On Feb. 3, 2022, Americans probably wondered why an argument broke out between Australian and American maritime experts over the possible discovery of the British bark Endeavour. The vessel, once commanded by Capt. James Cook on his first voyage of discovery, had sunk to the bottom of Newport Harbor in 1778.
People may have asked: Why was Captain Cook’s vessel in Narragansett Bay during the American Revolution?
And why should Australia care?
The short answer: Endeavour had played a pivotal role in the founding of Australia as part of the British commonwealth.
The vessel had also played a not-so-pivotal role in the British effort to win the war of American independence.
Her travels mapped the Crown’s attempts to stitch new continents onto its kingdom and prevent another from tearing off. And they led to the dispossession of indigenous people in a large part of the world.
She was a workhorse of the British empire, and by the time she sank she had tens of thousands of hard miles on her. Endeavour had sailed through tropical heat and arctic cold, survived a grounding on the Great Barrier Reef and made it through the dangerous Torres Strait. She carried scientists to the South Seas, British troops to the Falklands and Hessians to Rhode Island.
And then she met an ignominious end, deliberately scuttled to prevent the French fleet from entering Newport Harbor.
She was built in 1764 in Whitby, and known as a Whitby cat. Named Earl of Pembroke, she went to work as a cargo ship carrying coal.
Aboard just such a vessel James Cook had begun his seafaring career as an 18-year-old apprentice. For several years he hauled coal along the English coast. He eventually joined the Navy, where his talent in math and mapmaking earned him notice. During the French and Indian War, Cook had mapped the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. That allowed the British to sail to Quebec, surprise the French and win the Battle of Quebec.
Transit of Venus
Then in 1768, the British Royal Society asked King George III to sponsor a scientific expedition to the South Pacific to view the transit of Venus. The King agreed, and the Royal Society suggested a Scottish geographer command the voyage. The First Lord of the Admiralty said he’d rather cut off his right arm than put a non-seaman in charge of a Royal Navy vessel.
So James Cook, then a 39-year-old naval officer, got the job. The Navy had the foresight to buy the sturdy, three-masted Earl of Pembroke because of her flat bottom. She could sail in shallow waters and get repaired while beached on shore.
Shipwrights refitted her for the voyage and the Navy renamed her Endeavour. She was 109 feet long and 29 feet wide – about as long as three school buses and as wide as one is long. Crammed into that space were 94 men and boys, including 38 able-bodied seamen, 12 Royal Marines, two botanists, two artists and servants as young as 11. Nearly half wouldn’t survive the voyage.
Endeavour also carried 10 cannon, 12 tons of iron ballast, drinking water, pigs, chickens, a goat and two greyhounds.
She set sail on Aug. 26, 1768.
The Endeavour reached Tahiti just in time for the transit of Venus, an extraordinary feat of navigation by Cook.
“Simply getting to Tahiti exactly when he said he would was unprecedented at the time,” wrote the late scientist James MacDonald. “Tahiti is a tiny, isolated dot in the middle of the South Pacific, and Cook steered right to it using lunar navigation.”
But that wasn’t the Endeavour’s real mission. Cook had secret sealed orders to find terra australis incognita – the great unknown southern continent. Greek astronomers, who knew the earth was spherical, had figured the southern land mass had to exist to balance the planet.
Cook then sailed to the Society Islands, mapped them and claimed them for Britain. He mapped the coast of New Zealand after a 12-year-old ship’s boy, Nicholas Young, spotted it. Cook named a headland after young Nick and gave him a gallon of rum.
His men also killed nine Maori in New Zealand. The British “expressed regret” 250 years later.
The Endeavour Sails to Australia
Cook then sailed along the east coast of New South Wales and mapped the coast. Sailors used those maps until the 1950s.
The Dutch had already found Australia, at least the north, south and west coasts, and named it New Holland. But they hadn’t discovered what Cook discovered, and so he claimed it for Britain.
The Dutch hadn’t shown much interest in colonizing Australia. An expedition member, the rich young botanist Sir Joseph Banks, later persuaded the King to send settlers to the continent. By then Britain had lost its colonies in North America.
Great Barrier Reef
While sailing Down Under, the Endeavour nearly met its end on the Great Barrier Reef 24 miles from shore. Cook tried to kedge her off at high tide, but failed. He ordered the crew to throw everything they could overboard. That lightened the Endeavour by as much as 50 tons. Ballast, cannon, spoiled food and drinking water all went over, but a second attempt failed. Then on the third try, a long boat carried two anchors ahead of the ship and they floated her off on the tide.
But Endeavour then took on an alarming amount of water. Everyone, including the gentlemanly Banks, manned the pumps. Finally a midshipman suggested fothering the vessel. That meant sewing tarred rope and wool into an old sail, and then drawing it under the ship’s bottom. Water pressure forced the wool and the rope into the hole in the hull. Cook then sailed Endeavour up a river he named after his ship and beached her. After three weeks of repair work, the leaky ship set sail again.
