Book Review: Endeavour by Peter Moore

One of the most iconic explorations in all of history is that of the Endeavour: the Whitby built collier that circumnavigated the globe, discovering new territories in the Pacific, observing the Transit of Venus, and charting the coasts of New Zealand and Australia for the first time.

Both a scientific and a military expedition, the trip brought together a colourful cast of characters, including the eccentric scientist Joseph banks, who could often be found being towed along by the Endeavour across the ocean, the stoic Captain James Cook, Tahitian navigator Tupaia and many more.

people on beach during daytime
Whitby, UK, the birthplace of the Endeavour

The voyage has become legendary and a central part of many nations founding mythos – especially that of Australia and New Zealand. But this fascinating history by Peter Moore is not just the story of the ship itself, it’s the story of a time period driven by a passion for exploration, classification and the stirrings of empire; a time when concepts of endeavour and the notion of liberty itself were front and centre in politics and society.

The story begins in the aftermath of the Reformation, with King James encouraging the planting of oak trees after his famous escape from the army of Oliver Cromwell by climbing up one. Moore explores the ship from it’s earliest origins in Whitby, a fascinating window into a time period of England so different to the place we live today.

Throughout we’re treated to explorations of the wider side stories and convergences of fate that run alongside the story of the Endeavour: the publishing of the first British dictionary, riots in London slowing down the ships launch, the story of populist politician John Wilkes and the first stirrings of revolution in the Americas. All of these events have some impact on the life of the Endeavour, big or small, and all serve to give a real sense of the energy and passion of the late Eighteenth century.

The highlight of the narrative is the story of the circumnavigation itself, with a huge amount of detail provided. The challenges faced by the crews, the wonders they uncovered, is just as captivating today as it was to readers in Georgian London who made the celebrities of the intrepid explorers when they returned from their trip.

landscape photography of seashore under cumulus clouds
Tahiti

However, it’s impossible to separate the ideals of exploration from the reality of colonialism. While the dream of uncovering beautiful islands like undisturbed treasures glittering in the ocean is alluring, the reality is these islands had been home to people for thousands of years, and the arrival of these Europeans signified the beginning of the end of that traditional way of life. It’s an uncomfortable truth that the brave British sailors were proponents of the British empire who claimed ownership of this land for their king, planting British flags wherever they went and claiming land for their own.

However, interestingly, many of the worst racial ideas emerged later than these initial explorations and points of contact. Banks, Parkinson (the ship’s 18 year old artist who emerges as one of the most interesting characters in the bool) and Cook himself seem to have a great deal of respect for the islanders. They were also delivered ‘hints’ from the Royal Society to leave the natives unharmed if possible, with the warning that the Polynesians are the ‘legal possessors’ of their territories, which ‘no European nation’ has the right to remove. The crew was unable to stick to these ideals, which is a shameful legacy of the voyage.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to try and imagine yourself as one of these explorers, coming across undiscovered lands of natural beauty and previously isolated communities with cultures so different from their own. Even more interesting though is what the islanders themselves thought: comparable only perhaps to an alien spaceship landing outside your front door.

The culture shock reached a pitch when Polynesian explorer Tupaia joined the crew, taking up a navigational role. The Royal Navy, known for its scientific precision, was met by an explorer equally as precise. Aboard, he prayed for better winds, and knew intimately where the ship was and where it was going – without the use of any of sextants,  telescopes or clocks. Who knows what the crew really thought of the islanders, but it’s clear that Cook understood that these navigators were just as good, if not far better – as European sailors, without any of the tools they relied on. 

ocean waves crashing on black rock formation under white clouds and blue sky during daytime
Rhode Island, USA, where the Endeavour was used as a prison ship during the American Revolution

The narrative is gripping – at times more an action than a historical retelling. The deaths of some of the central characters, just weeks before returning to loved ones in England, packs an emotional punch not often present in a history book. This is also true of the strange ending for the ship – a deployment to the falklands, and then use in the American revolution as a squalid prison ship. It’s sad to think of such an icon, one that really should have been preserved in museum, become forgotten and dilapidated, a slice of history forever lost. 

Some might say the story of the Endeavour almost mirrors that of Britain’s Empire itself – a small town built ship, made powerful by the Royal Navy, before traversing the entire world, discovering and claiming new territories. Becoming dilapidated, war and growing tensions between nations eventually caused the ship to be locked down, constantly pumped to stay afloat – until it is scuttled off the coast of the United States. It’s hard not to see the symbolism!

Moore brings this detailed history to life, and he closes with a balanced and though provoking introspective of the Endeavours legacy, both positive and negative, and of the new age of colonisation and subjugation it heralded. Like most of Britain’s history, there are aspects to be very proud of, and shameful episodes that cannot be forgotten or brushed over. I’d highly recommend this book as both a fascinating story of adventure and an exploration of the legacy of the age of the endeavour. 

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