Today’s news is filled with the latest development in the long-running search for Endeavour in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. It’s big news and my congratulations to everyone who’s been working on the project for so long.
Before the announcement last week I was approached by several journalists for comment. Beneath, for anyone that’s interested, are my responses in one of the interviews. I thought I’d re-post them here.
Q. What stories can we tell about the Endeavour, and what stories are being overlooked?
A. We’re very familiar with events from Endeavour’s circumnavigation (1768-71), primarily from the point of view of those aboard. Then there’s been lots of scholarship over the past thirty years trying to reframe these scenes – Tahiti, New Zealand, the cruise up the eastern edge of modern-day Australia – from the perspective of those on the shore. This is complex history because of the reliance on oral testimony but we are becoming more familiar with it through the work of scholars like Anne Salmond, Nicholas Thomas, Kate Fullagar, Maria Nugent and several others. Beyond this, there are elements of Endeavour’s life that are hardly known at all. Few people know she was in New York harbour in 1776, or can picture her at the Newcastle coal staithes a decade before. There are many rich stories like these that are overlooked in the retelling.
Q. Why is its discovery significant?
A. I think there’s an innate human curiosity which drives us towards settled truths. To locate and perhaps one day hold a piece of the vessel’s structural timbers is at one level a triumph of human will, with all the collective hours of planning and searching involved. It also brings to a neat conclusion a puzzle which has been challenging historians ever since Endeavour disappeared in the Thames in 1775. Secondly I’d refer to something Philip Larkin once wrote about objects having two values: ‘the magical and the meaningful’. We can derive meaning from various things – books etc. – but there is a magical quality to the Endeavour’s timbers that is something different. It’s very much the same experience one feels in a museum when confronted with a significant object. These objects are heavy with stories and they help us make meaning in a messy world.
Q. How can we celebrate the discovery of Endeavour with sensitivity and justice?
A. By instantly acknowledging that the ship means very different things to different people. This is a lesson that I’d hope we’ve already learnt. We no longer live in the age of the single dominant perspective and when approached intelligently I’d like to feel that moments like this provide us with opportunities as well as challenges. For example, organisers for the 250th anniversary of Endeavour’s arrival in Gisborne/Turanganui-a-Kiwa in 2019 have already been talking about erecting a statue of Te Maro as part of their commemorations. They have spotted an opportunity not only to talk about the exploration feats of the Europeans, but also are trying to unlock other stories: the intricate Maori society they encountered, the incredible achievements of the Polynesian voyagers, the fascinating landscapes they first saw in ‘New Holland’. Endeavour gives us a narrative short-cut to these overlooked histories. They must be included in Endeavour’s story.
Q. What are the merits of searching for contentious vessels like Endeavour? What are the risks? Do the benefits of locating her outweigh the costs, or would it be better to let sleeping dogs lie, so to speak?
A. I lived in Madrid for some years when I was younger and they had a ‘pacto del olvido’ – or a pact of forgetting, which meant not mentioning the Spanish Civil War. Even today some of the divisive grave-sites are not disturbed for fear of the stories that might come up with the bones. There is logic in this but equally I believe strongly in Samuel Johnson’s maxim, ‘the business of life is to go forward’. Endeavour’s wreck will bring some joy and excitement, and some real pain. But I believe that if curated wisely and inclusively, we have the strength to confront difficult histories and learn the lessons from them. That’s not just my perspective, but one I have heard time and again from speaking to Indigenous peoples. ‘Let the history stand’ and ‘let us have our voice.’
Image: Whitby. Dracula Gate.