Why isn’t the government interested in the wreck of Cook’s Endeavour

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the location of the final resting place of Captain James Cook’s HMB Endeavour just off Newport Rhode Island in the US.

I was the guest of New Zealander Dr Bridget Buxton, Associate Professor of Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology, and resident marine archaeologist at the University of Rhode Island. Bridget is highly regarded worldwide, an expert in Roman wrecks, and currently working on future dives to the Titanic. Bridget has been a driving force in trying to get the New Zealand government interested in the final resting place of the Endeavour, the wreck of New Zealand’s most celebrated ship. She saw the opportunity when the Government announced there was to be a major commemoration of the first encounters between Maori and Europeans, the 2019 Tuia Encounters 250 https://mch.govt.nz/tuia-encounters-250.

During the Tuia commemoration from October to December 2019, a replica of the Endeavour will visit four of the main James Cook landing sites as well as other harbours.

Last year Bridget travelled to Wellington to meet with three members of the Tuia planning group and I attended that meeting with fellow New Zealand Underwater Heritage Group member, Keith Gordon. Bridget delivered a very professional presentation on how the Government could help support local Rhode Island efforts to identify and excavate the Endeavour. She proposed that timely support for a proper excavation would lead to securing the ship’s identification and preservation and help save a time capsule for future generations. Relics from the Endeavour could potentially be part of a travelling exhibition during the 2019 commemorations. The wreck’s salvor-in-possession, the state of Rhode Island, is keenly aware of the ship’s special importance Downunder. The Tuia Encounters 250 planning group showed little interest.

OVERVIEW

The New Zealand Ministry of Culture and Heritage (MCH) is working with local organizing committees to commemorate the anniversary of the first encounters between Ma – ori and Europeans, starting with the 250th Anniversary of Capt. James Cook’s arrival off our coast. MCH set up the entity “First Encounters 250” to organize events for this and the distribution of $9 million of Lottery Grants Board funding. Dame Jenny Shipley chaired the National Coordinating Committee. The organization’s name was later changed to “Tuia Encounters 250” and the noted waka voyager, Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, was appointed co-chair. The Government has now allotted $13.5 million for these commemoration events and projects in addition to the $9 million from the Lotteries Grants Board.

Sunk as a blockade

The Endeavour is thought to be one of five ships deliberately sunk by the British as a blockade during the American Independence Revolution in 1778 to stop the French entering the Newport harbour. Bridget wants the Government to make an official expression of interest to the Government of the State of Rhode Island in support of a full excavation to confirm the precise site. Despite approaches to MCH in 2017 and 2018, including a letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, also the Minister of Culture and Heritage, the Government has shown a lack of interest. It even appears reluctant to make any public statement in support of an excavation which is said to be due to a concern over doing anything that might upset Maori or Australia. Dr Bridget Buxton has not requested financial assistance from the Government, just an official New Zealand endorsement for local efforts in the US to save the Endeavour which would help her secure the use of their resources, and to advertise and build a fundraising campaign. The New Zealand Underwater Heritage Group Inc. (NZUHG) supports Bridget’s efforts to give New Zealand a place at the table in determining the future of our most important European shipwreck.

What we did not expect from two successive New Zealand governments was the outright rejection of any concern, responsibility, or desire to be publicly associated with efforts to save one of our nation’s great archaeological treasures.

Australia’s claim

In contrast, Australia is claiming it as “Australia’s national wreck of most importance,” and demonstrating their great interest, including being involved with the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project’s (RIMAP) ongoing surface investigations of the Newport shipwreck sites.

A definitive identification of Endeavour must await a proper excavation, which is currently beyond the resources of RIMAP. Bridget Buxton as the veteran of several excavations of large shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, is confident she can mobilize the necessary resources and expertise to permit the excavation, but has felt unable to act without support from New Zealand.

For Bridget, an expression of interest from the Government to the Government of Rhode Island in support of conserving the Endeavour would be a very helpful foundation for her university, which is already a RIMAP collaborator, to become further involved in identifying, excavating, and preserving the wreck. As one of New Zealand’s very few expert underwater archaeologists, Bridget says it feels like fate that she has ended up as a professor at the coastal university that literally overlooks the final resting place of James Cook’s Endeavour. It’s a shame MCH and the New Zealand Prime Minister appear to have little interest in it.

By Dave Moran, Editor at Large, in association with Keith Gordon

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