SYDNEY – Australian marine experts said on Thursday they believe they have found the wreckage of one of the most important ships in South Pacific history after it was scuttled in the United States more than 200 years ago.
But US archaeologists quickly hit back, saying the finds were premature and a breach of contract in their joint research.
For 22 years, maritime archaeologists have been investigating several ancient shipwrecks in a 2 square mile area of Newport Harbor, Rhode Island. This is where James Cook’s HMS Endeavor is said to have been deliberately sunk by the British during the American Revolution.
Cook had previously sailed the ship around the South Pacific on a pioneer voyage before landing on the east coast of Australia in 1770.
Kevin Sumption, chief executive of the Australian National Maritime Museum, held a press conference in Sydney on Thursday morning after alerting the media that he would be making “a major historic maritime announcement”.
Sumption said archaeologists were confident they found the wreckage of the Endeavor after matching the structural details and shape of the remains to those of the original plans.
“I am confident that this is the final resting place of one of the most important and controversial vessels in Australia’s maritime history,” Sumption said.
But in a statement released shortly after, DK Abbass, executive director of the Rhode Island Marine Archeology Project, said her group was the organization responsible for the study at Newport Harbor.
“What we see at the site of the wreck under investigation is consistent with what one would expect of the Endeavour, but no indisputable data has been found to prove the site is this iconic vessel, and many unanswered questions could negate such identification,” Abbass wrote. “Once the study is complete, RIMAP will release the legitimate report.”
In a subsequent interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Kieran Hosty, director of maritime archeology at the Australian Museum, said he believed his group’s contract with RIMAP ended in November, but could not not comment with certainty. He gave other details which he said had convinced them it was the Endeavour, including the size of the timbers, that it was of European construction and the scuttling holes in the keel.
“So he ticks all of those boxes,” Hosty told the ABC. “So we’re very open to conversations with Dr. Abbass if she disagrees with our findings, their findings.”
Sumption previously said the ship’s important role in exploration, astronomy and science made it important not only to Australia, but also to New Zealand, Britain and the United States.
“The final pieces of the puzzle had to be confirmed before I felt able to make this call,” Sumption said during the press conference. “Based on archival and archaeological evidence, I’m confident it’s the Endeavour.”
Only about 15% of the ship remains and researchers are now focusing on what can be done to protect and preserve it, Sumption said at the press conference. He said the museum was working closely with maritime experts in Rhode Island as well as state and federal officials in the United States and Australia to secure the site.
But Abbass said while his organization acknowledged the link between Australian citizens of British descent and the Endeavour, its findings would be driven “by proper scientific process and not by Australian emotions or politics”.
The ship was launched in 1764 as the Earl of Pembroke. Four years later she was renamed Endeavor by the British Navy and prepared for a major scientific voyage to the Pacific.
From 1768 to 1771, the Endeavor sailed the South Pacific, ostensibly to record Venus’ transit of Tahiti in 1769. Cook then continued to sail the region in search of “Grand Terre du Sud”.
He mapped the coastline of New Zealand. Her first significant encounter with the indigenous Māori people ended badly, with her crew killing several Māori. In 2019, the UK government expressed regret for the killings, but refrained from offering a full apology.
He also mapped the east coast of Australia, before claiming the land for Britain in 1770.
The Endeavor was later sold to private owners and renamed Lord Sandwich. It was deliberately sunk in 1778 by British forces during the American Revolution.
A year later, Cook was killed in Hawaii while on another Pacific voyage. In 1788, the so-called First Fleet of 11 ships, with hundreds of convicts on board, arrived in Australia to establish a British colony.
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