A Sunday Times (U.K.) Best Book of 2018 and Winner of the Mary Soames Award for History
An unprecedented history of the storied ship that Darwin said helped add a hemisphere to the civilized world
The Enlightenment was an age of endeavors, with Britain consumed by the impulse for grand projects undertaken at speed. Endeavour was also the name given to a collier bought by the Royal Navy in 1768. It was a commonplace coal-carrying vessel that no one could have guessed would go on to become the most significant ship in the chronicle of British exploration.
The first history of its kind, Peter Moore’s Endeavour: The Ship That Changed the World is a revealing and comprehensive account of the storied ship’s role in shaping the Western world. Endeavour famously carried James Cook on his first major voyage, charting for the first time New Zealand and the eastern coast of Australia. Yet it was a ship with many lives: During the battles for control of New York in 1776, she witnessed the bloody birth of the republic. As well as carrying botanists, a Polynesian priest, and the remains of the first kangaroo to arrive in Britain, she transported Newcastle coal and Hessian soldiers. NASA ultimately named a space shuttle in her honor. But to others she would be a toxic symbol of imperialism.
Through careful research, Moore tells the story of one of history’s most important sailing ships, and in turn shines new light on the ambition and consequences of the Age of Enlightenment.
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Endeavour's life starts in an unrecorded time, in a subterranean space several inches deep. There, as summer fades into autumn, an oak tree begins life as an acorn.
An acorn is a capsule, protected by a waxy skin. Inside is stored a genetic code and enough nutrients, tannins and essential oils to sustain it during its fragile early weeks. In September, it begins to grow, slowly, until after a fortnight its shell bursts open. For the first time, the acorn's insides can be seen. The ochre hue of the kernel contrasts sharply with the mahogany-brown of the shell, which cracks under the strain. A root dives downward, a tiny probe, seeking water and nutrients. By November, as the earth above gets a coating of frost, the husk of its shell has been pushed clear. In its place are the earliest signs of a stem, which ventures up, seeking light.
After four months the acorn's shell is shattered and discarded and gone. The stem is now the central feature of the tiny plant. It continues to rise. At six months, as the April sun begins to strengthen, it breaks through the soil. It seems other-worldly, blanched, ethereal, like a skeletal arm in a clichéd horror film reaching from the grave. Within days this pallor subsides and a vibrant, joyous green overspreads it. The acorn of the previous autumn is gone. In its place is a seedling oak, an oakling, two inches tall, capped with a pair of helicopter leaves that tilt and turn and thrill to the sun. The plant has no longer to rely on its inbuilt store of energy. Now it photosynthesises in the sunshine, the newest addition to a woodland floor, hidden among brambles, bluebells and wood anemone. More leaves appear and already for those who study it closest they display their familiar, lobed form. As summer progresses these leaves emit a golden glow. Soon the oakling stands out among the flowers, exposed to rabbits, voles, browsing cattle or deer, but otherwise filled with promise for the future.
* * *
No one can say for certain just where the oaks that made Endeavour grew. Thomas Fishburn, the Whitby shipwright in whose yard she was built in 1764, left no records. Perhaps they have been lost or destroyed. Perhaps they did not exist to begin with.
Some might say that the trees grew in the snow-carpeted forests of central Poland. Cut with axes in the bitter continental winter, the timber would be floated down the Vistula to Danzig where it would be sold and loaded into the holds of merchantmen bound for Britain. Plying the old sea paths, those once sailed by the portly cogs of the Hanseatic League, the merchantmen would cross the Baltic, thread through the strait that separates Denmark from Sweden before entering the subdued mass of water called the German Ocean that conducted them to England's eastern shore.
Roger Fisher, a shipwright from Liverpool, voiced a different theory. In 1763 he wrote that the eastern shipbuilding ports of 'North Yarmouth, Hull, Scarborough, Stocton, Whitby, Sunderland, Newcastle, and the North coast of Scotland' sourced their oak chiefly from the fertile lowlands that bordered the rivers Trent and Humber. Writing at the moment Endeavour's oak would have been reaching the Whitby yards, Fisher's opinion cannot be discarded. But, equally, it seems more flimsy the more that it is examined. Fisher was a west-coast man. He confessed to having little knowledge of the ways of the eastern ports. All that he had gathered had come second- or third-hand.
