A dense but enlightening history of a highly significant 18th-century vessel.
Moore (Creative Writing/Univ. of London and Univ. of Oxford; The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future, 2015, etc.) goes well beyond simple history or a mere tracking of the Endeavour’s exploits. Though the minutiae may seem daunting at first, readers should stick with it, as the narrative transforms into a page-turning, breathtaking adventure story for the ages. Built in 1764 and initially christened the Earl of Pembroke, the ship was flat-bottomed and featured an open hold, reinforced hull, and bulldog nose that was designed for strength rather than beauty. Her first life was as a collier, transporting coal to London. Enter Alexander Dalrymple, long a student of the South Seas, who was determined to find the southern continent, Terra Australis. The Royal Society appointed him as observer of the expected 1769 transit of Venus across the sun. The king’s funding made this an Admiralty voyage, which required a naval captain; officials didn’t choose Dalrymple, but they used his plans. James Cook would take the helm of the now renamed Endeavour, accompanied by naturalist Joseph Banks, who was well-versed in Carl Linnaeus’ new taxonomy system, and artist Sydney Parkinson. Idyllic days in Tahiti were followed by a complete circumnavigation and mapping of New Zealand and parts of Australia’s coast. The reactions to the ship’s arrival varied from distrust to fear to belligerence to aloofness. Her sudden discovery of the Great Barrier Reef illustrates just how perfect ship and captain were for the job. Among the many other discoveries thrillingly recounted by Moore: birds, fish, arthropods, and more than 30,000 botanical specimens. In her third life, the Endeavour made a series of journeys to the Falklands. As the author notes, “her biography roams across the history of the time, binding into a single narrative diverse moments of true historical significance.”
History at its most exciting and revealing.