History - All Hands on Deck
Cars. Real estate. Cash. Jewelry. These are the items
regularly seized by deputy marshals. But you would have
to add about 13 Revolutionary War-era shipwrecks -
including one believed to be Captain James Cook's HMB Endeavour - to make that list complete.
The Marshals Service in 1999 was called upon by
Rhode Island Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse to
symbolically arrest and seize the vessels to prevent
salvage hunters and recreational divers from vandalizing
and pilfering them. The ships lie on the bottom of
Newport Harbor in Narragansett Bay.
Bank Endeavour Limited
A legal tussle
The laws governing ownership claims for property
in the seas are unique because water is a public property,
and this often causes confrontations between
competing interests. The rights of historic preservationists
and those of individuals making salvage
claims are always being pitted against each other in
courts - but the results have been decidedly one-sided.
"Historic preservationists and marine archaeologists
have always tried to preserve shipwrecks but the laws
haven't been strong enough in their favor," said Dr.
Kathy Abbass, director of the Rhode Island Marine
Archaeology Project. "The salvagers have had the
Laws allow any private citizen or company to make
a salvage claim on a shipwreck in order to strip it
down for commercial purposes, but the historical
significance of this particular fleet of ships raised the
Abbass was the first person to publish that one of the
vessels at the bottom of the harbor may be the Endeavour.
She has researched the ship's history extensively
and her findings have attracted the attention of Cook
scholars and enthusiasts from around the world.
Recreational divers have already stripped the vessel
clean of its valuable artifacts, but Abbass' aim is not
treasure hunting but rather preserving and studying
this famous ship for its historical value.
"The structure of the Endeavour itself is what is
significant," Abbass said.
Added Rhode Island Chief Deputy Denis Amico:
"These vessels are only valuable in a historical sense.
They really have no monetary value."
Dr. Abbass, intent on securing the Endeavour for
research purposes, said she figured preservationists
would have a stronger case if the state made a salvage
claim in its own name. So this is exactly what Rhode
Island officials did.
"I just didn't want someone else to make a salvage
claim on the ship simply to break it up to make key
chains out of it," Abbass said.
Her aims were met because Rhode Island won its
claim award. After the ruling came down, the state's
preservation office called Whitehouse, who in turn
contacted the Service. Rhode Island deputies then
followed court orders and arrested a 2-square-mile
area in the harbor, symbolically seizing all sunken
vessels there within on behalf of the state.
Abbass said this was the first time this procedure
was ever followed in the United States.
"We're setting a precedent here that will hopefully
benefit many people around the country," she said.
I "There are a lot of state preservation offices paying
very close attention to what we've done."
Shard to hold
After the Service officially took custody of the
shipwrecks, a ceremony was held to commemorate
their transfer into state control. Abbass signed her
name on an affidavit swearing that a tiny piece of
broken pottery in her hand was indeed taken from the
submerged vessels. She then gave it to Amico, who in
turn handed the shard - which ceremonially represented
the entirety of the submerged ships - to Ted
Sanderson, executive director of the Rhode Island
Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.
The state attorney general was pleased that the
transfer would ensure the ships' safekeeping so
historians and archaeologists can conduct their research
unhampered by outside commercial interests.
"[The shipwrecks] are now the property of the state
of Rhode Island," Whitehouse said at the ceremony.
"The message today is don't touch and don't take."
Amico said that being involved in this underwater
undertaking was quite an experience for the district.
And it proved that deputies are not always ordered
to protect humans," the chief said.
Could it really be?
The bulk of the seized ships are believed to be
British transport vessels that were deliberately sunk by
the British in 1778 during the siege of Newport. With
the Revolutionary War raging, British troops wanted
to prevent French ships from entering and leaving the
harbor to aid the Americans.
These sunken transports are historically important in
and of themselves, but the piece de resistance is
clearly the Endeavour, a 3-masted bark vessel that
stretches 105 feet and weighed 368 tons when fully
laden. It is the ship that Captain Cook of the English
Royal Navy sailed from 1768-71 on his adventurous
quest into the Pacific Ocean to disprove or discover
the existence of "a great South land" - Australia.
Captain Cook's voyage was one of the most ambitious
expeditions ever launched. He successfully
landed on the Australian continent - known only in
legend to Europeans at the time - but his many
contributions didn't end there.
Dubbed "the world's explorer," Cook ventured to all
seven continents at a time when doing so was almost
unimaginable. His three years at sea aboard the Endeavour,
which currently lies a mere 300 feet off the
Newport coast in a depth of 20 feet, produced extensive
geographical knowledge about New Zealand. He
made countless findings in the field of natural science
as well as numerous nautical discoveries throughout
the South Pacific. In fact, his work was so accurate
that his nautical charts can still be used today.
"This ship is very important in English and Australian
history," Abbass said, with more than a little
excitement in her voice. "It's the Australian Mayflower."
But the esteemed Endeavour's fate changed after her
first voyage to the South Pacific when it was sold to
be used as a cargo vessel. In 1793, it ran aground off
of Newport with a cargo of oil and sunk into the
harbor, which is how it came to be alongside the dozen
or so vessels which were scuttled during the fight for
A new twist
Cook captained four different ships during his wild
world of discovery and the vessel he sailed during two
of those monumental voyages was the HMS Resolution.
And it is this same Resolution that Abbass' latest
research points to as also being among the bevy of
Service-protected vessels in the Narragansett.
"Cook sailed around the world three times and the
possibility exists that two of his four vessels are right
here in the harbor," Abbass said. "It's really kind of
Cook, who was killed in a skirmish on the Island of Hawaii in 1779, left
a legacy that encompasses a seemingly endless list of discoveries - from
small islands to entire continents. And now the pride of his fleet,
along with a dozen or so transport ships significant during the American
Revolution, will be fittingly protected thanks to the combined efforts
of Service deputies and Rhode Island preservationists.