Captain Cook’s Endeavour: from the Great Barrier Reef to Rhode Island?

The ship in which the explorer charted New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific ended its life sold, renamed and scuttled in the war to keep America British

Captain James Cook observed the transit of Venus from the shores of Tahiti, ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and claimed Australia for the British crown. He fought the French in the Americas, circumnavigated the world and died trying to kidnap a king of Hawaii.

But the ship that saw so many adventures was sold, forgotten and lost. For centuries, the fate of HMS Endeavour has remained a mystery.

Now marine archaeologists are almost certain they have found its wreck at the bottom of the sea off exotic Rhode Island.

Researchers with the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (Rimap) will announce on Wednesday that they are nearly sure that they have found the Endeavour, the ship that Cook captained on his voyages to New Zealand and Australia.

We usually dont make any announcement as we keep working away until we have something significant to say, Dr Kathy Abbass, principal investigator, said. We may say, we think we found the Endeavour, well, yeah. Now I have to prove it.

James Cook. Photograph: Dea Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images

Admiralty documents detailing the Endeavours dimensions have led Abbass to believe that the ship, built like a sturdy commercial vessel to carry survival and scientific cargo on a long voyage, was sold into private hands in 1775 and renamed Lord Sandwich the first lord of the admiralty at the time. When the 13 American colonies revolted a year later, it was leased back to the British navy as a troop transport for British and Hessian soldiers, and then used as a prison ship in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island, during the war.

Rhode Island was the first state to disavow its loyalty to King George III, exactly two months before the 13 colonies formally issued the Declaration of Independence.

By late August 1778, American forces had besieged Newport, and were hoping the French navy could help them oust the British from the harbor town. The British decided to scuttle 13 other ships, Lord Sandwich among them, to stymie the French navy en route. A world away its former captain had crossed the Bering Sea into the Arctic Circle and was hunting walruses for food and oil. He would die only a few months after his most famous ship was wrecked.

Abbasss team, working with Australian researchers, have mapped nine of the 13 sites where the ships were scuttled. Five of those ships were wrecked in an arc, near the modern Naval War College to the north and in the waters by Brenton Cove to the south. The researchers have mapped four.

A cutaway painting of Captain Cooks Endeavour ship. Photograph: Robert W Nicholson/National Geographic/Getty Images

We think we have a really good chance to close in on the fifth one, Abbass said, noting a recent analysis of remote sensing data on the harbor.

In a statement, Rimap said it now has an 80 to 100% chance that the Lord Sandwich is still in Newport Harbor, and because the Lord Sandwich was Capt Cooks Endeavour, that means Rimap has found her, too.

The researchers will next map the remaining portions of the harbor in their search for the wreck itself.

The researchers estimate that their research on 83 projects, including other revolutionary-era vessels, second world war wrecks and a reputed slave ship, has a total value of more than $5.5m. The wreck of the Endeavour would probably be their most valuable discovery yet: the first European ship to land in Australia, leading to the founding of a British colony there, and the flagship of one of Britains greatest explorers.

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