Goat Island is a 20-acre outcrop of land that lies in Narragansett Bay, half a mile over a narrow bridge from Newport, Rhode Island. Over the centuries, the small islet has been home to a goat pasture, a pirate burial ground, and a torpedo factory that supplied the US Navy with munitions through both world wars. Today the main attraction on Goat Island is Gurney’s Newport Resort & Marina.
Dr Kathy Abbass, executive director of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP), uses the resort’s lobby to hold interviews. “We’ve been receiving a lot more media attention since we made the announcement about the Endeavour a few months back,” she tells me.
In September, RIMAP and the Australian National Maritime Museum reported that they were homing in on the wreckage of the HM Bark Endeavour, the ship Lieutenant James Cook sailed into the waters of the Dharawal nation at Kamay, or Botany Bay, on April 29, 1770. “It’s somewhere out that way,” Abbass says of the wreckage, pointing through one of the resort’s porthole windows towards the choppy grey sea. “Figuring out exactly where it lies and how it ended up there has become my life’s mission.”
Abbass’s search for the Endeavour began in 1992 without her realising it. She had just established RIMAP, a volunteer-driven initiative, and her main research interest was a fleet of transport ships that the British Navy had scuttled in 1778 during the War of American Independence. Abbass had come across a chart stating that 13 of these vessels had been sunk just off Goat Island, and she and a team of volunteers were trying to identify and map their precise locations.
In 1997, she received an email from two Australian researchers, Mike Connell and Des Liddy, asking her whether she believed the Endeavour might be among the 13 scuttled ships. “At the time, I had heard the rumour about the Endeavour coming to rest in Newport, but the story I had been told concerned a French whaler called La Liberté, which ran aground in the harbour in 1793,” Abbass says. “For some unknown reason, around fifty years later a rumour spread in Newport that La Liberté was the Endeavour. Folks started salvaging bits of the wreckage, making them into boxes and presentation pieces, selling them off around the world.”
With this in mind, Abbass wrote an email back to the Australians, telling them that they were confused, that the connection between Newport and the Endeavour was probably just a local myth, and that even if it were true, the bulk of the remains had been dispersed or covered over. But Connell and Liddy wrote back, stating that their research suggested that the Endeavour had sunk near Newport during the War of American Independence, 15 years before La Liberté ran aground, and that by that stage it had been renamed the Lord Sandwich.
“Well, when I heard that name my ears pricked up,” Abbass says. “I consulted the chart of the 13 transport ships we had been investigating over the previous years and scanned through the names. There was the Rachel and Mary, there was the Grand Duke of Russia, and then there it was: the Lord Sandwich.”
Abbass travelled to England to conduct research at the maritime archives. In just four days she found a chain of evidence demonstrating that, after Cook returned from his voyage to the South Pacific, the Endeavour was sold and renamed the Lord Sandwich. From there it was used to transport troops out of London during the War of American Independence, was stationed in Narragansett Bay as a prison ship, and then it dropped out of register in 1779, the year after the 13 ships were sunk.
“It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that the Endeavour was among the 13 vessels we’d spent the past seven years investigating,” Abbass says. “I guess in a way I’d been looking for her all along.”
Since RIMAP made the connection between the Lord Sandwich and the Endeavour, its primary focus has been to identify precisely which of the scuttled vessels is the one Cook sailed to Australia. By analysing the size and shape of the wrecks, they have narrowed the search down to five, with two particularly promising sites.
“Now it becomes a more fine-tuned process of testing for traces of her unique history,” Abbass says. “Are the construction details consistent with a Whitby collier? Is there evidence of repairs done on the east coast of Australia? Are there any traces of silt in the bilge originating from the South Pacific? This is a delicate and complex scientific investigation, run on a shoestring budget.”
Over the years, the Australian National Maritime Museum has offered RIMAP some funding and resources, but Abbass tells me that the museum’s interest has, of late, intensified. “I think what they really want is for us to be able to say that we have definitively located the Endeavour by April 2020,” she says.
This date coincides with the 250th anniversary of Cook sailing the Endeavour into Botany Bay. Last year, the then treasurer, Scott Morrison, announced a $50 million redevelopment plan for the landing site of the Endeavour to mark the occasion. “This is the place where our ancient Australian story began a new chapter that has led us to the free, peaceful and prosperous nation we are today,” he said in a media statement at the time.
This plan has been met with opposition from some Indigenous leaders, for whom the ship signifies not the commencement of peace and prosperity, but the “end of our cultural dominion over our lands”, as historian and Dharawal elder Dr Shayne Williams has put it. The people of the Dharawal nation, on whose land the monument will be built, were the first Indigenous people to lay eyes on the Endeavour, which was interpreted as a large white bird filled with opossums scampering up and down. They were also among the first Indigenous nations of the continent to suffer mass fatalities due to introduced disease and displacement. “Not surprisingly, discussion of Cook’s landing sparks a sadness among my peoples,” Williams wrote in an article for the British Library. “A sadness that laments Cook’s voyage, precipitating some 18 years later … the legal fiction terra nullius, a fiction that was applied to justify colonial subjugation of us.”
When I raise the tension of the ship’s meaning with Abbass, she shrugs. “[ The Endeavour] has been a lot of things to a lot of people: an exploration vessel, an invading ship, a troop transport, a prison, an archaeological site. Who am I to tell you how your history should be interpreted?”
She then pauses for a moment. “But I have a feeling that some people in your country have a vision of the Endeavour being raised and transported over for the anniversary,” she says with a snort. (Indeed, Australian Navy Commander Doug Theobald, who was in Rhode Island in September, told a reporter that he would like to see some part of the Endeavour “back in Australia”.)
“I have two things to say about that,” Abbass declares. “First, it doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the state of Rhode Island. Second, shipwrecks are preserved in time underwater in a unique anaerobic state. That’s why we don’t raise them anymore – it’s best to leave them where they are.”
Abbass takes me outside to the shoreline to get a closer look at the wreckage site. It’s cold, the day after the first snow in north-east America, and Abbass wraps a Christmas-themed scarf over her mid-length white hair. “That’s where she is,” she says, pointing to a nondescript spot in the bay, above which is a bridge connecting Newport with neighbouring Jamestown. If I squint, I can see a couple of white buoys bobbing up and down.
“Easy to miss,” I say.
“Yes, but we’re negotiating with the resort to put up a sign,” she says. “It will read: Here lies the Lord Sandwich ex Endeavour.” She mimes the dimensions of the sign with her arms. “We want people to take selfies with it.”
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