- Book reviewer
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- March 1998 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Title: H.M. Bark Endeavour: Her Place in Australian History Author: Ray Parkin, The Miegunyah Press, 467pp, $150 (2 vol. boxed set).
For years I have had three heroes in the field of scholarship around James Cook and his voyages: John C. Beaglehole for his editing of the Cook journals; Bernard Smith for his cataloguing and annotation of the art of the voyages and the charts and coastal views; and Adrienne Kaeppler for her location and description of all the artifacts collected from the voyages in the world’s museums.
Now I have a fourth, Ray Parkin: I can hardly describe the pleasure this wonderful book has given me. There is no reason why anybody should know Parkin’s name. He is 87, spent 18 years in the Royal Australian Navy until he was imprisoned by the Japanese in Siam and Japan, then worked on the waterfront postwar until he began his Endeavour researches full time in 1975.
H.M. Bark Endeavour is a brilliant achievement. Parkin is a draughtsman artist with poetry in his words, a humble curiosity in his mind, and a direct and simple style for his pen. He idolises Sydney Parkinson, one of Sir Joseph Banks’s artists on the Endeavour, who he says personified William James’s dictum “let expression equal impression”.
Parkinson put on paper or canvas immediately and spontaneously all the impressions of his adventures with Cook. So his drawings of the Endeavour and its boats – taken to be sketches done with artistic licence by most scholars – are the only eyewitness records we have of the Endeavour.
The plans we have, and there are many, are only things out of which the shipbuilding artisans worked. They do not really represent what the Endeavour became. The brilliance of Parkin’s research has been to work with infinite patience on every inch of the Endeavour – its frame, its rigging and sails, all its equipment – and make an alliance between what Parkinson saw and what the Endeavour was planned to be.
The volume, filled with Parkin’s own exquisite drawings, is accompanied by a box of 15 75mm x 50mm line drawings of the ship.
The text volume is in two parts. One describes the ship, its company, its provisioning, its adventures and misadventures. The other presents the voyage of the Endeavour from New Zealand, up the east coast of Australia and into Endeavour Straits. The originality with which both these parts are approached by Parkin is stunning and humbling.
In his narrative of the ship and its company, there is nothing Parkin presumes to be known. Every element ordinarily glossed over by other scholars is presented again in the light of a lifetime’s research into its language and practice.
Parkin writes with passion, too. Listen to him on sailors sensitivity to the forces at work within the ship: “The tension on a rope, the spring of a spar, the creak of a block, the heel of the ship, the wind in his face, its tune in the rigging, the signs of the sea and sky, the centrifugal forces on deck or aloft as the stars flew by – all this, and more, flowed through him”.
Things I marvelled at: the unravelling of the language and practices around ropes and rigging – I now know what a “bunch of bastards” really is. It was Joseph Conrad who wrote of the wonderful precision and economy of a sailor’s language. “A flawless thing for its purposes”, he wrote. Parkin puts it to work in every part of the ship. Things I had wished I had seen before: the account of the misfortunes one by one of the Endeavour’s crew. Parkin begins with the 35-year-old Alexander Weir, whose foot was caught in the bight of the buoy rope as they were laying the kedge anchor at Madeira. He was taken to the bottom and drowned. They took his recovered body out into the offing and buried him with weighted feet “to stand on the bottom like a silent sentinel, as do all the sea-dead thus shrouded”.