Ships typically have many lives and the HMB Endeavour was no exception.
The HMB Endeavour is almost certainly best known as the ship that circumnavigated the globe in search of Terra Australis Incognita under the command of Lieutenant James Cook on his first voyage of discovery.
But, the vessel had several other lives before and after the 1768–71 expedition, before being lost for almost 200 years.
From humble beginnings as a coal carrier
HMB Endeavour began life with a name much grander than its function as a ‘collier’.
Designed to transport coal, the Earl of Pembroke was built by the master-builder Thomas Fishburn and launched in 1764 in Whitby, Yorkshire. A sturdy vessel with a square stern and wide bow, it proved itself a good workhorse carrying coal between ports in Britain.
In March 1768, the Royal Navy selected the Earl of Pembroke for the Royal Society of London sponsored expedition to observe the transit of Venus in the South Pacific.
The decision to find and use a collier was deliberate. Solidly built with a flat bottom, large hold and thick hull, this type of vessel could be easily converted to accommodate the necessary equipment and stores, and the 94 men who would eventually join the voyage—including Joseph Banks and his scientific team.
One of the other advantages of this type of vessel was that if it ran aground in shallow water, the chances of ‘floating the ship off’ were much better than other heavier vessels. It was a decision that would later pay off, when, in 1770, the HMB Endeavour ran aground on a reef, coming perilously close to disaster.
Built to last, money no object
The newly fitted out ship was nine metres wide and 32 metres long. The refit took from April to July 1768 and cost £5,390 on top of the £2,840 paid for the vessel itself.
A new name was selected and the HMB Endeavour was born.
Having sailed on many colliers, Cook knew them to be slow but sturdy and reliable in rough waters. Not only did he request a collier for the expedition, he also insisted on certain modifications, such as the reinforcement of the hull to reduce the potential of damage by shipworms.
The masts and the ship’s deck were made out of pine, while the deck beams, frame and planks were made of oak—a more durable material. The keel was made out of elm. The hull had to be lined with a thin layer of planks, coated with a paste made from animal hair, tar and bits of old rope and covered by another layer of thick oak planks.
To supplement provisions picked up in ports, the ship’s cargo hold had to be big enough to store sufficient supplies to last 18 months. When HMB Endeavour left Plymouth the hold was well stocked with live hens, pigs, a goat, 20 tonnes of biscuits and flour, 10,000 pieces of salted pork and beef, and 3.5 tonnes of sauerkraut to help prevent scurvy.
For protection, the HMB Endeavour carried 12 swivel guns attached to the sides, bow and quarterdeck, as well as 10 cannons.
After returning to England, Cook wrote of his admiration for the ship that had been home for close on three years:
‘I sailed from England, as well provided for such a voyage as possible, and a better ship for such service I never would wish for.’
Renamed, scuttled and lost
After the much lauded round-the-world voyage, the HMB Endeavour underwent a refit, becoming a naval transport vessel. The many months of sailing through the South Pacific were replaced with rough voyages in the freezing South Atlantic carrying soldiers and supplies to a new imperial outpost on the Falkland Islands.
Little else was known about the fate of the HMB Endeavour until the late 1990s when a new link was established, revealing for the first time a full history of the vessel.
Recognising the opportunity brought on by the outbreak of war, in 1775, shipping magnate J. Mather bought the HMB Endeavour from the Navy and offered it to the British Government as a transport ship to carry troops to North America.
The years of hard voyages had taken their toll, however, and the ship was rejected as ‘unfit for service’. Not one to give up easily, Mather offered it again, this time under the name of Lord Sandwich. It was rejected again.
Repaired and re-named Lord Sandwich II, the vessel was finally accepted and used to carry British soldiers to fight in the American War of Independence. It was then used by the British as a prison ship in Newport Harbour (Rhode Island).
In August 1778, the ship was one of many deliberately sunk to block French ships from being able to resupply the revolutionaries.
The exact whereabouts of the vessel, once known as HMB Endeavour, has remained a mystery despite continued efforts to narrow the search down from the fleet of 13 wrecks in the harbour.
But in September 2018 there was finally a breakthrough when marine archaeologists identified a wreck with a high probability of being the missing HMB Endeavour, just off Goat Island, a small island in the Narragansett Bay.
Investigations are ongoing but appear promising.
Did you know?
● Fragments of the HMB Endeavour have been carried into space and taken to the moon—on two separate occasions.
● The story passed on to the Djiringanj Yuin people tells of their ancestor’s first sighting of the ship—swimming on the ocean with its large white sails—and resembling Gurung-gubba the Pelican, a real greedy fella.
● The HMB Endeavour appears on New Zealand’s 50 cent coin, commemorating the first Briton to reach New Zealand (Cook arrived in 1769).
● A replica of the HMB Endeavour can be found at the Australian National Maritime Museum. You can take a virtual tour of the replica here.