With their metal detectors and spades “detectorists” are a common sight in the British countryside. When their equipment bleeps, they start to dig in the hope of finding something old and valuable. They are often seen as figures of fun – in fact, the BBC shows a comedy series about a pair of such amateur archaeologists which has a cult following. But part-time treasure hunters do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to discovering antiquities buried in fields across the UK.
Two such detectorists, Lisa Grace and Adam Staples, recently uncovered a haul of more than 2,000 silver coins in Somerset in the south-west of England, dating back to the turbulent period following the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
In the years after William of Normandy defeated Harold II and took the throne, the Norman invaders were confronted by frequent rebellion. They responded by planting castles to subdue the population. The coin hoard found in the Chew Valley in Somerset dates from the years of unrest when William was establishing himself on the throne.
One of the largest hoards ever recovered from the years around 1066, it includes more than 1,000 coins minted in Harold’s name and a similar number in William’s. Harold had been king for only ten months at the time of his defeat and death in battle, so all the coins of Harold date from no earlier than January 1066. Some may have been minted in his name after his death, as a desperate measure by survivors to hold the regime together in the two months that elapsed between the Battle of Hastings and William’s coronation. Funds were very important at moments when the succession to the throne lay in doubt.
It is certain at any rate that whoever concealed the hoard was a person of high rank, probably one of the nobility – a circle of no more than 150 landed aristocrats, many of whom were related. A coin hoard of this size may have been to pay for an army. But we might only guess whose army or whether the hoarder was a supporter or opponent of the Norman regime.
Historians have long disputed whether Harold succeeded to the throne with the approval of his predecessor and brother-in-law, the childless Edward the Confessor, or seized the throne in haste to prevent it falling to another candidate. The strongest claimants in the latter camp were Edward the Confessor’s great-nephew Edgar and William of Normandy, his second cousin, who argued that Edward had promised the throne to him.
Money and power
Coin evidence assists in this debate by showing the extent to which Harold was able to control mints up and down the country. Regimes which had only a shaky hold on power were unable to control all the mints, some of which struck coins in the names of their rivals. This happened in the early years of Harold I’s regime (1035-7), when mints in southern England struck coins in the name of his rival Harthacnut.
In the case of Harold II, though his legitimacy was in doubt, his control of the mints suggests a strong hold on power from the outset. Indeed the hoard is likely to provide specimens of coins minted at unrecorded mints and by previously unknown moneyers.
Historians also debate the extent to which the invasion of 1066 disrupted the operations of the Anglo-Saxon state. The presence in the hoard of a large sample of coins issued by William at the start of his reign will help shed new light on the era.
The portrait, design and text on William’s coins, moreover, reveals how he wanted his subjects to see him. A coin is not only a unit of currency – it is a tool of propaganda. Harold’s coins, ironically, bore the legend “PAX” (peace). It was a signal of his aspirations on becoming king.
Today Harold’s coins are keenly sought by collectors, being rare and evocative our nation’s story. Hoarded coins are often in fresh condition and each should command a high market value.
Since the advent of the hobby of metal detecting in the 1970s, most hoards and single finds have been located by detectorists. Their painstaking efforts have resulted in the discovery of great treasures of recent years, including the Staffordshire Hoard and the Winfarthing pendant.
On most outings, detectorists find little or nothing. Most spend years in the hobby and never find a hoard. Thanks to a system of recording in place since the launching of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, more and more of their discoveries are now being reported.
The law requires that all finds of treasure be reported to the coroner within 14 days of discovery or of the finder’s realisation that the find might be treasure as defined by the Treasure Act of 1996. Any item of precious metal more than 300 years old, any two or more gold or silver coins, or a group of base metal coins, and any associated artefacts, such as a pot in which coins are buried, is treasure as defined by the Act.
All reported treasure items are entered in the online database of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Their details are thereby captured for the nation, even if the finds are often returned to the finder. No hoard of Norman Conquest coins on the scale of the Chew Valley hoard has come to light for many years.
