PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Nearly 250 years ago, Capt. James Cook ran aground on Australia's Great Barrier Reef during a voyage to the South Pacific to observe the planet Venus. His ship was the Endeavour, an ugly and awkward little vessel that improbably helped him become the first European to chart Australia's east coast.
Today, schoolchildren in Australia learn about the Endeavour's historic 1768-71 voyage. But few people give a second thought to what ultimately happened to the ship.
A marine archaeologist in Rhode Island thinks she knows.
Kathy Abbass has been working for years to find its remains at the bottom of Rhode Island's Newport Harbor. This week, she is signing an agreement with the Australian National Maritime Museum, which has pledged to help her in hopes of locating the wreck in time for the 250th-anniversary celebrations of Cook's voyage.
The signing ceremony will take place at the Australian Embassy in Washington.
"They want to be part of the team that finds their vessel," said Abbass, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project. "And we're getting close."
Abbass discovered during an archive search in 1998 that the roughly 100-foot Endeavour was part of a fleet of 13 ships that the British scuttled during the Revolutionary War in 1778 to blockade the port. It had been listed in the records under a different name, the Lord Sandwich, Abbass learned.
She said she is trying to figure out whether the Endeavour is still there. Pieces might have been salvaged soon after, or the wreck might have been destroyed over the years by ship anchors, she said.
Her group has found nine of the ships. Divers from the Australian museum have informally helped her group in the past. Abbass said the formal partnership consists of an initial grant of $4,000 but is expected to grow to include the sending of experts from the museum and other assistance.
"To be able to find the last resting place of the Endeavour would truly be a nationally significant event, if not internationally," said Kevin Sumption, director and CEO of the museum, which features a replica of the Endeavour.
Alexander Cook, a historian with the Australian National University in Canberra, said finding the wreck would stimulate interest in "what is quite an incredible story."
"The stories associated with the Endeavour are a key part of our kind of national mythology," said Cook, who is not related to the explorer.
Iain McCalman, a history professor at the University of Sydney, said Cook is considered the founding father of European-settled Australia, where England eventually set up a penal colony. But to the country's indigenous people, Cook is considered the first invader.
"For some people, it would be a really wonderfully kind of exciting thing to have the Endeavour raised and brought, if possible, to Australia -- whatever's left of it," McCalman said. For many indigenous people, the celebration of Cook's voyage "is a kind of sad moment. It's the end of their freedom, in a sense."
Still, he said, there is no disputing Cook pulled off a remarkable feat of navigation.
"Whatever you think of Cook, he sailed that boat -- which, as far as I was concerned, was almost unsailable -- into what amounts to a kind of minefield of coral without having any charts, and it was absolutely extraordinary," McCalman said.