Robert Mayhew

Vessel of Knowledge

Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude That Changed the World

By

Chatto & Windus 420pp £20 order from our bookshop

For readers not of a nautical persuasion, knowing that Captain James Cook’s famous expedition of 1768–71 took place aboard the Endeavour, and that the Endeavour was a type of vessel known as a Whitby collier, probably marks the limit of their interest in the ship that took him to the South Seas. (The really well informed may also know that the Resolution, the flagship for Cook’s second voyage to the South Seas, was the same type of vessel.) While the town of Whitby makes some capital out of its linkage with Cook via a museum, and while maritime historians and enthusiasts have researched the Endeavour exhaustively, the general reader has had no further reason to consider Cook’s ship. Until now, that is. Peter Moore’s elegant and entertaining new book offers us a fascinating biography of the Endeavour, using it as a window onto the broader world of the mid-18th-century English Enlightenment.

Moore’s book traces the whole life course of the Endeavour, both as a physical entity and as an icon. The first chapter looks at the northern English oaks that, planted around a hundred years earlier at the time of the Restoration, would have been felled to build it. The final chapter looks at the afterlives of the Endeavour as a symbol for the exploration of the unknown, listing, among other things, NASA’s decision to name the first space shuttle built following the Challenger disaster after the ship. NASA’s Endeavour (which tellingly retained the English spelling) took with it on its first mission a small piece allegedly from the stem post of Cook’s boat. Moore shows us that this was in fact a part of the Resolution, but the point still stands that, like a fragment of the true cross, the Endeavour has come to stand for a broader faith in exploration.

The bulk of Moore’s narrative attends to the three lives Cook’s vessel lived in the fourteen years between its launch in 1764 and its deliberate scuttling in 1778, only the middle one of which has been well known until now. In its first incarnation as the Earl of Pembroke, the ship plied the trade it was designed for, ferrying coal between the northeast of England and London. Moore has researched the culture of Whitby boat building extensively and is able to make technical details sparkle for the general reader. ‘Far from being an obscure business on a provincial river,’ he notes, the dockyards of Whitby became ‘something of a Georgian Cape Canaveral: a launch site for expeditions to new worlds’. Sailing along Britain’s North Sea coast, Moore reveals, remained a perilous business in the mid-18th century, not simply because of storms and extreme weather, but also because of piracy.

Mooring in the Thames was a regular occurrence for a Whitby collier, and it was here that the Earl of Pembroke was recruited to the Royal Navy on account of its sturdiness and reliability. Whitby colliers had previously only been repurposed as naval transport ships, and Moore cannot fully unravel the central mystery of why this particular vessel was selected. Whatever the reason, considerably rebuilt internally to transport men, specimens and equipment, the Earl of Pembroke was transmuted into the Endeavour.

Unsurprisingly, Moore’s account of the vessel’s second incarnation is the part of the book that adds least to our knowledge because this subject has been so extensively researched already. He tells the stories of different voyagers on board, notably the scientist Joseph Banks, the artist Sydney Parkinson and Cook himself. Moore also pays substantial attention to encounters with indigenous cultures, notably through a chapter focusing on Tupaia, a native of the island of Ra’iātea who came aboard the Endeavour in Tahiti, navigated it through the South Seas (in a breach of normal naval protocol) and eventually died on board.

The Endeavour’s third life had two stages. First, still part of His Majesty’s Navy, it served as a supply craft in a minor tussle with Spain over the Falkland Islands in the early 1770s, a confrontation that attracted the ire of Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole. Thereafter, the ship was left to fester in England; it was eventually sold back into private hands in all but unseaworthy condition. But as the American War of Independence escalated in severity, the Endeavour, refitted and rebranded as the Lord Sandwich, became part of the fleet of transport vessels taking soldiers and supplies to North America. Once on the other side of the Atlantic, the Lord Sandwich’s spacious decks – having been tailored that way for Cook’s voyages – made it an ideal floating prison for captured American soldiers. This proved to be its final role before it was scuttled in 1778 to defend British fortifications on Rhode Island.

This is a beautifully crafted book, but it does at times overreach itself. Moore’s depiction of the Endeavour as ‘one of the most significant objects of the entire Enlightenment’ is a pardonable exaggeration. But he also tries to frame the Enlightenment as a whole as a ‘culture of endeavour’, a simplification that is unconvincing (it also results in the rather clunky subtitle of the book). Yes, diligence, business and action were at the heart of the Enlightenment. Yes, ‘endeavour’ was a term with strong positive connotations in the period. And yes, Moore’s narrative shows that these values are powerfully embodied in the story of Cook’s vessel. But there were many other enlightenments too – clerical, conservative, radical and satirical, to name a few. Broad-bottomed as a Whitby collier may be, it cannot be asked to carry such a historical burden.

Quibbles aside, however, Endeavour is a deeply satisfying book. It represents an intelligent, diverse, fresh and challenging approach to writing the history of exploration. Paying homage to the remarkable lives of a single vessel, Peter Moore also gives the Endeavour a new lease of life long after its sinking.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter