Museum releases further evidence to support its case for identifying Endeavour/Lord Sandwich shipwreck

Australian National Maritime Museum

In February 2022 the Australian National Maritime Museum announced that, based on a preponderance of evidence, shipwreck site RI 2394 in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island was that of Lord Sandwich (ex-HMB Endeavour).

Made famous for its circumnavigation of the globe under the command of James Cook between 1768 and 1771, HMB Endeavour was later renamed Lord Sandwich and sunk by British forces during the American War of Independence in 1778.

At the time of the museum’s announcement, some doubt was raised about this decision; however, in the nearly two years since, the museum has received no further dissenting responses to its decision.

The Preliminary Report has been available on the museum’s website since February 2022, and in addition the archaeological team of Kieran Hosty and Dr James Hunter have presented their findings at the International Congress for Underwater Archaeology (IKUWA), International Symposium of Conservation for Underwater Archaeology (ISCUA), Australian Advanced Diving Conference (OZTek), and for staff and students at the University of West Florida’s maritime archaeology program.

The museum has continued to conduct research related to the wreck, with enthusiastic support for their work. In fact, during this period the team have made compelling discoveries that further reinforce the findings announced in February 2022.

Two significant discoveries make up this new evidence (full details of each are below):

  1. Discovery of the shipwreck’s pump well
  2. Discovery of a keel-stem scarph joint in the shipwreck’s bow section

Ms Daryl Karp AM, Director and CEO of the Australian National Maritime Museum said, ‘We consider this further evidence supports the museum’s announcement in February 2022 that the wreck site known as RI 2394 is that of Lord Sandwich/HMB Endeavour.

‘The additional research done by our maritime archaeologists that led to the identification of the pump well, which in turn enabled clarity on the final physical position of the wreck and the keel-stem scarph joint, provides further evidence as to the identity of the wreck.

‘I would like to commend our archaeological team, Kieran Hosty and Dr James Hunter, for their thorough and professional work in leading the museum to identify this important shipwreck site. The museum of course also acknowledges the work of the team from the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, and the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission for their assistance and oversight over many years.’

Discovery of the pump well

Discovery of the pump well was a significant turning point in the identification of the site.

It was a recognisable structural feature that allowed the museum’s maritime archaeologists, Kieran Hosty and Dr James Hunter, to positively identify the wreck’s midships section. It could also be compared with the pump well included on archival draughts (plans) of Endeavour generated during the British Admiralty’s survey of the vessel in 1768.

When RI 2394’s site plan was superimposed over Endeavour’s 1768 lower hold plan and scaled to the same size, the positions of the surviving pump shaft stump and pump well partitions aligned perfectly with their counterparts on the archival document.

This correlation of the historic plans to the shipwreck site is remarkable, given most eighteenth-century vessels—including the Whitby collier Earl of Pembroke (which later became Endeavour)—were built by ‘rack of eye’, a shipbuilding tradition in which a shipwright’s tacit knowledge and understanding, aided by geometric or proportional rule, was used to construct a vessel to a desired tonnage and set of dimensions. Rack of eye construction did not utilise builder’s plans, which meant no two ships were built the same, and this argues against the likelihood of the shipwreck’s hull remains matching another of the scuttled transports in Newport Harbor. Superimposition of the site plan and 1768 draughts also allowed Hosty and Hunter to predict the location of the bow end of the shipwreck’s keel, which was confirmed during subsequent investigations of the site in 2021.

Discovery of the keel-stem scarph

In September 2021, a team diving for the museum located RI 2394’s bow at the wreck site’s southern end.

Discovery of the bow was based on the predictive model developed by the museum’s Mr Hosty and Dr Hunter that utilised superimposition of RI 2394’s 2019-20 archaeological site plan over Endeavour’s 1768 Admiralty plans.

Discovery of the bow also revealed a distinctive scarph in the surviving keel timber that attached it to the vessel’s stempost (which is no longer present). The survival of the keel-stem scarph – a highly diagnostic feature – was critical to the identification of the wreck site as Endeavour for two reasons.

First, it permitted the project team to obtain a measurement from the stem (bow) end of the keel to the projected location of the mainmast, which almost exactly matched the same distance shown on archival plans of Endeavour. The slight variation noted between the two measurements (approximately 8 inches, or 20.3 centimetres) is likely the result of damage to the end of the keel caused by marine borers and other natural degradation.

Second, documentation of the scarph provided critical details about its design and construction. RI 2394’s example is a rare form of stem attachment known as a ‘half-lap’ scarph joint. It allowed the stem to have a near-vertical rake, an absolute necessity for a vessel requiring the broad, bluff bow typical of a Whitby collier. Discovery of RI 2394’s keel-stem scarph revealed it was significantly different from the ‘table’ and ‘box’ scarphs typically used in mid-to-late eighteenth century British shipbuilding. When compared with the keel-stem scarph shown on Endeavour’s 1768 Admiralty plan, it was an exact match in terms of form and size.

Furthermore, a survey of extant eighteenth-century ship plans held in the collections of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England revealed draughts for 40 individual vessels, ranging from Albion (built 1763) to Chichester (built 1785). Only one of these sets of plans displayed a keel-stem scarph like that observed on RI 2394. That vessel, Marquis of Rockingham (built 1770), was another Whitby collier built by Thomas Fishburn (the owner and master shipwright of the shipyard where Endeavour was constructed), and later commissioned by the Royal Navy and renamed HMS Raleigh. Raleigh is perhaps best known as one of James Cook’s other vessels of exploration, HMS Adventure.

A literature review of comparable historic shipwrecks has also revealed that only one other eighteenth-century site with a keel-stem scarph like that of RI 2394 has been archaeologically investigated. That site, known as the Chub Heads Cut shipwreck, is in Bermuda and has tentatively been identified as the remains of a late-eighteenth century British-built collier.

A summary of the new information is now made available on the museum’s Deep Dive webpage.

The Final Archaeological Report has undergone review and will be released in 2024 following integration of reviewers’ comments.

The museum will shortly be releasing a new publication which looks at the history of the Endeavour from collier to replica.

/Public Release.