H.M.S. Bark Endeavour usually squeezes into the front rank of famous vessels, whether they be "Nautilus" or "Titanic", "Argo" or "Mayflower", "Bounty" or "Hispaniola". That fame adjusts for the fact that the ship's captain missed the entrance to Sydney Harbour, over-rated the allure of Botany Bay and crashed his ship into the Barrier Reef.
We as a nation are in part framed and formed by James Cook and his 1770 voyage up the East coast of Australia. There is no mileage in imagining an alternative Australia where French rather than British explorers claimed our territory. Verdant Tasmanian valleys planted with wine grapes rather than potatoes, more humane and equitable treatment of our First Nations, vicious English thieves inflicted on some other unfortunate continent, a school curriculum truly reflecting the Enlightenment, Sydney as the last stronghold for Bonapartism - all that is sadly a mirage.
We therefore have good reason to welcome the quite beautiful new edition of Ray Parkin's minute appraisal of Endeavour, the ship itself and the captain and crew who sailed it into Botany Bay on 29 April 250 years ago. Parkin's is an unusual book, meticulous, inquisitive and lyrical in roughly equal measure. The author tries "tuning in to the echoes bequeathed us", but first insists on exhaustive, scrupulous gathering, sifting and harvesting of every available fact: "I wanted to tread on sure ground".
Parkin admits to "nothing less than total admiration of the craft and knowledge" of Cook's era. Craft and knowledge presumably do not include the privations suffered by ordinary seamen, the presumptions of their officers or the pretensions of the British Admiralty.
Parkin's book was first published in 1997; its author has been dead for 15 years. In addition to his Endeavour-specific research, Parkin drew on 17 years' service in Australia's navy, more than three years as a prisoner of the Japanese, and work on the Australian waterfront. Although that may seem unlikely preparation for drafting such a scholarly work, Parkin evinced Cook-like diligence, attention to detail and perseverance. Some carping critics might suggest those are the boring, bossy virtues, but they do so merely out of jealousy.
Two literary cross-references suggest themselves during a reading of HMS Bark Endeavour. One is obviously Patrick O'Brian's interminable Jack Aubrey series, about naval conflicts during the Napoleonic wars, only a couple of decades after Cook's voyage to Australia. O'Brian, though, is so dense as to be impenetrable, banging on about this mast or that, one sail or another, successive winds and waves which blur into each other. Parkin writes more lucidly about what made a sailing ship work. For him, "the ship is a mass interaction of complex mathematical formulae". Cook's machine, made largely from trees and grasses, is examined and explained in ways designed not to bewilder or infuriate a lay reader. O'Brian might profitably have taken a lesson from Parkin.
The second point of reference is more elliptical: that is Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. A French writer suggested to me that the ships managed by Baudin and La Perouse were kitted out as though they were departing on a voyage to the planet Mars, gone for years, generally out of any communication with home, thrown entirely onto their own devices. So, too, was Cook.
Wolfe's astronauts did not make it as far as Mars, but they were still intrepid explorers. In the 20th, as in the 18th century, someone like Cook or Glenn, Baudin or Armstrong, could boldly go where no man had gone before. Conditions in a space capsule might seem more cramped than abroad a ship, though not to anyone who has crawled up and down through the cabins and holds of the replica "Endeavour".
Cook indubitably possessed the right stuff. Parkin does not romanticise the man, rather depicting him as a supreme technician, a master of his craft. In a sweet under-statement, Cook is here summed up as "a competent user of tools". After chronicling those myriad fields of human faith and inquiry in which Cook displayed no interest, Parkin does note that the captain's mind was "incessantly seeking the order of things".
Before studying Cook, though, Parkin scrutinises every detail of his ship, each component fabricated painstakingly from those prosaic trees and grasses. At this point, Parkin demands an earnestness from the reader faintly comparable to his own. We are informed about the gammoning which bowses the ship down to its stem as well as canvas cylinders under the toilet seats to circumvent up-draughts on the weather side.
Parkin wrangles with other authorities about whether the stern windows on the ship possessed rounded or square tops. He dissects scantings and fir strikes above wales, moving on to the trajectory of the afterside of the rabbet of the stern to the foreside of the rabbet at the post. Separate paragraphs discuss the smells, then the noises, which would have characterised each day at sea.
Now and again the jargon for each gunter and fore-leech seems a bit like watching a contestant expound on an obscure special subject on Mastermind. Parkin plainly loves all the interlocking intricacy in the equipment which powered Cook's ship. Parkin's plans, charts, graphs and illustrations bear witness not just to the depth of his knowledge but to the passion which suffuses his explanations of the Endeavour.
Off the ship goes, from Point Hicks to Cape York, charted with "unprecedented accuracy and skill" (leaving aside skipping Sydney Harbour). Cook, Joseph Banks and Sydney Parkinson were Parkin's main companions as he compiled a "Compleat Log". The daily computations of course, wind and speed, together with excerpts from logs and journals, depict the voyage along the East coast as a present continuous narrative. Parkin is especially good at weighing the testimony of different witnesses about the misadventures at Endeavour Reef where Cook ditched his cannon to save his ship. His additions to the 1770 commentaries are invariably informative, occasionally opinionated, sometimes rueful.
Then comes the historical anti-climax, 29 April, 1770. Baudin or La Perouse might have tried harder to engage the Eora people, mocked once more the notion of terra nullius or just sailed on to a more congenial anchorage. We all know what Cook did. Two Australians who opposed his landing were "stung with small shots". "Some string -beeds (sic)" left in a hut for children were spurned. As Cook realised the day after landing, "all they (the locals) seemed to want was for us to be gone". Hostility and mutual incomprehension notwithstanding, the catch in Botany Bay on 6 May was so plentiful that each sailor was given five pounds of fish to eat. Parkin's notes on this stop capture something of the deep sadness which informed the exchange between English sailors and Indigenous fishers.
A rare grace note in the records was inserted farther North, when Parkinson remarked on "a very grateful odour" from burning eucalyptus. That one smell seemed to prompt a more sympathetic response than the numerous reports of odd plants, weird animals and unfriendly locals. What if the Australians at Botany Bay had been sufficiently well-armed and well-organised to drive Cook away, as Maori more successfully tried to do? What hiccoughs would then have occurred in our national narrative?
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