Endeavour: The Ship That Changed the World
by Peter Moore
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Talk about good timing: Just as British author Peter Moore was putting the finishing touches on his biography of HMS Endeavour and its multifarious 18th-century voyages, marine archaeologists in Rhode Island pinpointed its final resting place near Newport, where in 1778 it had been scuttled by the British to prevent the French fleet from attacking.
Most historical books are about people, with boats, countries and conflicts as supporting characters. In a refreshing twist, Moore flips this formula and makes Endeavour the protagonist while James Cook, George III, Joseph Banks and others play minor roles. The ship that began life as a machine for making money became a machine for making knowledge.
Endeavour’s primary objective of recording the 1769 transit of Venus across the sun on Tahiti would prove to be only prologue to a list of profound accomplishments, including contact with new peoples and languages, detailed charts of New Zealand and Australia’s east coast, and the thousands of unknown flora and fauna specimens that crowded aboard the ship when she docked again in Dover.
From its humble beginnings in Yorkshire as a coal delivery barquentine, to its incredible voyage of discovery in the Southern Hemisphere, to its regrettable service as a prison ship in the American Revolutionary War, Moore takes the reader on a meticulously researched journey throughout the entire life of this singular ship, of which James Cook remarked, “A better ship for such a service I never would wish for.”
The high praise is well deserved. When Cook runs aground in the Great Barrier Reef, the ship is holed and rapidly takes on water. Things start to look bleak, as there were only enough small boats to offload part of the crew. But cool heads prevail, Endeavour’s hearty oak timbers refuse to succumb and they manage to limp into Queensland for repairs.
The book reads like an indie film; the reader must be patient as Moore develops the plot slowly and methodically. The subject does not enter the story until page 106 when a ship is registered on the list of the British Navy as a barque by the name of Endeavour, after the author has imparted an exhaustive primer on the French and Indian War, hundred-year oak trees and shipbuilding techniques of the 18th century.
But still, this highly readable narrative hits the mark with all the great qualities of a tale well told of a ship that played a key role in the Age of Enlightenment.