Voyage to the End of the Earth; a New TV Series Recreates Captain Cook's Epic Journey of Discovery to Australia. but Could the 21st Century Crew Have Survived the Horrors His Men Experienced

By de Courcy, Anne | Daily Mail (London), August 22, 2002 | Go to article overview

Voyage to the End of the Earth; a New TV Series Recreates Captain Cook's Epic Journey of Discovery to Australia. but Could the 21st Century Crew Have Survived the Horrors His Men Experienced


de Courcy, Anne, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: ANNE DE COURCY

IN A replica of Captain Cook's ship, The Endeavour, 41 volunteers and 15 working crew are retracing six weeks of his epic journey of discovery to Australia for The Ship, a new series which started on BBC2 this week.

Their adventure begins at Mission Bay near Cairns on the north-east coast where Cook and his crew made landfall, and concludes with their arrival at Savu island off Timor.

However, the real journey, with its object of the claiming a new continent for the Crown, was very different, a voyage that would last three long years in conditions ranging from squalid to appallingly dangerous, with not even a letter from home as comfort and the constant possibility of an unknown death in an uncharted ocean.

ENDEAVOUR sailed on through the warm tropical night, the only sound the gentle lapping of the water at her sides and the soft breath of the wind in her sails.

'Seventeen fathoms!' called the leadsman.

Suddenly, there was a crash of timbers, a hideous splintering sound and the ominous sight of planks floating to the surface. The small wooden ship juddered to a grinding halt. Captain James Cook ran out of his cabin in his nightshirt, realising in seconds that his ship, and the 80-odd souls aboard her, were stuck fast on a coral reef in shark-infested waters almost 30 miles from land.

Conflicting thoughts rushed through his mind. Every time a wave moved Endeavour, her timbers splintered against the sharp coral - much more of this and she would break up, condemning them all to certain death.

The boats would hold only half the ship's company, so that if half of them set off in the direction of land - there were no islands nearby - the others would inevitably die on the reef.

In any case, few of the sailors could swim.

Then, too, the ebbing tide would leave Endeavour stranded on the reef, where her own weight might break her in half. What could Cook possibly do to give them all a faint chance of survival?

THE DISASTER on June 11, 1770, was the worst of the many hazards encountered by James Cook and the crew of his ship Endeavour during their threeyear voyage. They had left Plymouth on August 25, 1768, sailing south.

The pretext for their expedition was to carry out a scientific observation of the planet Venus crossing the face of the sun, best seen in southern waters.

But the real reason to seek the mysterious new continent - Terra Australis Incognita, as mapmakers called it - believed to lie in the southern ocean, and annex it for Britain.

All knew it was a voyage fraught with danger, difficulty and perils unknown - but not that it would alter history and change the face of the world.

All knew of the Dutch East Indies and their trading potential. They also knew that the Dutch had made landfall on what they called New Holland ( Australia's west coast) early in the 17th century, in the course of trading from their base in Batavia (now Djakarta).

As well as the Dutch, the French and Spanish were sniffing round for more land - and lucrative markets.

The Endeavour, a mere 106ft long by just over 29ft at her widest point, would not excite suspicion.

Her captain, James Cook, was the most remarkable seaman of his age.

The son of a Yorkshire farm labourer, he was an expert navigator, one of the few who could calculate longitudes as well as latitudes. As the Admiralty realised, he was the only man gifted enough to command such an important expedition.

There was only one problem. He was not a commissioned officer; and the Admiralty gave commissions only to the sons of gentlemen.

EVENTUALLY, realising that, without Cook, there would be no expedition, they compromised by giving him the lowest possible commissioned rank - that of lieutenant - but agreeing that he would be referred to as Captain. …

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