Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World
By Peter Moore
Chatto & Windus, London, 2018
Pop quiz: What does “endeavour” mean to you?
a) To attempt, to strive, to exert oneself towards achieving some goal,
b) The name of Captain Cook’s ship,
c) Inspector Morse’s first name.
If you answered “d) All of the above”, you would be absolutely correct! It is also the title of a book by writer and historian Peter Moore about the ship Endeavour.
Peter Moore has attempted, or should I say endeavored, something unique. Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World is the biography, not of a person, but of a ship. From conception through death, he tells the life story of Her Majesty’s Bark Endeavour, the ship made famous by her voyage around the world from 1768 to 1771 under the command of the remarkable Captain James Cook.
In any ordinary biography, you would expect the author to explore not just the life of the subject person, but also their immediate family, their ancestry, their teachers, coaches and others who influenced their life, the historical and social context in which they lived, and finally the long-term impact the person had on their communities and in some cases on history itself.
Endeavour is no different. Moore delves into all these aspects of Endeavour’s life. In fact, if there’s a flaw in the book it is that he strays far beyond the people and events that matter in Endeavour’s story. More on that later.
The first three chapters of the book describe the origins and construction of the ship. The core of the book, seven of its thirteen chapters, covers preparations for the around-the-world journey, the journey itself, and its immediate aftermath. The final three chapters are about the period after Endeavour’s return to England until its final demise.
I’m going to sketch out the highlights of Endeavour’s life as told by Moore, and then give some unsolicited feedback.
Let’s start with some particulars.
Despite her fame, there was nothing fancy or glamorous about Endeavour. She was a collier, a ship built for transporting coal. Endeavour was 97’ 7” long, 23’ 3” across her beam, and had a cargo capacity or “burthen” of 368 tons. She was neither fast, with a top speed of only 7-8 knots, nor sleek, having a flat bottom and a broad-nosed bow.
Endeavour was built in 1764 at the shipyard of master builder Thomas Fishburn in Whitby, England. Actually, let’s wind back even further. Whitby-built colliers like Endeavour were made from solid oak, likely sourced nearby in Yorkshire. It took about 200 mature oak trees to build a ship the size of Endeavour. And it takes roughly 100 years for an oak to mature enough to be used for shipbuilding. So as Peter Moore says, Endeavour really began as acorns germinating in Yorkshire soil around 1664.
Launched in June of 1764, the ship was originally named Earl of Pembroke. Her first owner was a coal trader named Thomas Milner. Fittingly, she hauled coal from Newcastle to London on her maiden voyage and spent the next three years, until the end of 1767, in the coal trade.
Earl of Pembroke leaving Whitby Harbor in 1768 by Thomas Luny
South Sea Expedition, 1768-1771
The real history of Endeavor starts at a dinner of the Royal Society on January 7, 1768. At this dinner, the big-wigs of Britain’s scientific community decide to dispatch teams of scientists across the planet to observe the Transit of Venus which was to occur on June 3, 1769.
What on Earth is a transit of Venus? Well a transit of any type occurs when a planet or a moon passes in front of the sun. Seen from Earth, a transit of Venus looks like a small black dot moving across the sun. A solar eclipse, where our Moon passes in front of the sun is technically a transit too. But because the moon is so much closer to Earth, it blots out the whole sun instead of just looking like a black dot. And why was the transit so important that the Royal Society wanted to observe it from multiple locations? Back in 1716, Sir Edmund Halley, the Halley of Halley’s Comet, figured out a way to calculate the distance from Earth to the sun by using small differences in measurements of the transit of Venus taken from different points on the Earth’s surface. People didn’t know back in the 1700’s that Earth was 93-million miles from the sun.
The Royal Society decided that one of the observation parties would be sent to the Pacific island of Tahiti.
There was another motivation for sending a ship to the South Pacific: to find the Southern Continent. At that time, there was great speculation that a large, undiscovered land mass existed in the South Pacific Ocean. England had just won the Seven Years’ War against France and had taken possession of France’s colonies in North America. However, the rivalry with France was still contentious, and Britain wanted to find and claim any Southern Continent for itself, before the French found it. A ship that just happened to be in Tahiti for the transit of Venus could very easily continue southward to find or disprove the existence of any Southern Continent.
For this mission, the Royal Navy purchased Earl of Pembroke from Thomas Milner on or about March 29, 1768 for £2860, probably leaving Milner wealthy enough to retire. The Navy then extensively refitted Earl of Pembroke at the naval yards at Deptford and renamed the ship Endeavour on April 5, 1768.
James Cook, who had also lived in Whitby, was appointed captain in May. Although Endeavour was owned by the Navy and under the command of a naval captain, its crew included a remarkable compliment of civilian scientists including botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, illustrator Sydney Parkinson, and astronomer Charles Green. As Moore notes,
“The Earl of Pembroke had been a machine for making money. Endeavour had become a machine for making knowledge.” [p. 144]
Endeavour left London on July 30, 1768 and arrived in Tahiti in late April of 1769 about five or six weeks before the transit. Moore makes an interesting comparison between Endeavour’s journey to Tahiti to observe the transit and Apollo 11’s trip to the moon almost exactly 200 years later. Endeavour remained on the island until July 13. The ship left Tahiti with a new passenger; a Pacific Islander named Tupaia. Without instruments or charts, Tupaia guided Endeavour from Tahiti to the Society Islands including Ra’iatea and Bora Bora. By October, Endeavour reached the east coast of New Zealand. Cook and his crew spent the next six months carefully mapping the New Zealand coastline. Sailing east, Endeavour became the first European vessel to reach the east coast of Australia in April 1770, famously landing at Botany Bay, just south of modern-day Sydney.
