By: John Berthelsen

For those interested in Captain James Cook’s 1768-71 voyage of discovery across the world in the bark Endeavour, author Peter Moore delivers up quite a package. We do not actually meet Cook until page 113, having spent the first 29 pages in a learned discussion of how an acorn becomes an oak tree, and how the village of Whitby, on the English coast, grew into a great manufactory of colliers – seagoing barquentines carrying coals to Newcastle. It is a book rich in detail as the acorn episode indicates, because this is a biography of a ship as well as what at the time was one of the world’s great explorations – the three-year voyage to discover the continent of Australia.  

Nonetheless, after we get the acorns and the history of Whitby out of the way, Moore delivers a fascinating book. It was one of those barks – which had spent considerable part of its life hauling coal as the Earl of Pembroke — that in 1768 was purchased by the Royal Navy and renamed Endeavour, which would become one of the most famous ships in history despite its modest dimensions — measuring just 98 feet in length and 29 feet in the beam and requiring an extensive refit to replace the vast coal hold and replace it to house a crew of nearly 100 men. Most of them were surprisingly young, with only one, the ship’s carpenter, aged 49.

Cook was a taciturn captain, little known before he took over the vessel. Its most illustrious passenger was Joseph Banks, who would go on to head the Royal Society for more than decades and who was credited with bringing more than 30,000 plant and animal specimens home with him, enlarging European knowledge of the natural world by a full fifth. He would make Kew Gardens the world’s leading botanical garden. 

Another was Sydney Parkinson, a young Quaker with uncommon artistic ability who drew hundreds of specimens the ship collected. He would die tragically of the dysentery – the “bloody flux” – as the ship crossed the Indian Ocean on the way back to England. So did Charles Green, the astronomer who had made the voyage for Endeavour’s original purpose, to make for Tahiti, where it would participate in a great scientific experiment, the transit of the planet Venus across the Sun in 1869, which was to be coordinated with other observers across the planet. 

Significant numbers of crew and passengers aboard Endeavour were to die, mostly, it seems of bad diet and lack of hygiene. But they were nothing compared to a flotilla of four ships of the line and merchant vessels crewed by 1900 men led by Commodore George Anson in Centurion in horrific conditions. The British navy at that point apparently knew nothing of the dietary deficiencies that brought about scurvy and other diseases. Some 1,400 of the original crew would die of such diseases before the voyage ended.

Cook and Endeavour were much better off. They made the voyage down the South Atlantic, rounded Cape Horn and made it into the Pacific largely without incident, sailing for Tahiti, which Cook would name the Society Islands. After months there, they would sail on, accompanied this time by an extraordinary Tahitian named Tupaia, who would be extremely valuable when they reached New Zealand. 

The natives, they discovered, were astonishing navigators without the benefit of the compass. Cook himself, a taciturn leader, would marvel at their ability to navigate by the sun, moon and stars for hundreds of miles in what another observer called “the oldest, most sustained, and perhaps the most enigmatic effort of maritime exploration and migration in the history of the world.” 

When they made landfall, they were beset by an extraordinary sight – the first haka, the famous Maori war dance practiced by the football All Blacks today – ever seen by the west. The Maoris at first had little fear of the Englishmen, killing several of the crew, who fired back, before Tupaia could interact with them to make peace. In fact, from the time they got into we unexplored waters, they found no sympathy whatsoever for their voyage of discovery. They were often attacked until their vastly superior weaponry – muskets and cannon – put the fear of god into the natives.

It is there that Moore’s book details its most important conundrum. From Tahiti across the vast pacific, what they were discovering were paradises. And after their interaction, they would be paradises no longer. Cook himself, despite his taciturnity, would write in his log:

“From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland they may appear to be some of the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in tranquility which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: the earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent houses, Household-stuff &ct. They live in a warm and fine climate and enjoy a very wholesome air.”

 In short, he wrote, “they seem’d to set no value upon any thing they gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of life and that they have no superfluities.”

After mapping New Zealand and touching the coast of Australia, Endeavour would go complexly aground on the Great Barrier Reef, which rose precipitately out of the ocean.. It nearly wrecked the ship and almost certainly would have doomed the entire voyage but for superb seamanship on Cook’s part. Taking on water as much as a foot an hour, they made for Batavia – now Indonesia – where they could refit, reprovision and head for home

When they sailed up the Thames, it would be Banks, the great naturalist, and the Swedish botanist Daniel Solander whose names would be lionized. Cook, who had guided the ship through three years of peril, would see his name “lost in the glow of the naturalists,” Moore writes. Cook would go back to sea on two more exploratory voyages in the Pacific. He would be clubbed to death in Hawaii while trying to kidnap Queen Kalani’op’u in an attempt to reclaim a cutter that had been stolen from his crew.

Endeavour would be largely forgotten as well, being turned into a troop transport to the Falklands for the next three years. She was renamed the Lord Sandwich again as a troop transport during the American War of Independence and was scuttled in a blockade off Rhode Island. She remains in memory, however, as the space shuttle Endeavour, who made 25 trips into space before being retired in 2011.