HMS Endeavour

HMS Endeavour Replica

Today's selection -- from Fifty Ships that Changed the Course of Human History by Ian Graham.  A converted coal ship called the HMS Endeavour made scientific and navigational history in the late 1700s, commanded by the legendary James Cook:

“In the middle of the 18th century a humble coal ship took part in an expedition that changed our view of the world and its place in the solar system. At that time, the size of the solar system was unknown; no one knew how far away the Sun is. Observations made by scientists who voyaged into the Pacific Ocean aboard HMS Endeavour would resolve this mystery. The expedition's commander, James Cook, then headed for New Zealand and Australia on a secret mission.

Endeavour started her working life as a collier (coal ship) called the Earl of Pembroke. She was built in the coal pore of Whitby on the northeast coast of England. Her hull was made of white oak, her keel and sternposts were elm and her masts were pine and fir. She was a strongly built ship with a flat bottom that enabled her to sail safely in shallow waters and also allowed her to be beached for repairs without needing a dry dock. In 1768, King George III approved plans for an expedition to the Pacific Ocean to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun the following year. The expedition had been requested by scientists who wanted to use the observation to help calculate the distance between Earth and Sun. The Admiralty combined the expedition with a secret mission to look for a southern continent that was rumored to exist but had not yet been found or mapped.

“James Cook (1728-79) was chosen to command the expedition. He had a reputation for highly accurate survey and mapping work. The Admiralty bought the Earl of Pembroke and had her converted from a collier into the scientific research vessel HMS Endeavour.

“The conversion included the addition of an extra deck of cabins and storerooms. The crew of 85 included a dozen Royal Marines. There was also a naturalist (Joseph Banks), an astronomer and two artists on board. The ship might have to defend herself against attack, so she was armed with six cannons and 12 swivel guns.

“Endeavour left Plymouth on August 26, 1768. Cook had to reach Tahiti, a tiny island less than 30 miles (45 km) across in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, before the following June. He reached Cape Horn in the middle of January, After 3 days battling against storms and tides, he finally sailed into the Pacific. He stopped for Banks to collect plane samples from the coast and then set out across the ocean for Tahiti, which he reached in April.

HMS Endeavour off the coast of New Holland by Samuel Atkins c. 1794

“The crew set about building an observatory on the shore. It was surrounded by earth banks topped with wooden palisades and defended by guns from the ship. When the transit occurred on June 3, it was difficult for the observers to time it precisely because of a blurring of the edge of the planet Venus as it neared the edge of the Sun's disk; this is called the black drop effect. Nevertheless, using observations from Tahiti and elsewhere, the average distance between Earth and Sun was calculated to be 93,726,900 miles — an error of only 0.8 percent, as the correct distance is 92,955,807 miles (149,597,870 km).

“With the transit completed, Cook opened sealed orders that instructed him to search for the southern continent, or Terra Australis. He sailed for New Zealand and mapped its entire coastline, thus proving that it wasn't part of a huge continent to the south. Then he continued west and reached the east coast of Australia, the first European to do so. This, too, was not part of a bigger continent thought to be lying to the south. He claimed the land for Britain and called it New South Wales. On April 29, he made landfall at a place he named Botany Bay. As she was leaving, Endeavour ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and her hull was holed. It was patched temporarily with a piece of sail. When the crew found a suitable place for repairs, they beached the ship. Then they continued to Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies for supplies and more permanent repairs to the leaking hull, which proved to be in far worse condition than anyone had thought. Many of the crew succumbed to malaria and dysentery, which were raging through the Dutch colony like a forest fire. Cook continued west with his surviving crew, completing his first circumnavigation in July 1771,3 years after he had left.

“Cook would go on to make two more voyages of discovery, but not in Endeavour. For these voyages, Cook chose another convened collier, HMS Resolution. During his second circumnavigation (1772-75), he looked for the southern continent again. He sailed far enough south to reach the pack ice and even circumnavigated Antarctica, but he never sighted land. He thought the pack ice might extend all the way to the South Pole.”

Fifty Ships that Changed the Course of Human History
author: Ian Graham  
title: Fifty Ships that Changed the Course of Human History  
publisher: The History Press