A new book recounts the life and times of Endeavour, the rugged Whitby ship that changed the map of the world. Harry Mead enjoys the adventure

TOWARDS the end of her epic voyage, you feel real affection for the much-battered Whitby collier. When she moored up in the Dutch East Indies, she was taking in up to 12 inches of water an hour. Her keel was badly damaged and worms had bored almost through her bottom.

That was HM Bark Endeavour, homeward in 1771 after three years in which she changed the map of the world. Her commander, Lieut James Cook, wrote of her reception: “It was matter of surprise to everyone who saw her how we had kept her above water. Yet in this condition we had sailed some hundreds of leagues in as dangerous a navigation as is in any part of the world.”

Cook also attributed to the “good qualities” of Endeavour his ability to have “remained so much longer in the South Sea than anyone had been able to do before”. Another naval commander, Hugh Paliser, who became governor of Newfoundland, endorsed his praise. He observed: “I am firmly of opinion that ships of no other kind are so proper for service in distant unknown parts as was Endeavour.”

The contrast between Endeavour as a member of a commonplace, bluntly unglamorous class of vessel and the achievement of her voyage, which established New Zealand as two islands and mapped Australia’s eastern seaboard, forms a central theme in the fullest biography of the Whitby-built vessel yet written*. Author Peter Moore grippingly relates how the former Whitby collier became “the most significant ship in the history of British navigation.”

He starts as far back as possible - with the trees, 200 oaks, from which Endeavour, originally named Earl of Pembroke after a contemporary top-brass soldier, was built. Not the particular trees, of course, but their possible sources. A strong contender is Commondale, on home ground near the head of the Esk. Advertised for sale there in 1762, two years before Endeavour was launched, were “500 oaks fit for ship’s timber for vessels of the larger size”.

Size – space for her 70 crew and provisions, assorted specialists such as artists, botanists, even an astronomer, and the specimens to be gathered on the voyage – was a major consideration in the selection of a collier – by the Admiralty, not Cook. Shallow draught and sheer strength were others. The designation ‘bark’ signified a type of collier – and not the least inelegant. Moore characterises a bark as “the plainer, rugged sibling of the cat (another collier type), without the swagger of the projecting stern.”

Moore paints a vivid picture of Endeavour’s career as a typical collier – “the most settled period of her life.” Surprisingly, the colliers sailed in convoys, and sometimes hundreds awaited entry to the Thames. For the ambitious South Sea voyage, to track a transit of Venus across the sun and search for a southern continent, Endeavour was selected from a trio of colliers. Some naval men, snooty about merchant ships, held their noses. Moore observes: “The very idea of a collier in the sparkling waters of the Pacific must have seemed horrifyingly incongruous – like a debutante arriving at a Piccadilly ball arm-in-arm with a costermonger.”

But the indigenous people who saw Endeavour could make no such comparison. One Maori vision of her was of a huge fledgling bird. Some natives saw her as a god, conveying goblins. Her crew’s act of rowing with their backs to the bows confirmed them as other-world creatures, “with eyes in the back of their heads.”

The 30,000-mile voyage almost ended prematurely when Endeavour struck the then unknown Great Barrier Reef. Here Cook was fortunate. The coral partly plugged the punctured hull and when, with great difficulty but under Cook’s calm command, the ship was finally freed, the nearby shore proved ideal for beaching the vessel for repairs to be carried out. Back at sea, brilliant navigation by Cook located a gap in the reef, enabling Endeavour to sail clear and head for the Dutch East Indies.

Though no southern continent had been found, Endeavour carried 30,000 botanical specimens, of which 1,400 were unknown. They expanded the planet’s known flora by a fifth. The western world’s first observations of the kangaroo - not to mention the haka – had been made. But Moore says the Admiralty’s greatest discovery was Cook himself.

Promptly promoted to Captain, before long he embarked on a second voyage in another Whitby-built ship, Resolution. This time selected by himself, he admitted he preferred it to Endeavour.

But what of that peerless venturer? Here Moore breaks fresh ground. Until recently it was long believed Endeavour ended her days as a French whaler, which sank off Rhode Island. A fragment of that vessel’s sternpost was carried by the space-shuttle Endeavour in 1992. But research has established that wreck to be of Resolution.

Endeavour initially resumed naval service as a supply ship and troop carrier. On those tasks, she twice sailed to the Falklands. This adds to her distinction, says Moore, of having “explored the southern hemisphere more rigorously than any other vessel.”

There followed a role that Moore says has never previously been acknowledged. In 1776 Endeavour sailed with “the greatest land and sea force assembled by Great Britain until the D-Day landings.” In this Armada, intended to crush America’s rebel colonists, Endeavour served as a prison ship. But in 1778, she, along with four other vessels, was scuttled to protect Newport harbour against the French fleet, aiding the colonists. By amazing coincidence she and Resolution, which was the whaler, lie in virtually the same waters.

Moore calls Endeavour’s anti-climactic prison role “a perversion of everything she had represented.” But a search is on to identify the wreck and recover fragments. Moore perhaps drifts a bit off course, if avoiding foundering, by linking Endeavour closely to political and cultural change. He pictures the “foaming white” of her wake “drawing a line not only across water but through time; dividing a coherent, undisturbed past from a fractious, messy present.”

Her physical story provides interest enough. As Moore says: “She was at once utterly ordinary and completely extraordinary... Once afloat, she lived three distinct lives…in three theatres of history.” They’ll rarely be more engagingly recorded than here.

*Endeavour by Peter Moore (Chatto & Windus hb, £20)