It is a reminder that the passions of hobbyists frequently turn up great benefits for everyone. And it is also a reminder of England’s turbulent past.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
Insects have always been intimately connected with agriculture. Pest insects can cause tremendous damage, while helpful insects like pollinators and predators provide free services. The relatively young field of agricultural entomology uses knowledge of insect ecology and behaviour to help farmers protect their crops.
One of the most influential agricultural entomologists in history was an insatiably curious and fiercely independent woman named Eleanor Anne Ormerod. Although she lacked formal scientific training, Ormerod would eventually be hailed as the “Protectress of British Agriculture”.
Eleanor was born in 1828 to a wealthy British family. She did not attend school and was instead tutored by her mother on subjects thought to increase her marriageability: languages, drawing and music.
Like most modern entomologists, Eleanor’s interest in insects started when she was a child. In her autobiography, she tells of how she once spent hours observing water bugs swimming in a small glass. When one of the insects was injured, it was immediately consumed by the others.
Shocked, Eleanor hurried to tell her father about what she had seen but he dismissed her observations. Eleanor writes that while her family tolerated her interest in science, they were not particularly supportive of it.
Securing an advantageous marriage was supposed to be the primary goal of wealthy young women in Eleanor’s day. But her father was reclusive and disliked socialising; as a result, the family didn’t have the social connections needed to secure marriages for the children. Of Ormerod’s three sisters, none would marry.
The Ormerod daughters were relatively fortunate; their father gave them enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Their status as wealthy unmarried women gave them the freedom to pursue their interests free from domestic responsibilities and the demands of husbands or fathers. For Eleanor, this meant time to indulge her scientific curiosity.
Foaming at the mouth
Ormerod’s first scientific publication was about the poisonous secretions of the Triton newt. After testing the poison’s effects on an unfortunate cat, she decided to test it on herself by putting the tail of a live newt into her mouth. The unpleasant effects – which included foaming at the mouth, oral convulsions and a headache – were all carefully described in her paper.
Omerod’s first foray into agricultural entomology came in 1868, when the Royal Horticultural Society asked for help creating a collection of insects both helpful and harmful to British agriculture. She enthusiastically answered the call and spent the next decade collecting and identifying insects on the society’s behalf.
In the process, she developed specialist skills in insect identification, behaviour and ecology.
During her insect-collecting trips, Ormerod spoke with farmers who told her of their many and varied pest problems. She realised that farmers were in need of science-based advice for protecting their crops from insect pests.
Yet most professional entomologists of the time were focused on the collection and classification of insects; they had little interest in applying their knowledge to agriculture. Ormerod decided to fill the vacant role of “agricultural entomologist” herself.
In 1877, Ormerod self-published the first of what was to become a series of 22 annual reports that provided guidelines for the control of insect pests in a variety of crops. Each pest was described in detail including particulars of its appearance, behaviour and ecology. The reports were aimed at farmers and were written in an easy-to-read style.
An early form of crowdsourcing
Ormerod wanted to create a resource that would help farmers all over Britain. She quickly realised this task would require more information than she could possibly collect on her own. So Ormerod turned to an early version of crowdsourcing to obtain data.
She circulated questionnaires throughout the countryside asking farmers about the pests they observed, and the pest control remedies they had tried.
Whenever possible, she conducted experiments or made observations to confirm information she received from her network of farmers. Each of her reports combined her own work with that of the farmers and labourers she corresponded with. The resulting reports cemented Ormerod’s reputation.
Ormerod was invited to give lectures at colleges and institutes throughout Britain. She lent her expertise to pest problems in places as far afield as New Zealand, the West Indies and South Africa.
In recognition of her service, she was awarded an honorary law degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1900 – the first women in the university’s history to receive the honour. Such was her fame that acclaimed author Virginia Woolf later wrote a fictionalised account of Ormerod’s life called Miss Ormerod.
While she undoubtedly contributed to the rise of agricultural entomology as a scientific field, Ormerod’s legacy is complicated by her vocal support of a dangerous insecticide known as Paris Green. Paris Green was an arsenic-derived compound initially used as a paint (hence the name).
