The search for Endeavour – The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project and the Australian National Maritime Museum

On 3 May 2016 Dr Kathy Abbass, Project Director from the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP), announced that, aided by a grant provided by the Australian National Maritime Museum and some previous research carried out by the museum’s Head of Research Dr Nigel Erskine, she had located a report by a Lieutenant John Knowles, the Agent for Transports at Newport, dated 12 September 1778 at the National Archives in London.

The Knowles report provided a breakdown of where a small fleet of troop transports had been sunk in Newport in August 1778. One of these transports was a 368-ton bark called the Lord Sandwich and it had been sunk, along with four other transports – the Earl of Orford, Yowart, Peggy and Mayflower – between the northern tip of Goat Island and the North Battery in Newport Harbor.

Dr Abbass’s press release created a media storm in the United States, Britain and Australia as the news flashed around the world. Why? – because maritime researchers and historians knew that the Lord Sandwich was in fact HMB Endeavour. Probably the most contentious vessel in Australia’s history, it had not only charted the east coast of Australia in 1770 under the command of Lieutenant James Cook but had also caused, indirectly, the European occupation of Australia in 1788 and the dispossession of the Aboriginal and Torres Straits peoples from their land.

One such group of researchers was based at the Australian National Maritime Museum and had been working with Dr Abbass and volunteers from RIMAP since 1999 in an attempt to discover the last resting place of the Lord Sandwich ex HMB Endeavour in the harbour off the town of Newport in the State of Rhode Island, USA.

Since the mid-1990s Dr Abbass had been investigating a number of British naval vessels and charted troopships which had been deliberately sunk off Newport in August 1778 during the American Revolutionary War.

Dr Abbass had gone to England acting on advice from Antonia Macarthur, curator of the then Endeavour Foundation (former operators of the HMB Endeavour replica, now based at the Australian National Maritime Museum), following a lead published by Sydney maritime historians Mike Connell and Des Liddy in the Australian Association of Maritime History’s journal The Great Circle (1997, 40–49). These two historians, prompted by a proposed donation to the Australian National Maritime Museum, had carried out research that suggested HMB Endeavour had been sold out of naval service and renamed Lord Sandwich in 1777.

At the archives Dr Abbass located records that confirmed that the Lord Sandwich was indeed Cook’s bark Endeavour, that it had first served as a troop transport taking English and Hessian troops (German mercenaries employed by the English during the Revolutionary War) to North America and was then used as prison ship in Newport Harbor before it was intentionally sunk in Newport Harbor in 1778 (Mellefont, J, ‘The search for Endeavour’, Signals 47: 28–29).

The Lord Sandwich in Newport

Following the signing of the French–American Treaty in the spring of 1778, France entered the Revolutionary War on the side of the Americans and sent a fleet of 12 warships, under the command of Admiral Comte d’ Estaing, to support the American war efforts. The French fleet arrived off the mouth of Narragansett Bay, close to the town of Newport, in early August 1778. The arrival of such a large enemy fleet off the town prompted General Pigot, the senior English officer in Newport, to order that 13 transports be sunk in the town’s outer harbour to keep the French ships from coming too close to shore.

On August 3 1778 it was reported that:

‘this morning I caused five Transports to be sunk in the passage between Goat Island and the Blue Rocks, to prevent the Approach of the Enemy too near the North Battery, so as to attack it with Advantage. And Five more Transports are proceeding out, in order to be sunk between Goat Island and Rose Island for the same Purpose’

(Abbass, 1999, p 15)

A further three transports, four Royal Navy frigates and a number of smaller vessels were sunk over subsequent days.

On 9 August 1778 an English fleet under Admiral Howe arrived off Point Judith at the entrance to Narragansett Bay. The French fleet, which had been bombarding the defences of Newport, went out to meet the new threat. As the two fleets manoeuvred for a tactical advantage the weather deteriorated and a major storm developed, scattering both fleets and severely damaging the 90-gun French flagship Languedoc. Both the French and English fleets withdrew and Newport remained in the hands of the English for another year (McBurney, 2011: 128–129).

When the news arrived back in England that the transports had been scuttled during the siege, the owners expected to be reimbursed for their loss. This was because the transports were charted to, and not owned by, the government. The valuations listed (along with nine other transports) the Lord Sandwich, of 368 71/94 tons, which entered into paid service on 7 February 1776. (Abbass, 1999, compiled from ADM 106/3404 and ADM 49/127).

Based on the Public Records Office documents, there can be no doubt that this is the same Lord Sandwich that had been HMB Endeavour (of 368 71/94 tons), and that it was one of the transports sunk in Newport’s outer harbour in 1778.