Shortly before midnight on June 10, 1770, Endeavour ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef causing a gaping hole in its hull. The crew spend the next two months frantically repairing the ship and navigating in and around the reef, trying to avoid being smashed to bits against it by the rolling South Pacific seas.
They eventually reached the Dutch port of Batavia in Indonesia, and from there headed home, reaching England on July 12, 1771.
In some ways, the voyage was a mixed success. The measurements of the transit of Venus proved to be less precise than the Royal Society had hoped. Although Cook sailed deep into the South Pacific without finding a southern continent, the question had not been completely settled. The treasure trove of botanical samples, tens of thousands of them, brought back by Banks and Solander was incredibly exciting to scientists but of little immediate strategic value to Britain. One exception to this were the undisputed accomplishments of Captain Cook. His charts and maps would guide future voyages for decades to come. His ability to remain calm in situations of life-threatening danger undoubtedly saved the ship from destruction on the Reef.
“Perhaps the Admiralty’s greatest discovery on the Endeavour voyage was Cook himself.” [p. 259]
After Cook’s South Sea expedition, Endeavour played a less central role in the events of her day. From 1772-1774, she made three trips from England to the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina to resupply and finally to evacuate the British troops stationed there. Ironic that Britain and Argentina would fight a war over those same islands 200 years later in 1982.
In March 1775 the British Navy decided Endeavour was no longer fit for military service and sold her. In December, she was determined to be unfit even for use as a transport ship for moving troops and supplies to North America where a rebellion was brewing. The new owners apparently spent a little money refurbishing the ship and, in a clever bit of marketing, renamed her Lord Sandwich after the First Lord of the Admiralty. In February 1776, she was hired as a transport ship.
On July 13, 1776, Lord Sandwich collided with another ship en route from Halifax to New York City in story weather, suffering only minor damage apparently. Cook would have been appalled had he known. By January 1777, she was anchored off Newport, Rhode Island and used as a prison ship by the British to incarcerate captured American rebels.
“The Lord Sandwich had become a perversion of everything Endeavour had represented. Endeavour had always been characterized by action. She had crossed the Atlantic time and again, she had sailed the South Seas and Indian Ocean. All this time sailors had teemed over her masts, yards and decks: reefing, furling, setting, drawing, tightening, heaving, loosening, knotting, spinning yarn. The naturalists Banks and Solander had leapt from gunwale to gunwale, all to satisfy the thrill of a moment, to catch a glimpse of a rare plumage or an iridescent sparkle on the waves. To be confined aboard at Rio was Banks’s idea of hell. By 1777 this had all gone. Lord Sandwich was now locked in her station: anchors down, sails struck, hatches bolted, sentries posted, spirits suppressed. The people locked inside her resembled ghosts. She resembled a ghost herself.” [pp. 328-9]
Finally, on August 3, 1778, Lord Sandwich was deliberately scuttled off Goat Island to prevent French warships from sailing into Newport harbor and aiding American rebels. A sad end for such a brave ship.
Endeavour was afloat for just 14 years, from 1764 to 1778. Had she remained in the coal trade as Earl of Pembroke, she might have stayed in service for 60 to 90 years like other Whitby-built colliers. Yet she would have had a far less significant life. She would be unknown to us today.
Endeavour is a meticulously researched book. Moore has unearthed an amazing amount of detail about the people, places and events that figure in Endeavour’s story. But it does not read like an academic work.
Moore narrates the story of the South Sea voyage with enthusiasm and intensity. He makes you feel like you are on board the ship. You get to know the crew. You experience their fears and struggles and also their excitement and triumphs. The chapter dealing with Endeavour’s encounter with the Great Barrier Reef is especially tense and well-told.
My one complaint about the book is that Moore frequently strays off into maddening digressions about people and events that are only tangentially connected to Endeavour’s story. This goes well beyond providing context or background details. Fortunately, there are fewer of these distractions in the heart of the book dealing with the South Sea voyage.
I think Moore does a good job trying to present a balanced view of Endeavour. On the one hand, he shows how Endeavour symbolized the spirit of daring and exploration and scientific inquiry during the Enlightenment. Even the name “Endeavour” captures that spirit.
“According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to endeavour is ‘to exert oneself to the utmost’, an endeavour being ‘a strenuous attempt or enterprise’. Even that is only the beginning. To endeavour is to quest after something not easily attained, perhaps verging on the impossible. It is something one feels impelled towards or duty-bound to pursue nonetheless.” [p. 5]
Maybe this is one reason why the story of Endeavour captured the imagination of the British public back in the 1770’s and why we’re still fascinated by it today.
On the other hand, Moore tells stories of Endeavour’s arrival from the perspectives of Tahitians, Maoris and Australian aboriginals. For as much as Endeavour was sent to observe, it too was the subject of observation. He recognizes that the coming of Endeavour signaled the onset of colonialism and the destruction of the way of life of the peoples of the Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia.
The spirit of Endeavour may be inspiring, but her legacy is complex.