Although Paris Green was used extensively in North America, it was relatively unheard of in Britain. Ormerod made it her mission to introduce this new advance to British farmers. So strongly did she believe in its crop-saving power, she joked about wanting the words, “She brought Paris Green to Britain,” engraved on her tombstone.
Unfortunately, Paris Green is a “broad spectrum” insecticide that kills most insects, including pollinators and predators. The loss of predators in the crop ecosystem gives free rein to pests, creating a vicious cycle of dependence on chemical insecticides.
Paris Green also has serious human health impacts, some of which were recognised even in Ormerod’s day. The fact that arsenic was a common ingredient in all manner of products – including medicines – may partly explain why Ormerod seems to have underestimated the danger of Paris Green to human and environmental health.
Ormerod’s steadfast promotion of Paris Green seems naïve in retrospect. But the late 1800’s was a time of tremendous optimism about the power of science to solve the world’s problems.
Paris Green and other insecticides allowed farmers to cheaply and effectively protect their crops – and thus their livelihoods. In fact, less than 50 years after Ormerod’s death, chemist Paul Muller won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the infamous (and environmentally catastrophic) insecticide DDT. When viewed in light of the “pesticide optimism” of her time, Ormerod’s enthusiasm about Paris Green is easier to understand.
Interestingly, Ormerod wasn’t just an insecticide evangelist. Her reports gave recommendations for a variety of pest control methods such as the use of exclusion nets and the manual removal of pests. These and other environmentally friendly techniques now form the core of modern “integrated pest management”, the gold standard for effective and sustainable pest control.
Eleanor Ormerod was devoted to the cause of protecting agriculture at a time when few “serious” entomologists were interested in applying their knowledge to agriculture. She recognised that progress in agricultural entomology could only happen when entomologists worked in close partnership with farmers.
She continued working and lecturing to within weeks of her death in 1901; in all of her years of service, she was never paid.
By now, most of us would know that 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s voyage along the East Coast of Australia. The federal government has allocated $48.7 million to commemorate the occasion, with a replica of Cook’s HMB Endeavour to circumnavigate the country.
But at the time of the voyage, Indigenous Australians often travelled great distances too, with most of those journeys being unrecorded. One that was, however, was the journey of Weitchymumble, a man of the Wati Wati (Wadi Wadi) from the Murray River around Swan Hill who travelled by foot across the dry regions of northwest Victoria around 200 kilometres to Lake Hindmarsh and back. He endured extreme heat, food shortages and exhaustion during this trek.
Back in 1877, Peter Beveridge, a squatter on the Murray River, published an article detailing Weitchymumble’s journey in the Ballarat Star. It had been told to him by Turrangin, a senior elder of the Wati Wati, who was Weitchymumble’s great-grandson.
We don’t know exactly when this happened, but Turrangin did tell us a little about the timing (Beveridge included words in the Wati Wati language in brackets):
When my cokernew (grandfather) was but a very small boy, long before the turrawil ngurtangies (white devils) came with their numberless stock to overrun the country, and drive away the teeming game, from whence the Woortongies (aborigines) drew their food supply […] his father, then quite a young man, was deputed by the tribe to accompany the Ngalloo Watow to the far Wimmera on tribal business.
The Ngalloo Watow was described by Beveridge as a “postman”, who carried news and conducted barters, able to travel “with impunity”.
At the time of the journey Turrangin’s grandfather was perhaps aged 10. Since Turrangin was a senior elder when he told the story to Beveridge in the 1850s, he might have been born around 1810. His grandfather might then have been a boy around 1770, the same time as Cook’s journey.
A journey through a land of plenty
Weitchymumble’s name means “welcome swallow”. The late Luise Hercus, a linguist who recorded many Indigenous languages, heard this word 50 years ago spoken by Mrs Jackson Stuart, one of the last to speak the Werkaya (Wimmera) language as a mother tongue. Hercus spelled it “wity-wity-mambel”.