Fisher was writing to a different purpose, too. His book on British oak, Heart of Oak: the British Bulwark, was published in 1763, a loaded year in history. This was the year the Treaty of Paris concluded the Seven Years War. During this conflict England's woodlands had suffered violent incursions from foresters, determined to supply the growing navy. Like so many before him, Fisher had been left cold by the destruction. He saw it everywhere. The forests, woods, hursts and chases of Old England were vanishing and he filled his Heart of Oak with evidence of this. Contacts in the timber trade had told him 'fifteen parts out of twenty' of England's woodlands had been 'exhausted within these fifty years'. The axe had been thrown indiscriminately. In the river valleys and sunny southern fields, in Wales and the ancient Midland forests, the story was the same.
To Fisher's mind the country stood as a pivot between the virtuous homespun past and a bleak treeless future. To underscore his theme Fisher evoked a vision of yesteryear. He pictured a landowner, at one with nature, 'a little cloyed with enjoyment', and wishing 'to retire from business, or for the sake of meditation', taking a saunter in his spacious woodlands. This was the Horatian ideal, liberty from the cares and distractions of the city. Using the present tense to enhance the sense of loss, Fisher described how:
The variety of the scene revives his drooping spirits. On the branch of a full topt oak, at a small distance, the blackbird and thrush warble forth their notes, and, as it were, bless their benefactor. A little farther, the turtle dove, having lost his mate, sends forth his mournful plaint, till, by means of echo from a neighbouring wood, passing through the silent air, the happy pair are again united. Variety of changes draw on the pleasing hour amongst the massy bodies of the full-grown oaks and thriving plants. The prospect of his country's good warms his heart.
Anticipating Rachel Carson's Silent Spring by two centuries, Roger Fisher was depicting the same vision of a paradise lost. Recent scholarship has indicated, though, that the oak problem was not as grave as he believed. Fisher may well have suffered a form of environmental panic, half seen, half felt, a type that would become increasingly prevalent in times ahead. In the 1760s attitudes like his masked a historical truth. In the mid-eighteenth century, as Thomas Fishburn went searching for faithful timber, there might not have been an abundance of oak – but there was still plenty left.
* * *
Ancient, twisted, vast, with their goliath limbs outstretched, almost every English parish had its own loved oak, a timeless presence on the landscape. When the clergyman and naturalist Gilbert White started to document the natural history of Selborne in Hampshire in the 1760s, he set out with a description of the village oak. He wrote mournfully of a 'venerable' tree that had stood in the centre of Selborne on a green by the church. The oak had a 'short squat body, and huge horizontal arms extending almost to the extremity of the area'. For centuries it had been 'the delight of old and young'. Parishioners had surrounded it with stone steps, and had erected seats around it so that it had become 'a place of much resort in summer evenings'. The village elders had made it their custom to congregate at the Selborne oak 'in grave debate', while the young parishioners 'frolicked and danced before them'.
A similar story came from White's contemporary, Reverend Sir John Cullum, who included a description of the parish oak in the opening paragraph of his History and Antiquities of Hawsted, and Hardwick (1784). Cullum wrote of 'a majestic tree' named the Gospel Oak that 'stood on an eminence, and commanded an extensive prospect'. On his annual 'perambulations' Cullum and his congregation would pause in the shade of the tree, and 'surveying a considerable extent of a fruitful and well-cultivated country, repeat some prayers proper for the occasion'. This image of the worshipful parishioners under the village oak is a vivid one, and Cullum was only doing what generations had done before him. A millennium before, the Anglo-Saxons had been buried in hollowed-out trunks of oak. People had pinned oak leaves to their jackets as signs of fealty and carried acorns in their pockets for luck.
