The famed South Pacific voyage by James Cook and his crew in HMS Endeavour (1768–71) resulted in huge advances in European scientific knowledge, an important milestone in what became known as the 'Age of Reason'. But how much is known about the famous ship in which the crew sailed? As news emerges that the mystery of the final resting place of HMS Endeavour may have finally been solved, Peter Moore shares five facts about the first European vessel to reach the east coast of what’s now known as Australia…
Although often referred to as HMS Endeavour today, the vessel was actually registered on the navy list as HM Bark Endeavour (a ‘bark’ being a term for a type of sailing vessel). But this was only one of the bark’s three names. From its launch in 1764 until the ship was bought by the navy in 1768, it was called the Earl of Pembroke. Soon after Endeavour was sold out of service in 1775, it was given a third new identity as Lord Sandwich. These shifts in identity have confused historians for centuries. The link between Endeavour and Lord Sandwich was only established in the late 1990s, revealing the vessel’s full history for the first time.
The vessel worked in the coal trade, named the Earl of Pembroke
The Earl of Pembroke was built in Whitby, North Yorkshire, and launched in the summer of 1764. The vessel was built predominantly of oak, the timber most likely sourced from the nearby vales. Yorkshire oak was notoriously slow-growing and tough and it was believed to produce excellent timber.
The Earl of Pembroke was built by the master-builder Thomas Fishburn for a veteran master mariner called Thomas Milner. In the 1700s, vessels were distinguished by the design of their hulls. The Earl of Pembroke was a bark, a type of ship that was flush decked, had rounded bows, boxy bodies and flat bottoms that made them ideal for coastal sailing.
The Earl of Pembroke was designed for the coal trade and so it had a generous storage capacity. Milner sailed the vessel on its maiden voyage in July 1764, calling for coals on the river Tyne and then bringing them back along the coastal route to London. The Earl of Pembroke continued to work in the coal trade over the next four years.
The ship became HMS Endeavour after it was selected as James Cook’s exploring vessel
The major transformation in the bark’s life began in March 1768 when the vessel was selected for a speculative voyage to the South Seas (South Pacific). It was identified as suitable due to its storage capacity and availability – possibly by Alexander Dalrymple, a Scottish hydrographer (someone who surveys bodies of water). The Earl of Pembroke was then taken to the Royal Dockyard at Deptford where, between April and July 1768, it underwent a total refit. New decks were installed. Ten carriage guns were brought on deck.
A ship’s company of 94 was raised under the command of a lieutenant called James Cook. Among these, too, was a party of natural historians led by a wealthy and energetic gentleman and adventurer called Joseph Banks. The ship was filled with precision instruments and scientific apparatus to aid the collection of specimens and to allow an astronomer called Charles Green to accurately observe a celestial event called the transit of Venus [a rare phenomenon in which Venus passes across the sun]. A new name – Endeavour – was selected too. One strong candidate for choosing the name is the First Lord of the Admiralty and hero of the 1759 battle of Quiberon Bay, Edward Hawke.
The Endeavour almost foundered during its voyage to Australia
The facts of Endeavour’s famous circumnavigation are well known: there is the passage across the Pacific to Tahiti to attempt to chart the transit of Venus; the encircling of New Zealand and the hair-raising cruise up the east coast of what we now call Australia. Making landfall at Botany Bay in 1770, Cook claimed swathes of the region for the British crown, despite the presence of large Indigenous communities.
This cruise led to the most famous episode in the ship’s life. On a calm night in June 1770 the vessel collided with an outcrop of the Great Barrier Reef. Only uncommon luck with the tides and the weather – along with the strong oak frame – kept the vessel afloat. It was an entire (and perilous) day before it was wrenched off.
This episode is a central part of the traditional Endeavour story. Over the past 30 years, new and contrasting views of the voyage have emerged in oral histories from the indigenous peoples of the Pacific. They speak of their reactions on first seeing this strange ship, and many of the accounts are filled with richly poetic imagery: was it a sand crab, a floating cloud, a mythic bird?
The ship played a role in the American revolutionary war
Having been at sea for nearly three years and played a part in such a momentous voyage, the vessel was largely forgotten upon its return to Britain. For several years afterwards, Endeavour was used as a naval store ship that carried supplies and soldiers to a new imperial outpost on the Falkland Islands. Exhausted from all this deep-sea voyaging, Endeavour was sold out of the service and into private hands in 1775. It might have been broken down for scrap, had it not been for the outbreak of war between Britain and the North American colonies shortly after. In the summer of 1775, the British ministry and King George III decided on a policy of war and a massive auxiliary army was raised to suppress the rebellion.
An old, but still roomy vessel, Endeavour was once again useful. The vessel was repaired in the Thames at Christmas 1775, renamed Lord Sandwich, and the following spring it set sail as part of a massive invasion fleet for America. The ship was in New York during the battle of Brooklyn in 1776 – the largest battle of the Revolutionary War. Latterly the Lord Sandwich moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where it was used by the British as a prison ship.
In August 1778, with a French attack on Newport imminent, it was sunk (or ‘scuttled’) by the British in a desperate effort to ruin the harbour.
Ever since the identification of the Lord Sandwich as Endeavour in the 1990s, a team of marine archaeologists have been trying to resolve which one of the hundreds of shipwrecks in Narragansett Bay is that of the Endeavour. In September 2018, it was announced that the team has identified what they believe to be the wreck, with the search narrowed to just “one or two sites”.