We don’t know what the business of Weitchymumble’s trip with the Ngalloo Watow was, but it started in the spring, “the season of peetchen-peetchen (flowers), when the whole country was glowing with bloom”. They reached Lake Hindmarsh after “a long weary tramp of many days”.
After a bath and meal of wallup (sleeping lizard), they were spotted by scouts of the Wimmera tribe, who:
fraternised after the fashion of the Aborigines prior to the advent of European customs; […] they walked up to the fire, squatted down by its side without saying one word, until the time (which was considerable) had expired which Australian savage etiquette demands on these occasions. After that, however, they talked fast enough […]
Returning from Lake Hindmarsh in heat described as having “the fervency of a wean chirrick (a reed bed on fire)”, soon they had run short of water and food when they came upon the nest of a lowan, or Mallee Fowl. Lowan is one of the few words from an Indigenous Victorian language borrowed into English.
In the Lowan’s nest, they found “politulu murnangin mirk” (eggs to the number of the fingers on both hands). The Ngalloo Watow made fire “by rubbing a narrow lath-like piece of saltbush across a sun crack in a pine log” then set the eggs on the sand until they simmered, stirring them with a thin twig, through an opening at the top end. When cooked there was a rich yellow paste of yolk and white mixed, the taste was “talko” (good).
But, within a few days, they were again short of food when they saw a sleeping “little old man” threatened by a mindi (large snake). Weitchymumble immediately dashed, grabbed the snake, rescued the old man from it, cut off the snake’s head and then collapsed from exhaustion.
Seeing Weitchymumble lying, the old man exclaimed “”Niniwoor wortongie birra. Yetty tumla coorrongendoo. Ka ki nginma. Boorm.” (Ah, the young man is dead. I shall cry very much. Come here you. Quickly.) These words are the longest single piece of continuous written text in this language.
Weitchymumble was carried into a large conical stone, where the old man gave him a special drink and he revived. The old man turned out to be the Ngowdenout, the “spirit of the Mallee”. As Beveridge wrote: “He is both good and bad by turns […] all-seeing, all-powerful, and unvulnerable to everything earthly.”
Because Weitchymumble had acted to save the old man, the Ngowdenout was good to both the travellers, providing them with food and then when they were sleeping, disappearing. When they woke, the stone was nowhere to be seen but a clear path for them to return home had been marked out.
Beveridge concludes the story by noting that “the story of the Ngowdenout and his coorongandoo muckie loondhal (big stone house) is as fresh in the memory of the Watty Watty tribe as it was the day after Weitchymumble and his companion had related it”.
While the Ngowdenout is perhaps a mythical entity, at the core of this story is a real journey. It tells of a land of plenty, of Indigenous tribes meeting and interacting in their own customs’ manners, and of ways of life, like the method of cooking eggs. Such journeys would have happened regularly, but this is the only one from Victoria recorded in such detail.
Along with the Cook voyage, then, in 2020 let’s honour Weitchymumble’s journey and the people of the inland.
Two hundred and fifty years ago this year, James Cook’s ship the Endeavourarrived off the eastern coast of New Zealand. The following circumnavigation marked the beginning of ongoing European contact with the indigenous population, and eventually mass British immigration from 1840.
One important question historians are trying to answer is how many Māori lived in Aotearoa at the time of Cook’s arrival. This question goes to the heart of the negative impacts of European contact on the size and health of the 19th-century Māori population, which subsequently bottomed out in the 1890s at just over 40,000 people.
The conventional wisdom is that there were about 100,000 Māori alive in 1769, living on 268,000 square kilometres of temperate Aotearoa. This is a much lower population density (0.37 people per square kilometre) than densities achieved on tropical and much smaller Pacific Islands.
Examples of order-of-magnitude higher density Pacific populations in the contact-era include:
Hawai’i where 200,000 to 800,000 people lived on 28,000 square kilometres (7 to 29 people per square kilometre)
In conjunction with later 19th-century census figures, the conventional wisdom implies that European contact and colonisation following Cook’s arrival was much less devastating for the indigenous population of Aotearoa than for many other Pacific islands.