If people recognised the oak's potency as a symbol, they venerated the tree equally for its strength. No tree could compete. A favourite classical tale told of Milo of Croton in ancient Greece. 'Renowned in history for his prodigious strength', explained a book in the 1760s, Milo was six times victor at the Olympic Games, 'he is said to have carried on his shoulders the whole length of a stadium an ox four years old; to have killed it with a single blow of his fist; and to have eaten the whole carcass in one day'. The story was subverted by Milo's demise. Having found an old oak, to flaunt his strength Milo had tried to rip it open with his hands. As he grasped the tree, it closed around him. In an instant the oak had transformed Greece's strongest man into its most tragic victim. Unable to free himself, a pack of wolves had emerged, tearing Milo to pieces.
People did not need to know Milo's story to recognise the oak's strength. They only had to look around them, to the great manor houses and cathedrals that adorned the landscape, to the towers and bridges and a hundred everyday objects from mill wheels to casks, cudgels, daggers and poles. To look at the parish oak as Cullum and White did during these years was to stir associations of quiet, brooding might. Both intrigued by nature, the clergymen may have realised that an oak derives its strength from its shape. A mature specimen can be three times as wide as it is tall. On a January day when the tree is stripped of its leaves you can absorb this. There it stands, serpentine limbs outstretched. When winds whip through these branches they sway and strain like levers, gathering up elemental energy. The forces are channelled backwards, from the budding tips, to the smallest branches and back along the boughs to the trunk. The motion creates massive stress forces. When 60 mph winds gust against the tree, it is equivalent to a weight of 220 tons. Oaks, like all nature, seek equilibrium. They respond by fortifying their wood and stiffening their fibres.
This is what the oaks would have done at Hawstead and Selborne, as would the other cherished English oaks: the Darley Oak in Cornwall, the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire or the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest. In a society changing fast, these oak trees provided powerful links with the past. They were the perpetual survivors, the time-hallowed, stoic relics of a medieval age. But these were not the trees that had made the country great. Those that had were the young oaks, aged between 50–150 years old, felled in a continuous harvest to build anything that had to last and needed to be strong. As the Cambridge ecologist Oliver Rackham later put it, this left England a place 'of young or youngish trees, like a human population with compulsory euthanasia at age thirty'.
* * *
It has been estimated that 200 mature oak trees were used in the construction of Endeavour, providing the raw materials for the great structural timbers inside her hull: her floors, futtocks and knees, all of her outer planking and most of her inner embellishments. In Heart of Oak, Roger Fisher may not provide a reliable location for the source of the Endeavour oaks, but he does offer a formula to suggest their age at the time they were felled. 'It is generally taken for granted, that an oak tree is at least one hundred years before it comes to its perfection', he writes, 'continues in that position one hundred years more, and gradually decays another hundred.' This rule of thumb would subsequently be sharpened by Robert Greenhalgh Albion in his Forests and Sea Power (1926):
The time for felling the great oaks was one of the chief problems of the timber grower. There was a 'psychological moment' for cutting, when the tree would yield a greater profit than at any other time. Oaks, it will be remembered, grow very slowly. The period of maturity is reached between the ages of eighty and a hundred and twenty years, when the tree attains a diameter of fifteen or eighteen inches. Up to that time it was not profitable to cut oaks for ship timber because of the additional value of a large-sized tree. Beyond that period of maturity, the risk of decay was great.
This dislocates Endeavour's story at its very beginning. It jolts the story from mercantile Britannia of 1764 to the more religiously fervent age of a century earlier: the reinvigorated England of Charles II, the Merrie Monarch, and his louche, extravagant Restoration court.
