuttled in Newport Harbor in 1778. This claim was upheld by the District Court of the US Federal Government, leaving the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission (RIHPHC) responsible for protecting and licensing any archaeological work on these shipwrecks, including Endeavour.

In 1999, the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) commenced working with RIMAP to locate the shipwreck site of Lord Sandwich. This relationship led to a series of archaeological expeditions in Newport Harbor in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004. These expeditions undertook remote sensing of the seafloor, underwater survey by divers, and analysis of samples of stone, coal, timber, and sediment raised from a range of shipwreck sites of 18th century vintage. None of the candidate sites proved to share sufficient characteristics to be identified as the wreck site of Lord Sandwich (ex-HMB Endeavour).

The RIMAP-ANMM project resumed in 2015 and further diving expeditions continued to survey a large area of Newport Harbor. In 2016, new research by ANMM’s Dr Nigel Erskine located archival evidence that substantially narrowed the location within the harbour in which Lord Sandwich was scuttled. This Limited Study Area (LSA), just to the north of Goat Island, included just five of the 13 transports sunk in 1778, of which Lord Sandwich was the largest by a substantial margin. Between 2017 and 2021, the project team investigated the remains of five shipwrecks located within the LSA: RI 2396, RI 2397, RI 2578, RI 2393, and RI 2394.

The two largest shipwreck sites, RI 2578 and RI 2394, were considered the most likely candidates for the remains of Lord Sandwich (ex-HMB Endeavour). Archaeological survey of RI 2578 has revealed a 14.0 metre x 8.2 metre site comprised of a linear stone ballast pile mixed with iron kentledge (ballast blocks). The site also includes eroded ship’s timbers that are thought to be associated with the ballast. Although a substantial iron anchor and a small iron cannon are also present, the RI 2578 site does not feature sufficient characteristics to be identified as Lord Sandwich (ex-HMB Endeavour).

RI 2394 is substantially larger than RI 2578, with visible remains covering an area 18.2 metres long x 7.3 metres wide. It comprises a linear stone ballast pile with a line of exposed, articulated timber frames (ribs) of substantial size along its eastern periphery. Four iron cannons are also present on the site, along with a lead scupper. Analyses have been undertaken on the timber, ballast and artefacts located on the site.

Excavation permits granted by RIHPHC between 2019 and 2021 allowed more detailed investigation of RI 2394, including exposure of hull architecture and diagnostic features such as the bilge pump well, the keel and keelson, and, in 2021, the bow assembly. The dimensions of a range of structural timbers – collectively referred to as ‘scantlings’ – compare favourably with measurements taken when Endeavour was surveyed by the Royal Navy in 1768. Timber samples have also been taken on three occasions, with the most recent batch collected in September 2021. Analysis of the most recent samples, whilst not containing evidence of possible exotic (e.g., non-European timbers that may have been used to repair Endeavour in Australia and/or Indonesia in 1770), do seem to indicate the bow section of RI 2394 underwent significant repairs that utilised European timbers later in its life. This evidence correlates well with the history of HMB Endeavour, which underwent significant repairs in 1776, shortly after being sold out of naval service. Site measurements and probing of the seafloor have also confirmed the extent of RI 2394’s surviving hull (from bilge pump to bow) is very close to that of Endeavour between those same locations. RI 2394 shares other similarities with Endeavour, including the placement of paired and tripled floor timbers that correspond exactly with the locations of Endeavour’s main and fore masts, and the presence of a very unusual joint or scarph between the stem and forward end of the keel.

In 1999 and again in 2019, RIMAP and ANMM agreed on a set of criteria that, if satisfied, would permit identification of RI 2394 as Lord Sandwich (ex-HMB Endeavour) (see Abbass 2000; RIMAP and ANMM 2019). Based on a preponderance of evidence, sufficient of these criteria have been met to tentatively identify RI 2394 as the remnants of James Cook’s Endeavour. If confirmed, this identification would suggest securing 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.