Three approaches have been used to support the estimate of 100,000 Māori. Unfortunately, none bears any serious weight.
The 100,000-strong estimate of the contact-era Māori population is often attributed to Cook. However, it never received his seal of approval, and it was not made in 1769.
It was published in a 1778 book written by Johann Forster, the naturalist on Cook’s second expedition of 1772-1775. Forster’s estimate is a guess, innocent of method. He suggests 100,000 Māori as a round figure at the lower end of likelihood. His direct observation of Māori was brief, in the lightly populated South Island, far from major northern Māori population centres.
Later visitors had greater direct knowledge of the populous coastal northern parts of New Zealand. They also made population estimates. Some were guesses like Forster’s. Others were based on a rough method. Their estimates range from 130,000 (by early British trader Joel Polack) to over 500,000 Māori (by French explorer Dumont D’Urville), both referring to the 1820s. The wide range further emphasises the lack of information in Forster’s guess.
Working backwards from the 1858 census
A second method takes the figure from the first New Zealand-wide Māori population census of 1858, of about 60,000 people. It works this number backwards over 89 years to 1769, making assumptions about the rate of annual population decline between 1769 and 1858.
There is a good quantitative estimate for the rate of decline back from 1858 to 1844, taken from a Waikato longitudinal census. But there is nothing solid for the period before 1844.
To overcome the absence of numbers, an apparently better documented and very low average annual rate of decline of the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands of 0.4% between 1791 and 1835 has been applied to New Zealand. However, the estimated rate is calculated from wrong numbers for both the 1791 and 1835 Moriori populations. In fact, there is no contemporary 1791 estimate of the Moriori population from which to calculate a meaningful rate of quantitative decline to 1835.
The qualitative conclusion of low population decline is based on two propositions. The first is that prior to the 1850s, imported European diseases were localised to a few coastal areas. The second is that the impact of warfare on populations over the first half of the 19th century was minimal. What is the evidence for these propositions? The answer is not much in either case.
Historical evidence suggests that there were indeed widespread epidemics in New Zealand prior to the 1850s. For example, there is evidence of a great epidemic around 1808, possibly some form of enteric fever or influenza, which killed many people across the North Island and the top of the South Island. Other high-mortality diseases known to be present in New Zealand pre-1840 and readily transmittable internally include syphilis and tuberculosis.
The estimates of how many Māori died directly and indirectly on account of warfare over the 1769 to 1840 period lack a coherent method. They are weak on definitions of what they count. They cover varying or indeterminate periods. Where they can be made roughly comparable, the numbers arrived at are wildly different, with estimates of deaths ranging from 300 to 2000 people on average annually. In other words, the impact of warfare on population decline could have been quite small or quite large. We simply don’t know.
Overall, Hawaiian archaeologist Patrick Kirch’s conclusion on the validity of this method for estimating other contact-era Pacific populations is also applicable to New Zealand. It is a largely circular exercise in assuming what needs to be proven.
Predicting population from settlement
The third method used to estimate 100,000 Māori predicts the population forward from first arrival in New Zealand. Prediction requires a minimum of three parameters. These are the arrival date of Māori in New Zealand, the size of the founding population and the prehistoric population growth rate to 1769.
The current consensus is that voyagers from Eastern Polynesia arrived in New Zealand between 1230 and 1280 AD and then became known as Māori. However, even a 50-year difference in arrival dates can make large differences to an end population prediction.
Geneticists have estimated the plausible size of the Māori female founding population as between 50 to 230 women. The high population estimate which would result from using these numbers is therefore nearly five times the size of the low estimate. Such a broad range is meaningless.
The third big unknown of the prediction method is the growth rate. Minimalists have employed low rates, based on prehistoric Eurasian populations, where humans had lived for tens of thousands of years. This perspective of low Māori prehistoric growth rates is problematic. Humans did not live in New Zealand prior to Māori. The population density faced by newly arriving people was zero.
