Captain Cook’s Sunken Ship Found off Rhode Island

Australian marine archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be the wreckage of British explorer Captain Cook’s HMB Endeavour off the coast of Rhode Island. The 18th-century vessel foundered in the western Atlantic nearly 250 years ago.

After 22 years of research, Australian National Maritime Museum chief executive Kevin Sumption has confirmed that the wrecked ship filed under the name ‘RI 2394’ was the Endeavour.

Computer reconstruction of Captain Cook's HMS Endeavor

Computer reconstruction of Captain Cook’s HMB Endeavour. Image: RIMAP


HMB Endeavour in history

Captain James Cook launched the HMB (Her Majesty’s Bark) Endeavour to fame or infamy, depending on who you ask. He sailed it around the South Pacific in the early 1770s. During the voyage, Cook and crew collected vast amounts of previously unknown data.

“It’s an important historical moment, as this vessel’s role in exploration, astronomy, and science applies not just to Australia, but also Aotearoa/New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States,” Sumption told reporters. “It’s arguably one of the most important vessels in Australia’s maritime history.”

So important, in fact, that the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) built an exact and functioning replica of the Endeavour from the original blueprints. It’s one of the Museum’s greatest attractions.

Captain Cook eventually docked the ship and disembarked on Australia’s east coast, where British maritime troops took it over. In the late 1770s, it was sailing through the western Atlantic and into the American War of Independence. In 1778, British forces scuttled (intentionally sank) the Endeavour in Rhode Island’s Newport Harbor. The famous ship lies just 14m down and a mere 500m from shore.

There, it remained alongside the remnants of four smaller 18th-century vessels, undisturbed and undetected until 1999.  That’s when teams of Australian and Rhode Island-based marine archaeologists began investigating.

Real life, functional reconstruction of the HMS Endeavor, which docks at the Australian Marine Museum

Functional replica of the Endeavour, which docks at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Photo: ANMM


Controversy: Captain Cook and his ship

Over the past 20-plus years, efforts between Aussie and U.S. teams to positively identify RI 2394 have been largely cooperative. Each new discovery about RI 2394 seemed to match what archaeologists and Endeavour experts knew of the famous ship.

Ultimately, the evidence mounted to a threshold that some archaeologists believed was more than sufficient proof that RI 2394 and Captain Cook’s ship were one and the same. That’s when some of the project’s experts gave Sumption the nod to go public with the news.

But Dr Kathy Abbass of the Rhode Island-based archaeological contingent (RIMAP) thinks that the announcement is premature. In an interview with ABC, Abbass said, “What we see on the shipwreck site under study is consistent with what might be expected of the Endeavour, but there has been no indisputable data found to prove the site is that iconic vessel, and there are many unanswered questions that could overturn such an identification.”

Archaeologists Keiran Hosty (right) and Dr. James Hunter (left) believe there is enough evidence to confirm that the RI 2394 is Captain Cook's ship. Photo: ANMM

Archaeologists Kieran Hosty (right) and Dr James Hunter (left) believe that evidence confirms that the sunken ship is Captain Cook’s own Endeavour. Photo: ANMM


The case for the Endeavour

Archaeologists affirming HMB Endeavour‘s identity, including project veteran Kieran Hosty and Dr James Hunter, believe that the current body of evidence is sufficient proof. There are many similarities between the two ships, including:

  • The Endeavour was the largest of five 18th century ships scuttled by British forces in Newport Harbor, and the RI 2394 wreckage is the largest of any other 18th-century vessel on site.
  • The length of the hull is almost exactly that of the Endeavour‘s hull. The same is true for the RI 2394’s bow joinery and the locations of both masts.

Hosty, who began working on the Newport Harbor discoveries in 2000, offered additional justification: “Archaeology is an interesting process where we call on the preponderance of evidence,” he said. “We’ve got a whole series of things pointing to RI 2394 as being HMB Endeavour. And so far, we’ve found lots of things that tick the box for it to be Endeavour and nothing on the side which says it’s not.”

To learn more about the discovery, and stay up to date on any developments in the case, head to the Australian Museum’s site about the Endeavour. It includes some great underwater footage of the ship. The Museum also put together the film below.