Always beloved by the English, at no time in the nation's history were oaks so idolised. Everyone knew the story of Charles II's – then Charles Stuart's – hairbreadth escape from the Parliamentarians following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Chased from the battlefield, Charles concealed himself in the branches of an oak in the grounds of Boscobel House on the border between Shropshire and Staffordshire. The day passed in suspense as Oliver Cromwell's soldiers prowled beneath. At Charles's bleakest moment the oak lent a providential hand. When restored as king in 1660, Charles exploited the story to its maximum. He appointed 29 May, the date of his return to London in 1660, as a national day of celebration, Oak Apple Day. Great processions marched through the City of London, the people dressed in costume as oak trees, representing 'a greate Wood, with the royal Oake, & historie of his Majesties miraculous escape at Bosco-bell &c'. In the years that followed, the towns across England filled with Royal Oak taverns, where people could drink Burton ale, eat Cheshire cheese, damn the French and feel more English than anywhere else.
It's a striking thought, the idea of the Endeavour's acorns germinating at the time that oak trees were being elevated as patriotic, national symbols. And if the 1660s brought a general celebration of all oak trees, it equally saw the beginning of modern attempts to scientifically understand what it was that made them so special. This movement was led by John Evelyn, the clever, inquisitive, founding fellow of the Royal Society. Today Evelyn is chiefly remembered for his diary – the cold-blooded twin to the warm-blooded diary kept by Samuel Pepys – but in the 1660s his reputation came from the book that would make his name: Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees (1664).
Sylva was a fresh and eloquent blend of classical thought, woodmanship, folklore and careful observation. When gathering the materials for Sylva Evelyn drew on his own personal knowledge and on the collective wisdom of a network of philosophically inclined correspondents. His ambition was to create a survey of English trees, emphasising utility, explaining the characteristics of various species and demonstrating how they could be raised and turned to practical advantage. Evelyn began, naturally, with the oak. He toyed with several scientific names for the tree. One was Robur from the Latin, signifying strength. Next was a second Latin term, Quercus. Whichever was best, Evelyn divided British oaks into a few distinctive 'kinds'. There was Quercus sylvestris, with its 'hard, black grain, bearing a smaller Acorn'. Evelyn glided over a type called Cerris, 'goodly to look on, but for little else'. Most interesting, he thought, was the Quercus urbana, which 'grows more up-right, and being clean, and lighter is fittest for Timber'.
Wanting to encourage the growing of oaks, Evelyn set out the space required for the tree to grow or 'amplifie'; ideal conditions for planting, raising and transplanting; and the importance of surrounding young trees with thorns or stakes to defend them from cattle or protect from the 'concussions of the Winds'. How they grew, he advised, very much depended on their setting. He warned that 'the Air be as much the Mother or Nurse, as Water and Earth', and so advised growers to be wary of 'unkindness' of various 'Aspects' like the windy brow of a hill. Trees grew 'more kindly on the south side of an Hill, than those which are expos'd to the North, with an hard, dark, rougher, and more mossie Integument'. But sown with foresight and left with patience, an oak tree with its arms outstretched in welcome would one day become a 'ravishing' sight.
Evelyn's chapter 'Of the Oak' preceded others on elm, beech, ash, chestnut and forty or so other species. Combined with other sections on soils, seeds, seminaries and infirmities, Sylva was published in 1664, exactly a century before Endeavour's launch. It was the first book produced under the aegis of the new Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. The book tapped into the mood of the times, capitalising on the vogue for oaks and blending it with a patriotic cause – the regeneration of English woodlands – after the destructive Civil War. Such was the anticipation, 700 private citizens subscribed, and within two years more than 1,000 copies of the first impression had been 'Bought up, and dispersed', which, Evelyn immodestly noted in the preface to the second edition, 'is a very extraordinary thing in Volumes of this bulk'.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Endeavour"
Copyright © 2018 Peter Moore.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Endeavours of the Mind 1
Part 1 Life
1 Acorns 15
Part 2 Trade
2 Enigmas 33
3 Cross Currents 58
4 Mr Birds Ways 83
5 Land of Liberty 105
Part 3 Exploration
6 'Take a Trip in disguise' 129
7 Airy Dreams 155
8 Perfect Strangers 184
9 'That rainbow serpent place' 213
Part 4 War
10 360° 243
11 The Frozen Serpent of the South 268
12 The Collier Fleet 293
13 Ghosts 318
Epilogue: Endeavours 339
Select Bibliography 357