Also, New Zealand’s flora and fauna had evolved without people. Once people arrived, they would have found more niches of exploitable nutrients than in regions where plants and animals had long co-evolved with people as apex predators. Such circumstances allowed for a potentially rapid Māori population expansion.
Indeed, historically recorded population growth rates for Pacific islands with small founding populations could be exceptionally high. For example, on tiny, resource-constrained Pitcairn Island, population growth averaged an astounding 3% annually over 66 years between 1790 and 1856.
Arguments for rapid prehistoric population growth run up against other problems. Skeletal evidence seems to show that prehistoric Māori female fertility rates were too low; and mortality, indicated by a low average adult age at death, was too high to generate rapid population growth.
This low-fertility finding has always been puzzling, given high Māori fertility rates in the latter 19th century. Equally, archaeological findings of a low average adult age at death have been difficult to reconcile with numbers of elderly Māori observed in accounts of early explorers.
However, recent literature on using skeletal remains to estimate either female fertility or adult age at death is sceptical that this evidence can determine either variable in a manner approaching acceptable reliability. So high growth paths cannot be ruled out.
Because of resulting uncertainties in the three key parameters and the 500-year-plus forecast horizon, the plausible population range around 100,000 Māori in 1769 is so broad as to make any prediction estimate meaningless. Virtually any contact-era population can be illustrated by someone with a modicum of numerical nous.
In the 2017 New Zealand Journal of History, New Zealand archaeologist Atholl Anderson argues that medieval population density on the large (about 103,000 square kilometres, slightly smaller than the North Island), isolated and sub-arctic island of Iceland is a much better analogy for likely contact-era Māori density than those of smaller tropical Pacific islands.
He uses Icelandic population density from the year 1800, over 900 years into the settlement sequence. If Icelandic population numbers closest to 500 years into the settlement sequence were used, they would provide a more direct temporal analogy for 500 years of Māori settlement in 1769.
Iceland was settled circa 870 AD. The best estimates of the pre-industrial Icelandic population closest to 500 years post-settlement are from 1311. They are based on farm numbers counted for tax purposes. This method gives 72,000 to 95,000 Icelanders. So, in its medieval period, sub-arctic Iceland achieved population densities of 0.70 to 0.92 people per square km. Applying these densities to contact-era temperate New Zealand gives a Māori population of between 190,000 to 250,000 people when Cook arrived.
In terms of a New Zealand-related density analogy, there is good 1835 population data from the temperate Chatham Islands (about 970 square kilometres in area), giving a Moriori population density exceeding two people per square kilometre. It was measured after decades of likely population decline from contact with European sealers and whalers, as well as after at least one serious epidemic. Applying this density figure to the North Island alone, which the Chatham Islands climatically best resembles, gives 230,000 people when Cook arrived.
Using analogies from Iceland and the Chatham Islands suggests that post-Cook European contact may have been more devastating for Māori than conventional wisdom acknowledges. There may have been 200,000 or more Māori in 1769, falling to about 40,000 in the 1890s. Additionally, a figure of 200,000 or more Māori implies that much post-contact population decline occurred prior to mass British immigration.
As elsewhere in the Americas and the Pacific, perhaps European germs, not mass immigration, were the primary driver of indigenous population decline. But 250 years on from Cook, more work and different methods are needed to answer this question.
Researchers, including Australian maritime archaeologists, believe they have found Captain Cook’s historic ship HMB Endeavour in Newport Harbour, Rhode Island. An official announcement will be made on Friday.
The discovery is the culmination of decades of work by the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project and the Australian National Maritime Museum to locate and positively identify the vessel, which had been missing from the historical record for over two centuries. Plans are now under way to raise funds to excavate and conduct scientific testing in 2019.
As the first European seafaring vessel to reach the east coast of Australia, the Endeavour – much like James Cook himself – has become part of Australia’s national mythology. Unlike Cook, who famously met his end on Hawaiian shores, the fate of the Endeavour had long been unknown. The discovery has therefore resolved a long-standing maritime mystery.
