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Australia unlikely to have claim to wreckage if found to be Endeavour

There is much excitement among maritime historians and archaeologists in Australia as a Rhode Island research organisation investigates whether it has found the wreck of the Endeavour.

If a shipwreck in Newport Harbour, Rhode Island is found to be the Captain James Cook's Endeavour, it is likely to remain in the United States.

The ship legally belongs to the state of Rhode Island and the US, and Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project founder and executive director Kathy Abbass is keen to see it remain in Newport.

"I would like to see her stay here," Dr Abbass told AAP on Wednesday.

Historical documents Dr Abbass located in London, courtesy of an Australian National Maritime Museum grant, guided her team to the general area in the harbour where they believe the ship, later renamed the Lord Sandwich, was deliberately sunk by the British in 1778 during the American War of Independence.

Silt in the harbour has likely helped preserve the vessel.

Dr Abbass said she understood Australians would want it to be displayed in Australia because of the historic role the Endeavour played in the nation's history.

She said there "are many ways we can share it".

"We do know how significant it is to everybody and we are sensitive to that," Dr Abbass said.

University of Sydney professorial history research fellow, Iain McCalman, told SBS News there would be those who would like to see the wreckage returned to Australia.

"It’s a symbolic discovery," he said.

"I don’t think it’s going to change history, it’s much more its symbolic weight.

"If you can have the boat that brought Australia, whether you like it or not, that is going to be something that every museum would love to have."

Kieran Hosty, the manager of the Maritime Archaeology Program at the Australian National Maritime Museum, was one of the maritime archaeologists who had been able to dive at the site of the wreck.

"When you actually explore those sites, if you carefully remove or carefully excavate, you can actually find the bones of the ship – the keel, the keelson, the frames of the vessel," he said.

"Endeavour’s owned by the state of Rhode Island so we really have no say in its ownership."

He said research and diving on the wreck, which is one of 13 in the harbour, was a laborious process.

The director and chief executive of the Australian National Maritime Museum, Kevin Sumption, said the museum would continue to work with RIMAP to research and eventually preserve the Endeavour's wreckage.

"But I think the best practice now would ultimately be for Newport to be the home for a complex, maybe a small museum, that tells that story of the important role Endeavour played in its last chapter of its life, which was in this significant engagement in the American war of independence," he told SBS News.

He said the two organisations were hoping to identify remnants of the Endeavour's last few years before it was scuttled.

A multi-layered history

Experts believe the discovery of the Endeavour may reignite the debate around the ship's role in Australia's history.

"Endeavour’s got this really weird multi-layered history," Mr Hosty said.

"It’s Endeavour the voyage, the ship of discovery; it’s Endeavour, the ship of dispossession for the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people; it’s Endeavour which turned into a troop ship; it’s Endeavour the prison ship... and now it’s Endeavour the archaeological site."

Professor McCalman said the ship was not "an unproblematic symbol".

"It’s a symbol for European Australians of the foundation of Australia," he said.

"For Aboriginal Australians it’s a symbol of the imperial takeover which led to colonisation which led to the loss of their lands."

Mr Sumption said the Australian National Maritime Museum had been working with RIMAP for several years in the hope parts of the ship could be brought to Australia.

"Our collaboration with RIMAP will be for many, many years to come and we would look to help them build a facility there with technical support," he said.

"This story is a story we also want to bring back as a temporary exhibition to Australia in time for the 250th anniversary of Cook’s arrival off the east coast of Australia ."

However, RIMAP is a non-profit organisation and needs donations of US1 million ($A1.34 million) for field work to complete the underwater search, and $US7.5 million to build a museum and research facility in Rhode Island to house the artefacts.

Dr Abbass is hoping donors, including governments like Australia, which signed a memorandum of understanding with the group at the Australian embassy in Washington DC in 2014, will help fund the search so it can be completed.

"It's fine to say 'Look at how close we've come' but we really can't move to the next phase without that," Dr Abbass said.

Endeavour's 'humble' background

Professor McCalman said the Endeavour was interesting because she was "a heroic very ordinary and humble boat".

"It started off as a collier, a coal carrier, a bit like one of these barge-like ships that carry coal," he said.

"It ended up having this great heroic moment when it takes Cook into the south seas and he charts Australia.

"Then it becomes a run of the mill troop ship carrying troops to the Falklands backwards and forward. It’s then eventually flogged to someone who tries to hire it back and has to change its name in order to pretend it wasn’t the Endeavour, which they knew to be in bad repair so they changed it to Lord Sandwich.

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"They did it up a bit and then it transported troops to the American war, and then for its last year it was anchored in Newport Harbour, Rhode Island carrying convicts. So in some sense it’s a kind of echo or a prophecy of what was going to happen to Australia in that respect."

Professor McCalman said at the time the ship was sold and then scuttled in Newport Harbour, the British had no appreciation for how significant it would become.

"It wasn’t as though it was a specially built boat," he said.

"The ships that Cook took subsequently were specially designed but this was an old coal collier and they just thought it would be useful, nor, of course, did they know how significant .

"This was before anyone had even thought of sending out people to Australia, so it wasn’t such a spectacular event at that time.

"It was a bit of land that had been discovered, it didn’t seem to be particularly promising so they weren’t all wildly ecstatic about it, so the boat just went back into service."

- with AAP