BookBrowse Reviews Endeavour by Peter Moore

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The Ship That Changed the World

by Peter Moore

Endeavour by Peter Moore X
Endeavour by Peter Moore
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  • First Published:
    May 2019, 432 pages

    Jul 2020, 448 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book



From prolific travel writer Peter Moore comes a compelling nonfiction account of one of the most significant ships in the history of British exploration.

Miriam-Webster defines a biography as "a usually written history of a person's life." One might argue, therefore, that biographies can't be written about inanimate objects, and perhaps that's true. However, Peter Moore's latest work, Endeavour, defies that notion, describing "the most significant ship in the history of British exploration" in such a way that it feels like a living, breathing entity.

The HMS Endeavour (aka the HM Bark Endeavour) is best known as the Royal Navy vessel that Lieutenant James Cook commanded during his first voyage of discovery (1768-1771), during which she became the first European ship to reach the east coast of Australia. But Moore points out that the ship actually had three distinct "lives" – three different purposes, three different names. She was manufactured at the shipyards in Whitby and was launched in 1764 as a collier (a ship for transporting coal) under the name Earl of Pembroke — a rather unglamorous beginning.

Round and sturdy rather than sleek and graceful she had no dashing figurehead on her bows and no gingerbread work – those ornamental carvings that brought life to the sides of men-of-war. Under sail, she made a maximum seven or eight knots with an even wind abaft her beam, about half the rate of a frigate at full tilt. She behaved well at single anchor in the shallows, but otherwise she had no noteworthy sailing qualities.

Her rise to stardom, so to speak, came as the result of a rare astronomical event that Britain's Royal Society wanted to study but which was best observed from the Southern Hemisphere (see Beyond The Book), necessitating sending a select group of scientists abroad. The project ultimately became "a joint venture between the Royal Society and the navy. The Royal Society would take responsibility for the observations while the navy would supply the vessel and the nautical expertise." Time was short, and those looking for an appropriate ship could find only three that could be refitted for the task quickly. Of these, the Earl of Pembroke was deemed the better option based on "availability, utility and condition," according to the author. She was purchased and set sail in 1768 under her new name, Endeavour.

Endeavor's third "life" came after her retirement from the navy. Privately purchased, her new owner, James Mather, rented her back to the Royal Navy to transport troops and supplies across the Atlantic during the Revolutionary War. Rechristened Lord Sandwich 2, the ship left Portsmouth in 1776; unfortunately, she became one of several the British scuttled in Newport Bay on August 4, 1778, to block the French navy from helping the American colonists.

Moore describes each of the ship's adventures in great detail, concentrating not only on the voyages, but on the times that shaped how she was used. He focuses particularly on the politics of the day, citing historical events such as the Wilkes Riots in London in 1768 and disputes over the Falkland Islands during the 1770s as influences on British policy and ultimately on Endeavour. He also vividly depicts the sights, sounds and smells in areas that the ship would have visited, such as Whitby, London and Tahiti. Finally, he brings to life the men who held Endeavour's fate in their hands, such as master ship-builder Thomas Fishburn, explorer James Cook and botanist Joseph Banks. The first voyage to Australia makes up the lion's share of the narrative, but all sections are equally fascinating.

Moore's prose occasionally bogs down the narrative, as does his tendency to elaborate on minor details. The first chapter of the book, for example, is a treatise on how acorns produce oak trees and the oak's place in British imagination; the lengthy analysis of the type of wood the ship's made of comes across as unnecessary. Many other dense sections that seem only tangentially related to the ship are scattered throughout the book, slowing down the pace. Endeavour is obviously a labor of love, however, extensively researched and engaging, and well worth plowing through the less relevant sections. Most who enjoy historical non-fiction (particularly those who revel in detail) will find it an interesting read.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2019, and has been updated for the August 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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