In a serendipitous twist, it coincides with two significant dates: the 250th anniversary of the Endeavour’s departure from England in 1768 on its now (in)famous voyage south, and the 240th anniversary of the ship’s scuttling in 1778 during the American War of Independence.
Identifying the Endeavour’s location has been a 25-year processs. Archaeologists initially identified 13 potential candidates in the harbour. Over time, the number of possible sites was narrowed to five.
This month, a joint diving team has worked to measure and inspect these sites, drawing upon knowledge of Endeavour’s size to identify a likely candidate. Excavation and timber analysis is expected to provide final confirmation. Those expecting an entire ship to be recovered will be disappointed, as very little of it remains.
But this is a controversial vessel, and celebrations of its discovery will be tempered by reflection about its complicity in the British colonisation of Indigenous Australian land. While Endeavour played an instrumental role in advancing science and exploration, its arrival in what is now known as Botany Bay in 1770 also precipitated the occupation of territory that its Aboriginal owners never ceded.
Although Endeavour’s early days are well known, it has taken many years for researchers to piece together the rest of its story. One problem has been the many names the vessel was known by during its lifetime.
Built in 1764 in Whitby, England, as a collier (coal carrier), the vessel was originally named Earl of Pembroke. Its flat-bottomed hull and box-like shape, designed to transport bulk cargo, later proved helpful when navigating the treacherous coral reefs of the southern seas.
In 1768, Earl of Pembroke was sold into the service of the Royal Navy and the Royal Society. It underwent a major refit to accommodate a larger crew and sufficient provisions for a long voyage. In keeping with the ambitious spirit of the era, the vessel was renamed His Majesty’s Bark (HMB) Endeavour (bark being a nautical term to describe a ship with three masts or more).
Endeavour departed England in 1768 under the command of then-Lieutenant Cook. Ostensibly sailing to the South Pacific to observe the 1769 Transit of Venus, Cook was also under orders to search for the fabled southern continent. So it was that a coal carrier and a rare astronomical event changed the history of the Australian continent and its people.
Following Endeavour’s circumnavigation of the globe (1768-1771), the vessel was used as a store ship before the Royal Navy sold it in 1775. Here, the ship’s fate become mysterious.
Many believed it had been renamed La Liberté and put to use as a French whaling ship before succumbing to rotting timbers in Newport Harbour in 1793. Others rejected this theory, suggesting instead that Endeavour had spent her final days on the river Thames.
A breakthrough came in 1997. Australian researchers suggested the Endeavour had in fact been renamed Lord Sandwich. The theory gained weight following an archival discovery by Kathy Abbass, director of the Rhode Island project, in 2016, which indicated that Lord Sandwich had been used as a troop transport and prison ship during the American War of Independence before being scuttled in Newport Harbour in 1778.
Lord Sandwich was one of a number of transport ships deliberately sunk by the British in an attempt to prevent the French fleet from approaching the shore.
Finding a shipwreck is not impossible, but finding the one you’re looking for is hard. Rhode Island volunteers have been searching for this vessel since 1993, slowly narrowing down the search area and eliminating potential contenders as they explore the often-murky waters of Newport Harbour.
They were joined in their efforts by the Australian National Maritime Museum in 1999 and, in more recent years, by the Silentworld Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation with a particular interest in Australasian maritime archaeology.
Museums around the world are already turning their attention to the significant Cook anniversaries on the horizon and the complex legacy of these expeditions. These interpretive endeavours will only be heightened by the planned excavation of the ship’s remains in the near future.
Shipwrecks are a productive starting point for thinking about how we make meaning from the past because of the firm hold they have on the public imagination. They conjure images of lost treasure, pirates and, especially in the case of Endeavour, bold adventures to distant lands.
But as we celebrate the spirit of exploration that saw a humble coal carrier circumnavigate the globe – and the same spirit of exploration that has led to its discovery centuries later – we must also make space for the unsettling stories that will resurface as a result of this discovery.