My daughter choreographs reading that plays to my whimsical non-fiction interests through Christmas gifts of books.
This year, I carefully opened a beribboned volume by British author Peter Moore entitled Endeavour: The Ship and Attitude that Changed the World (2018).
Right away, I recognized Endeavour as James Cook’s ship on his first epic voyage of discovery (1768 to 1771). But I wondered about the link to attitude referenced in the title.
An old reading habit quickly set the record straight: I read the last chapter first and discovered the answer.
Moore’s core thesis is that Endeavour’s nautical life, from 1764 (the year of her commissioning as the Whitby collier Earl of Pembroke) to 1778 (the year of her scuttling by the British in Newport Harbour, Rhode Island, now bearing the nameplate Lord Sandwich), formed “a crucial mini epoch in the development of Western society (2018:344).”
During these 14 years, the European Enlightenment blossomed, the American Revolution began and reimagined empires were developed by the European powers in the vast South Pacific regions of a new hemisphere.
The leading scientific thinkers of the era, especially Carl Linnaeus and his Oxford-trained acolyte Joseph Banks, developed a comprehensive, rational design for plant classification. It was deployed aboard the Royal Navy’s Endeavour as she completed a massive collecting project in what we now know as Polynesia, New Zealand and Australia.
In those same 14 years, the spirit of endeavour arguably motivated the onset of the industrial revolution, and the inventions of James Watt’s steam engine and James Hargreaves’s spinning jenny.
Equally, philosopher Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations kicked-started the scientific study of economics and propelled capitalism forward as the working philosophy of the new United States of America.
So what of this attitude of endeavour and who best epitomized its fluorescence?
Moore defines it as: “to exert everything to stretch the mind and body out towards a goal that was only just within reach.”
Is it fair to rank Cook as the champion of this attitude?
His humble Yorkshire farming background, his teenage enlistment in the British merchant marine, his joining the Royal Navy at age 27, his brilliant three voyages of discovery, and his bludgeoning death at Hawaiian hands, aged 50 at Kealakekua Bay in 1779, are certainly well understood by students of the era.
The captain’s fundamental decency as expressed to his sailors and the indigenous people they encountered; his formally untutored but acute grasp of science and the scientific method; and his highly evolved thinking about topics as widely scattered as cartography, anti-scurvy diets and applied anthropology typify his career achievements.
To me, he’s the essence of the enlightened practise of endeavour. In Moore’s terms, he combined the “exertion” with the “stretch” and “just” achieved his goals.
Perhaps the best case study of his epitomizing endeavour was the behaviour he exhibited after the Endeavour, under full sail, wrenched to a full stop on the Great Barrier Reef in 1770. In Cook’s words, it was “An alarming and I may say terrible Circumstance.”
Ten leagues offshore, in worsening weather, he organized a successful, third-time-lucky, high-tide pull-off, utilizing all hands on deck, pulling on three anchor chains that had been hurled astern with their deadweight anchors. It was an extremely close call. The Endeavour’s hull was holed by a chunk of coral, which mercifully stayed in place until the boat could be beached on the banks of the Waalumbaal Birri, now named the Endeavour River in Queensland, Australia.
Without Cook’s quick assessment of the perils and rapid plan of action, his first voyage would have ended in total disaster, leaving no trace of men or ship.
By way of further evidence, I have sat for dinner many times with the Williams family of Yuquot, on B.C.’s Nootka Island. They treasure oral history recollections of Cook’s 1778 arrival in their village on his third and final voyage – incredibly, 241 years ago.
In the Mowachaht language, he is remembered as the first mumuck-ne, “the people who live on floating islands.” While the fur trading captains and crews who followed Cook to Yuquot often left much to be desired, Cook and his shipmates are still remembered as fundamentally decent people, and their visit is characterized as being “like a dream.”
And perhaps that is Endeavour’s key point: the endeavour attitude is characterized by dreaming of our better angels, not by acquiring more stuff.