Last week, the Australian National Maritime Museum made headlines when it released a report claiming that its researchers have successfully identified the wreck of the HMB Endeavour off the coast of Newport. Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Marine Archeology Project claims the Australian museum’s announcement was “premature” and a breach of the two groups’ research contract.

While the two organizations work out the dispute, Newport Reporter Antonia Ayres-Brown turned to Rod Mather, a professor of maritime history and underwater archeology at the University of Rhode Island, to discuss the history behind the historic vessel — and why the shipwreck matters to so many people around the globe.



The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the orange play button above to listen to the original audio of the interview.

Mather: HMB Endeavour is one of the world's most famous historic ships. It was the vessel upon which Captain James Cook sailed on a scientific mission to the Pacific Ocean, starting in 1768. And it was from Endeavour that he mapped New Zealand for the first time. And he also explored the east coast of Australia, and [toured] Botany Bay in April of 1770. And that ultimately became the catalyst for British colonization of Australia.

And so all of that makes the vessel historically important, but it's not all rosy, of course. Cook also was one of the first Europeans to make contact with the Māori people in New Zealand and the indigenous people in Australia. So obviously, the history of colonization had devastating consequences for indigenous people. So there's sort of multiple ways to think about the history of Endeavour and [Captain] Cook. But irrespective of those interpretations, the ship remains highly important and the shipwreck is a highly important archeological site.

Ayres-Brown: The ship was later renamed the Lord Sandwich and played a role during the Revolutionary War. What was it doing in Rhode Island waters, and could you tell a little bit about how it came to be resting at the bottom of Narragansett Bay?

Mather: So the way that came about is that after Cook returned in 1771, the ship made a series of voyages to the Falkland Islands, and then it was sold from British navy service. So the British navy sold it in 1775 and the new owner renamed it the Lord Sandwich.

And then at the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, the ship was then leased back by the British Navy to carry troops and supplies — first to New York, and then from there on to Newport, Rhode Island. It was then converted into a prison ship and it was anchored in Newport Harbor.

There was a big change in the Revolutionary War in 1778 when France entered the war, and the French King Louis XVI sent a substantial French fleet to the Americas. And that fleet anchored and arrived off the coast of Rhode Island in July of 1778. And the British were worried about an amphibious assault on Newport, so they deliberately scuttled — that is, they sunk — several of their transport vessels in Newport Harbor, and one of them was the Lord Sandwich.

Ayres-Brown: I think it’s important to note for listeners that it’s not like people can just go underwater and see the entirety of the sunken ship exactly as it was hundreds of years ago. What are some of the main challenges that underwater archeologists face in this kind of identification project?

Mather: So in this particular case, one of the challenges is that the Lord Sandwich, ex-Endeavour, was one of 13 ships of the same kind or a similar kind that were sunk at the same time. So differentiating which one of these is the Lord Sandwich, ex-Endeavour, is one of the big challenges.

The other thing, of course, is that many of the ships were stripped of material before they were sunk, so that makes them a little bit more difficult to identify. And in addition to that, over the subsequent decades and centuries, a series of physical, chemical and biological processes have removed large portions of these vessels.

Ayres-Brown: Now suppose this specific shipwreck or another is eventually determined to be the remnants of the Lord Sandwich — what could happen then? What kind of protections or actions could hinge on that?

Mather: So there's two parts to that. One is sort of the legal-political aspect of it, and that's pretty much been sorted out. The State of Rhode Island, both in state and federal law, and also as a result of court action that the state took in 1999, owns and has managerial responsibility for the shipwreck.

In terms of what to do next in the archeological part, the most important thing is preserving the site to make sure it's stable, that it’s not being damaged. And presumably, the archeologists involved will be working and talking to the state about how best to do that.

Ayres-Brown: Rod Mather is a professor of maritime history and underwater archeology at URI. Professor Mather, thanks so much for your time today.

Mather: Thank you.


Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio and a Report for America corps member.