RIMAP and the Australian National Maritime Museum

Given HMB Endeavour’s pivotal role in the European occupation of Australia, the Australian National Maritime Museum was extremely interested in Dr Abbass’s work and after an intensive search for funding and support in August 1999 the museum sent a material conservator, Sue Bassett, and two maritime archaeologists, Paul Hundley and Kieran Hosty, over to Newport to assist RIMAP with the project.

Newport fieldwork, 1999

With the methodology for the fieldwork developed and approved by the Rhode Island State Archaeologists in 1999, a combined RIMAP/ANMM team conducted a limited excavation on a site known as Primary Target A or the Naval Hospital Cannon Site in August 1999.

This site consisted of a stone ballast mound approximately 15 metres long by 10 metres wide and 1 metre high, two iron cannons, some scattered timbers and two small piles of bricks – possibly associated with the ship’s galley or kitchen.

The RIMAP/ANMM team excavated a 10 foot by 10 foot (3 metre x 3 metre) grid just to the north of the ballast mound and located the ship’s keelson – complete with scarf joints, a series of first and second futtocks, frames, outer hull planking, ceiling planking and the top of the vessel’s keel. All these features were carefully recorded, the lines (shape of the hull) taken off and timber, silt, stone and coal samples recovered.

Analysis of the vessel’s scantlings and examination and identification of the timber, coal, stone and sediments indicated that while this vessel was most likely one of the British vessels sunk in 1778, it was not HMB Endeavour (Bassett et al, 1999).

Newport fieldwork, 2000

Following the August 1999 Newport fieldwork – which successfully tested the methodology established by Dr Kathy Abbass and Paul Hundley – the project was discussed at the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology Conference in Sydney in September 1999 and at the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference in Quebec in January 2000.

As Primary Target A (the Hospital Cannon Site) had proved not to be HMB Endeavour, the RIMAP/ANMM team proposed at the two conferences that a remote sensing survey of Newport Harbor be carried out and that any sites located be tested using the Abbass/Hundley methodology.

In early August the team commenced a survey of Newport Harbor using side scan sonar equipment provided by Klein & Co of the United States.

Using a Klein 2000 with an integrated Global Positioning System (GPS), Joe Zarzynski and Bob Benway from Klein and the RIMAP/ANMM team conducted a series of remote sensing surveys of the seabed. The three areas chosen for the survey were along the west coast of and offshore from Goat Island, between Fort Greene and Rose Island and in an area to the east of Gull Rocks bounded by Coasters Harbor (a small island) and the Naval Hospital.

The team located and buoyed 14 sonar anomalies and then, depending upon the state of the tides, dived the potential shipwreck sites in a process called ground truthing.

In nine cases the anomalies were discounted as being false echoes caused by local geology, shelving sand or silt, or recently deposited material such as bridge debris. However four substantial anomalies representing possible ballast mounds were located just to the south of the Newport–Jamestown Bridge (opened 1969). The locations of these four potential sites were recorded using GPS, Loran C and shore transits and will be investigated at a later date.

In mid-August the team began working on the remains of two shipwrecks lying side by side in 12–13 metres (36–40 feet) of water just to the north of the Jamestown Bridge. This site, which has been codenamed GAMMA, consisted of a small wooden and iron 20th-century barge lying on a north–south axis and a much earlier stone ballast mound, with an associated anchor, lying partly under the barge on an east–west axis.

As the work on GAMMA was progressing, members of the team continued to ground truth anomalies to the north of the barge between Gull Rocks and Coasters Harbor. Historical information indicated that at least one and possibly two of the transports had been scuttled in the channel between these two features – possibly to block the northern approaches into Newport Harbor and Fort Greene.

During the last week of the project the RIMAP/ANMM took part in an innovative experiment to publicise the project’s work and the work of the team sponsors. Using technology provided by the United States Navy’s Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC), a live weblink was established between ANMM/RIMAP archaeologists working on the seafloor and visitors to the RIMAP/NUWC webpage. The experiment was quite successful, with people logging on in America and Australia to observe the divers at work and to ask the archaeologists questions about the project.

Newport fieldwork, 2001

As the Newport fieldwork report for August 2000 indicated that the GAMMA wrecksite had a one in three chance of being the Lord Sandwich ex HMB Endeavour, in May 2001 the Australian National Maritime Museum endorsed the return of a museum team to Newport in 2001.

As in previous years, the 2001 season’s work was led by Dr Kathy Abbass. The works program also included additional excavation work on GAMMA wrecksite at the northern end of Newport Harbor along with an extensive remote sensing survey of Newport Harbor with the NUWC.

After a quick reconnaissance, a four-point mooring system was established on GAMMA in early August 2001, trail lines were placed around the site and a simple grid system was established around the proposed excavation areas at the bow and stern.

