The ship Endeavour

Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World”
by Peter Moore. Penguin Random House UK, 2018; 420 pp.

Reviewed by Sandy Marsters
For Points East

You’re right, that’s not the way we spell “endeavor” on this side of the Atlantic. Well, sometimes we do, like when we’re naming a space shuttle that’s bound on a great and courageous journey of science and discovery, and we want to honor another great voyage, that of the bark Endeavour, which carried Capt. James Cook on a game-changing and historic trip to the South Pacific.

Before retiring in 2011, Endeavour the space ship flew 122,883,151 miles and spent 299 days in space. The ship Endeavour suffered a less glorious end, but only after sailing tens of thousands of miles over 14 years through some of American and British history’s most tumultuous times.

Throughout this splendid book, author Peter Moore plays wonderful tricks with time, space and perspective to create a fascinating and gripping history of this modest ship. For example, we don’t meet Endeavour at the time of her launch, but when she was nothing more than an idea and a tree. Lots of trees.

“Endeavour’s life starts in an unrecorded time, in a subterranean space several inches deep,” Moore writes. There, as summer fades into autumn, an oak tree begins life as an acorn.” Moore then gives us a fascinating education in forestry before eventually launching her. The details are always interesting enough that we aren’t impatient for him to get on with the story.

The ship that would become Endeavour was launched Earl of Pembroke in the coastal town of Whitby in 1764 to carry coal. In 1768, the Royal Navy bought her for a trip to the South Seas. This was the Age of Enlightenment, and British ambitions knew no bounds. During her travels, Endeavour and her crew would chart an entirely new hemisphere.

The charm of Moore’s approach to this story is his filmmaker’s skill at switching perspectives. A mile off the coast of New Zealand, 90 sets of eyes on the ship stare at the natives on the beach. “So penetrating does their gaze seem,” writes Moore, “it’s easy to think the attention travels in one direction.”

Then, he puts us ashore, looking out. “At many times during Endeavour’s voyage more eyes stared back at the ship than gazed out from her.” What those eyes often saw was not a ship, but a “godlike creature” or a “fledgling bird.”

From one account of those on shore: “Yes, it is so: These people are goblins, their eyes are on the back of their heads; they pull on shore with their backs to the land to which they are going.” Of course rowing made no sense to them.

It isn’t until they come in closer contact that the playing field is leveled, the two sides see each other as merely human, and the inevitable conflict begins.

Not many years later, Endeavour, re-christened the Earl of Sandwich to flatter a benefactor, plays a crucial role in the painful birth of the United States of America. In fact, Moore writes, the arc of the ship’s life closely traced that of the nascent country’s political strife.

That her inglorious end came in the mud at the bottom of Newport Harbor in no way detracts from the magnificent and historic life of this simple, heroic ship.

Sandy Marsters, along with Bernie Wideman, is one of the founders of Points East, and was its editor for many years.

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