Exactly 245 years ago today, on Friday 26 August 1768, HM bark Endeavour was completing for sea in Plymouth Sound, her master, Lieutenant James Cook, noting final preparations in his log: ‘Moderate and Cloudy Weather; at 8 A.M. received on board 2 Tuns Beer & 4 Tons Water, returned Empty Casks & Loosed the Foresail as Signal for Sailing.’ Then at 2 p.m, with the wind north-by-west, he added, ‘Fresh gale and fair weather, Weigh’d and came to Sail.’
So – routinely and without fanfare - began a voyage that would circle the world, only returning in July 1771. It would set the model for sea-borne exploration and discovery through the rest of the age of sail and well beyond, since its principles are still familiar today. Its mission was above all for knowledge: to observe a rare astronomical event from the Pacific; to see if a fabled ‘great southern continent' really existed; to record so far uncharted seas and coasts for the furtherance of trade and (possibly) British colonization; and it also set sail with enlightened and clear instructions about observing as yet unknown societies and treating them with respect, however alien their cultures and practices. Not all who sailed would return, but the expedition was also unprecedented for losing no-one to scurvy (vitamin-C deficiency) and the other familiar causes of poor shipboard diet and hygiene, owing to Cook’s strict and healthy regime. Deaths were solely caused by accidents, natural illness and (above all) tropical fevers caught late in the voyage as the ship underwent long repair in the Dutch shipyard at Batavia (Jakarta), Indonesia.
Unusual, too, was the complement carried for so small a vessel – a former Whitby collier of only 368 tons burthen and 106 feet long, which would normally have a crew of around six to ten. In all there were 98 on board, including three junior lieutenants and a party of marines (normally there would have been no ‘sea-soldiers’, with only the commander being a commissioned Royal Naval officer), plus an official Royal Society astronomer with his servant. In addition there was an entirely novel private-enterprise element, travelling at the expense of its leader and employer, Joseph Banks Esquire FRS, ‘a Gentleman of large fortune…well versed in natural history’.
Banks –then aged 25 - was an enlightened and effective Lincolnshire landowner, who wished to pursue his interests in exotic botany and had persuaded both the Royal Society and Admiralty that public benefit would come from inclusion of his scientific ‘suite’ of nine. Apart from himself this comprised his librarian, Dr Daniel Solander, and secretary, Dr Herman Spöring – both Swedish, both botanists and the former a pupil of the great Linnaeus. There were also his two artists, of whom the landscape painter (Alexander Buchan) died of epilepsy early in the voyage and the botanical specialist, Sydney Parkinson, from Batavian fever later on – though after making well over 1000 still-surviving drawings of all sorts: there were also four servants (two being black) and Banks’s two greyhounds. Neither of the dogs reached England again, but when the ship was being repaired on the east coast of Australia after being holed on the Great Barrier reef, the then sole survivor helped bring down the first kangaroos that the party were able to examine, of which – later in London - George Stubbs used a skin, skulls and sketches by Parkinson to paint this strange animal for Banks.
Cook’s discovery that kangaroo also ‘made excellent food’, however, was in July 1770 and still long ahead. Meanwhile, Endeavour rounded Rame Head and saw England slowly dip below the horizon. Under easy sail, and in fair late-summer weather, she steadily ploughed south-west from Plymouth on the first outward leg of her voyage, to resupply with fresh food and water in the Portuguese anchorage of Funchal, Madeira, between 13 and 19 September 1768. That’s not a bad passage in a beamy north-eastern collier, and I shall think of them as my plane lands at Funchal for a summer break looking out across the same sunny roadstead.