Tracing a Ghost Ship: Late Summer Fieldwork
2019, Newport, Rhode Island
Gentle sunlight dances on the surface of the water in the ‘City by the Sea’—Newport Harbor, Rhode Island. It’s a water lover’s haven and home to a handful of America’s Cup Classic yachts—sleek vessels engineered for speed that bob languidly at ease in the marina. A place where eager tourists meander along cobblestone streets, children shield their melting ice cream from the advances of squawking hordes of seagulls and the scent of brine lingers in the air when the fisherman’s catch is unloaded from the nets of fishing vessels with names like Blue Moon or Sweet Misery.
Down by the jetty a group of divers gather into a small motorboat with their oxygen tanks, flippers, cameras and underwater drawing tablets. It’s the annual gathering of volunteers from the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP) joined by maritime archaeologists from the Australian National Maritime Museum. What brings this group together you might ask? The answer lies just 500 metres out from shore, resting some 15-25 metres below the surface of the water, buried in more than 200 years’ worth of sediment and silt.
It’s a story that draws many dots on a world map that was still in the making by eighteenth-century explorers like Captain James Cook. It links us to the American Revolutionary War and the ‘discovery’ of the eastern coast of Australia. The object of their attention is none other than a ship. But a weighty hypothesis has been raised—could this broken vessel that is now wrecked on the muddy seabed of Newport Harbor be the H.M.B Endeavour? And is it even possible to ever know for sure?
One ship, many lives: The Earl of Pembroke
1764, Whitby, England
In the late 1700s, the small seaside village of Whitby was known as the nursery for ‘seamen’, where master shipbuilders and the most competent seafarers completed their apprenticeships. This centre for commercial trade bred ‘colliers’—sturdy ships capable of carrying heavy loads, including coal, across the Baltic Sea and beyond. They were steady workhorses that could be relied upon, their solid floors proving particularly adept in navigating shallow harbours and estuaries. The Earl of Pembroke was one such vessel, built by Thomas Milner in 1764. She had at least one rare and distinguishing feature—installed atop the keelson was a ‘second rider’ or deadwood keelson, a reinforcing structure designed to prevent the vessel from breaking its back when run ashore. A son of a Yorkshire farmer learned how to sail on ships such as these. His name was James Cook.
A metamorphosis: The H. M. B Endeavour
Letter dated 27 March, 1768
From: The Yard Officers, Deptford
To: The Royal Navy Board
“We have surveyed and measured the undermentioned ships recommended to your Honours to proceed on Foreign Service and send you an account of their quantities, condition, age and dimensions…The Earl of Pembroke, Mr Thos. Milner, ownes [sic] was built at Whitby, her age three years nine months, square stern bark, single bottom, full built and comes nearest to the tonnage mentioned in your warrant and not so old by fourteen months, is a promising ship for sailing of this kind and fit to stow provisions and stores as may be put on board her.”1
Image: Cropped view of ‘Report on condition, dimensions, value of Earl of Pembroke’ http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-1641090461
Letter dated 29 March, 1768
From: The Royal Navy Board
To: The Secretary of the Admiralty
“We desire that you will inform their Lordships that we have purchased a cat-built bark, in burthen 368 tons, and of the age of three years and nine months, for conveying such persons as shall be thought proper to the southward for making observations of the passage of the planet Venus over the disc of the sun, and pray to be favoured with their Lordships’ directions for fitting her for this service accordingly…and that we may also receive Their commands by what name she shall be registered on the list of the Navy.”