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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.

A photo of a ship
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 upper hand."

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 stakes considerably.

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 pièce de résistance 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 American independence.

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 neat."

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.