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Captain Cook’s Lost Ship Has Finally Been Found

May she rest in pieces.
Captain Cook's other two ships, HMS Resolution and Discovery in Tahiti. Image: Wikipedia/John Cleveley the Younger, 1787-88

History depends on who wrote it. And when it comes to the discoveries of Captain James Cook, it also depends on where you learn it.

If you're like me, and hail from a place he helped to colonize, his explorations are interpreted more as exploits, and instead of bringing civilization to indigenous populations, Cook's primary contributions were disease and genocide. So it's perfectly fitting, then, that a remarkable artifact of Cook's most famous voyage was just discovered in an incredibly unremarkable place.

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Divers from the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project believe they have located the wreckage site of Cook's ship HMS Endeavour (also known as Lord Sandwich) at the bottom of Newport Harbor. Up until now, the resting place of the Endeavour has largely remained a mystery to historians and archaeologists.

According to RIMAP, an analysis of remote sensing data revealed a group of five ships interred for more than 200 years on the seafloor. One of those is purported to be the Endeavour. But how did it manage to get there?

The last known location of the Endeavour was the waters off Jamestown, Rhode Island, which had been occupied by the British since 1776. Following Cook's exploration of Australia and New Zealand in 1770, his sea-weathered vessel became derelict, and was eventually sold as a private merchant ship. Around 1775, the British Royal Navy acquired it as a transport vessel, rechristened it the Lord Sandwich, and used it to ferry supplies to troops during the American Revolution.

The Bark, Earl of Pembroke, later Endeavour, leaving Whitby Harbour in 1768, Thomas Luny, c. 1790. Image: Wikipedia

"It was an old vessel," Carolyn Frank, a history professor at Brown University, told the Jamestown Press. "The British tried to use these ships for as long as they could, to save money. It was a once illustrious vessel that was being repurposed."

When a French expedition fleet sailed into Newport Harbor in 1778, equipped with larger, more impressive artillery than its current occupiers, the British decided to scuttle the 13 vessels it had anchored in the harbor in order to create an underwater blockade. Among them was the famed Endeavour.

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A set of British legers, acquired by RIMAP with a grant from the Australian National Maritime Museum, revealed the names of all 13 sunken ships. The group believed there was an 80 to 100 percent chance the Endeavour currently sits at the bottom of Newport Harbor, and now asserts the wreckage matches historical descriptions of the ship.

"There are things that you can do archaeologically to determine whether or not a vessel is the ship in question," Frank told the Jamestown Press before the RIMAP exploration began. "One is by measuring the hull and by looking at different characteristics that the Endeavour had. It was repaired in the South Pacific, so if you can get a wood sample, and it's an exotic wood from the South Pacific, you know you've probably got the boat."

The archaeological investigation's next phase is the construction of a facility in which the ship and its artifacts can be properly housed and conserved. All of the materials recovered from the harbor will be intensely waterlogged, and RIMAP warns that none of the findings can be studied until a lab space is created.

While the Endeavour wasn't the only ship that Cook commanded, it was the first vessel the navigator sailed as he surveyed the Pacific. Its maiden voyage, which was earmarked for scientific research, eventually brought Cook to the shores of the fabled "Terra Australis" in 1770.

On April 29, the explorer arrived at Botany Bay, claimed that he'd discovered the mythical continent, and declared terra nullius to seize possession of Australia's east coast for Britain. A few months later, the Endeavour would literally run aground on the Great Barrier Reef, at which point Cook declared he'd discovered that, too.

The Death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779, Johann Zoffany, c. 1795. Image: Wikipedia

Cook, however, never discovered Australia. It had been occupied for tens of thousands of years by aboriginal peoples, who were displaced and massacred as a result of British colonization.

The legacy of Cook is mirrored in many places across the globe—from Australia to New Zealand to Hawaiʻi, where he would eventually be killed. His conquests evoke similarities to the European settlement of America, and it's a curious coincidence that the Endeavour's final resting place will remain where that story began.