When they arrived in Batavia (now Jakarta) and examined Endeavour’s hull, they were surprised she’d stayed afloat during the three-month voyage. Her hull was full of holes, and some planks had been cut through to one-eighth of an inch thick.
As crews repaired and refitted Endeavour, the men began to catch the malaria and dysentery raging in the city. Seven died before she set sail for England, then nearly 30 more on the way home. She anchored in England on July 13, 1771. Cook traveled overland to report on his expedition and the crew was paid off.
Just a few days later, the Navy sent Endeavour to the Woolwich Dockyard for refitting as a transport ship, an inglorious task for the now-historic vessel.
In November 1771, Endeavour set sail for the Falkland Islands, loaded with provisions for a tiny garrison called Fort Egmont. Another explorer had claimed the island for King George III in 1765 – but so had the Spanish. Fort Egmont made a poor stronghold – “a ramshackle assortment of hastily constructed buildings,” according to Nigel Erskine in The Great Circle.
Endeavour returned to England in August 1772, then left for the Falklands again in December. She carried the new commander and a 36-ton sloop to the garrison and returned without incident. Then she stayed in England for a year.
By 1774, trouble was brewing in the American colonies. The British government decided to evacuate Fort Egmont, and back went Endeavour to pick up the men and arms.
She returned in the fall of 1774 to the Woolwich Dockyard, where a shipwright found rotten timbers, decayed sheathing and much-worn decks on the 10-year-old vessel. He gave the Navy an estimate of the cost to repair her. The Navy promptly sold her to a shipping magnate named John Mather.
Mather sent her on a voyage to Archangel, Russia. But then the American Revolution broke out, and the British needed to send reinforcements to Boston and New York. Mather renamed Endeavour Lord Sandwich and tried to resell her to the British Navy. The Navy wasn’t fooled by the name change, and only until Mather repaired the vessel did the Navy buy it back.
In early 1776, Lord Sandwich sailed out of the Thames River to the River Weser in Germany to pick up Hessian troops. She was part of a convoy of 74 ships carrying 10,000 mercenary soldiers. The massive fleet then sailed for North America, arriving off Staten Island on Aug. 12, 1776.
Gen. William Howe, British commander in chief, decided to peel off 7,000 British and Hessian forces to capture Newport, R.I. Under Gen. Henry Clinton, they established a garrison in the town in December 1776.
The End of Endeavour
The French joined the American cause after the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777. In July of 1778, Howe watched a French squadron sail past New York Harbor on its way to Rhode Island.
The French ships soon arrived off Narragansett Bay, and the British realized they were no match for the superior French force. But they couldn’t allow the enemy to increase its strength by capturing British ships.
Down came the orders: Burn all the Royal Navy vessels. And sink the transport ships at the mouth of the harbor to blockade the French.
Lord Sandwich was sent to her grave off Goat Island on Aug. 4, 1778. Twelve other transport ships were sunk as well.
The Rest of the Story
The French began firing on the British battery, to little effect. Then the British fleet arrived from New York, and the French ceased fire. The French then tried to draw the British into the open ocean to do battle. But a powerful storm upset those plans, damaging both fleets and ending the battle before it began. .
James Cook, meanwhile, had embarked on his third voyage of discovery. He was then exploring the Bering Strait in HMS Resolute. He didn’t live long past the sinking of his old ship. On Feb. 14, 1779, natives of the Sandwich Islands killed him.
In 1991, the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project began looking into the identity of the ships sunk at the bottom of Newport Harbor. Then a joint effort of RIMAP and the Australian National Marine Museum (ANMM) began examining the wrecks. They discovered a handful of vessels that matched descriptions of Endeavour.
On Feb. 3, 2022, ANMM announced they’d found the wreck of the Endeavour. A RIMAP archaeologist countered, saying no indisputable evidence that it was the historic ship.
Check out ANMM’s video of what could be Endeavour here. And stay tuned for more developments.
Newport Harbor By Swampyank at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5871957.
Endeavour grounded: By Samuel Atkins (c.1760-1810) – National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an5921609, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7458795.
Replicaa of HMB Endeavour: By Hpeterswald – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28736850
Endeavour replica beached By en:User:John Hill – Photograph by Wikipedia User en:User:John Hill. Originally uploaded to the English Wikipedia by him. Since transferred to Wikimedia Commons and deleted at the English Wikipedia., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=232351.
With thanks to Nigel Erskine (2017). THE “ENDEAVOUR” AFTER JAMES COOK: THE FORGOTTEN YEARS 1771-1778. The Great Circle, 39(1), 55–88. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26381237.