Excavation work commenced on an area at the western end of the ballast mound, which had been briefly explored in August 2000 by Paul Hundley and the former diving conservator at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sue Bassett. Both Bassett and Hundley had recorded that just below the surface of the sediment they had come across a large transverse timber – possible a frame or futtock lying directly over what appeared to be the keelson of the ship, one of the key components of a vessel. If the timber was positively identified as a keelson, it could be used as a major diagnostic feature and help to identify the size and nationality of the vessel.

RIMAP and ANMM divers quickly uncovered the transverse timber that Hundley and Bassett had found the previous year, and 150–200 millimetres (six to eight inches) below the bottom of this timber they came across the upper surface of what was quickly identified as the keelson of the ship.

The team eventually uncovered almost 250 centimetres (8 feet) of keelson before it tapered out at the stem post or bow of the vessel. A second dive confirmed that the team had located the stem post, cant frames along with either the first floor or first futtock (rib) and the place where the keelson and keel merge into the complex of timber which makes up the bow of the ship. Unfortunately the timbers were too badly degraded for a sample of the keel to be obtained.

Although the ANMM/RIMAP team had only just started work on the GAMMA site, the team broke off excavation work on GAMMA in order to take advantage of the use of staff, sonar and surveying equipment from the NUWC in Newport.

The first site to be investigated was GAMMA. The dual frequency, E G & G sub-bottom profiler quickly picked up a significant layering of material on the site and also indicated that a substantial anomaly lay just to the north of GAMMA – possible the location of another 1778 British transport.

The team then moved on to the Hospital Cannon Site and repeated the process. This time, possibly because of the shallowness of the water, the system was less effective, failing to detect the small stone ballast mound.

The last run for the day was conducted at Coddington Cove – a small cove on Rhode Island to the north of the Newport Bridge – where the English Royal Navy frigate Juno was abandoned and burnt during the Battle of Newport in August 1778. Here the sub-bottom profiler was able to detect a significant anomaly below the sediment of the cove – possibly the remains of a vessel that has not been seen for more than 200 years.

Over the next few days the ANMM, RIMAP and NUWC team carried out searches along the western coast of Rhode Island testing the system on the sites of three other Royal Navy frigates, Cerberus, Orpheus and Lark, which were abandoned and burnt at the same time as Juno. Here the sub-bottom profile system proved to be very successful, detecting the remains of the three frigates and respective stone ballast mounds.

After locating the frigates the team’s attention turned to the area to the south of the Newport Bridge between Goat and Rose islands and along an area known as Tracey Ledge. In August 2000 RIMAP and the ANMM had located a number of potential sites in this area using a side scan sonar, but were unable to locate the sites when the seafloor was searched.

This time, using the latitude/longitudes obtained from the side scan sonar’s differential global positioning system (DGPS), the area was swept using the sub-bottom profiler and a series of anomalies was located. Subsequent research indicates that these anomalies lie in an arc that mimics a drawing produced by an English Artillery Officer called Fage who drew the positions of the sunken transports shortly after they were scuttled. This arc of sunken ships is also apparent on a French naval chart drawn up during the French occupation of Newport in 1780.

With many of the sites located, at least electronically, it was now up to the archaeologists from RIMAP and the ANMM to try identify each of the located shipwrecks.

Newport post-2001

However, like many other disciplines, maritime archaeology is never straightforward and fieldwork is greatly influenced by many outside factors, such as funding constraints in the USA and Australia and other fieldwork priorities, including the museum’s involvement in other maritime archaeological projects in Fiji, Tonga, the Coral Sea and on the Great Barrier Reef and RIMAP’s focus on other vessels wrecked in the waters of Rhode Island.

Despite these influences, the museum continued to engage with Dr Abbass and RIMAP, sending over representatives in 2002 and again in 2007 and being regularly briefed and kept up to date with progress as the RIMAP team gradually located and surveyed nine of the 13 transports scuttled in Newport Harbor in 1778.

In early 2015, with the establishment of the Maritime Archaeology Research Centre (MARC) at the Australian National Maritime Museum, and influenced by the approaching 250th anniversary of HMB Endeavour’s voyage up the east coast of Australia in 2020, the museum and the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which outlined future collaborative archaeological projects and potential funding opportunities between the two parties.

Under the MoU, in September 2015 Dr Nigel Erskine, Head of Research and Kieran Hosty, Manager of the Maritime Archaeology Program at the museum, once again headed to Newport to assist in the ongoing search for HMB Endeavour ­– a search which has just been made a whole lot easier thanks to the discovery of the Knowles Report in London’s National Archives.

— Kieran Hosty, Curator Technology and Archaeology

Climb aboard the replica of HMB Endeavour at the Australian National Maritime Museum. For a true taste of history, why not sail on the HMB Endeavour during her next voyage.

The search for Endeavour – The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project and the Australian National Maritime Museum

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