This week's edition to our Olympia Extracts is a wonderful historical fiction called Toby's Endeavour Voyage by Kevin Boon.
His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour
“Avast, lad! Avast!” My uncle cried, as he puffed along behind me. “Hove-to a minute, she’s not bound to sail for two weeks.”
‘She’ was His Majesty’s bark Endeavour and I could not help increasing my speed as her three masts came into view. We were hurrying along the marina of Deptford Yard on the River Thames. Struggling to contain my excitement and frustration, I waited for my uncle to catch up and we continued our journey at a more leisurely pace.
Gradually the bulk of the ship’s hull came into view. She seemed immense to me, compared to the fishing smacks I had sailed aboard up to that time. “Isn’t she magnificent, Uncle?” I cried.
“Ugly as sin!” he puffed in reply. “You can tell she’s a collier despite all the decking-up. With that blunt bow and broad beam she’ll wallow like a whale, and she’ll be as slow as a wet week! Three years ago she was the collier Earl of Pembroke, sailing on the Newcastle run– before the navy took her over.”
At last we were alongside the ship. There was frantic activity on board. Carpenters were hammering away in various parts of the vessel; sailors were in the rigging working on the sails and men were loading stores, barrels and equipment. Everything was strewn about on deck.
Uncle realized I was disappointed by his appraisal of the ship. “I must admit they’ve done a lot of work on her. They’ve added extra planking and given her copper sheeting to keep out teredo worm”
“What are teredo worms, Uncle?” I asked. My uncle had served in the Royal Navy and knew everything about ships and the sea.
“You won’t have heard of them because they only live in tropical seas. They are like barnacles, but much worse because they bore into the timber of ships and cause great damage. Perhaps a former collier is not such a bad choice of vessel,” he added thoughtfully. “They can manoeuvre well and they don’t draw too much water. They’ve also got a lot of storage space. They’ll need that on such a long voyage. Master Cook would be well aware of that.”
The sound of hammering, shouting and barrels rumbling along the deck grew louder as we approached the gangway. Cautiously I followed Uncle onto the deck. I had to duck as a net full of onions swung past my head. One of the sailors noticed us and called to a casually-dressed officer. He came to meet us.
“Welcome aboard, sir,” The officer greeted Uncle and they shook hands. “I imagine this vessel is a far cry from the frigates you served on?”
“She certainly doesn’t look like any naval vessel I’ve seen afore. This is my nephew Toby Robinson, he is one of your new cabin boys,” Uncle said, pushing me forward.
“Welcome aboard young master Toby,” said Lieutenant Gore, thrusting out his hand. “This vessel will be your home for the next two years. What do you think of her?”
“I think she is a mighty fine ship, sir,” I replied, as I nervously took his hand.
“You’ll find Toby a very enthusiastic lad, with lots of curiosity,” Uncle said.
“Well, his enthusiasm will serve him well but we know what curiosity did to the cat, don’t we?” Lieutenant Gore joked. The two men chuckled but I blushed.
“Is the master aboard?” Uncle asked.
“No, he had to report to the Admiralty for final instructions,” Lieutenant Gore replied. “He’s also making his last farewells to his wife and family. You did well to find your nephew a place aboard this vessel. We have three cabin boys already. There were many applicants due to Mr Cook’s reputation as a good seaman and a tolerant commander.”
“I heard about the expedition through my nephew, Isaac Smith – he is a cousin of Elizabeth Cook, did you know?”
“Yes, I knew that,” Gore replied. “Isaac Smith and several other crew members served with Cook on the Grenville.”
“This lad is able to read and write very well,” my uncle boasted, placing his hand on my shoulder.
“Well, he won’t be called upon to do much of that on this voyage,” Gore replied.
I decided it was not a good time to mention that I intended to keep a diary.
“I understand you have visited George’s Island previously, Lieutenant Gore?” Uncle said, changing the subject.
“Yes, I sailed to Tahiti, as the natives call it, last year aboard the Dolphin.”
‘Did any other crew members go on that voyage?” Uncle enquired.
“Three others – and the ship’s goat!” Gore joked.
“How many crew and passengers are expected to sail with you on this voyage?” Uncle asked. “You seem to have added a great deal of extra cabin space.”
“Ninety-four at the last count!” Lieutenant Gore replied.
“Ninety-four! Ninety-four!” Uncle repeated in astonishment. “The normal crew for a collier is less than twenty.”
“Ah, but this is no collier! This is His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour. We needed double the crew to make up for losses during the voyage. That is why we’re taking four cabin boys!” Lieutenant Gore replied, staring at me. I began to feel less enthusiastic about the voyage.
“But that is more than double a normal crew!” Uncle persisted.
“Well, there will be thirteen marines on board: a sergeant, a corporal, a drummer and ten privates.”
“Good heavens! Surely they are not needed. This is a peaceful voyage, is it not?”
“Yes, but things can change quickly, and there was trouble with the natives on Wallace’s expedition. We had to use the cannon to bombard a village.”
“I hope there won’t be any trouble on this visit.” My uncle was becoming rather concerned – so was I.
“No, no!” Gore reassured him. “There was no more trouble with the natives after we bombarded their village. In fact, they became very hospitable after that. Many of the crew did not want to leave the island when the time came.”
“Well, that is a relief!” Uncle said. “I believe you are also carrying passengers – Mr Banks and his party of scientists?”
“Eleven of them in all – counting Mr Banks’ servants,” Gore replied.
“Eleven! I wonder what the captain thinks of that.”
“Well I don’t believe he had much choice in the matter. Mr Banks is a very wealthy young man. They say he paid several thousand pounds towards the expedition, so we’ll just have to look after them as best we can.”
“It’s certainly going to be an interesting voyage,” Uncle declared. “But I must be heading home as I have a coach to catch. You will keep an eye on my young nephew for me, won’t you, Mr Gore?”
“I’ll look after him like he was my own son,” Gore promised.
Uncle gave me a farewell embrace. “Listen, learn and take care,” he instructed. “Your Aunt Sybil and I want you back safe and sound at the end of this voyage.” He was trying not to show his feelings.
“I will, Uncle,” I replied.
My uncle turned and began walking down the gangway. I watched him go, trying hard to choke back the tears. My uncle and aunt had been extremely kind to me. I had lived with them for two years after my father was lost at sea. Mother found it hard to care for me, as well as my little brother and younger sisters. It was decided that I should live with my aunt and uncle, as they had no children of their own.
Uncle sent me to a good school and wanted me to become a lawyer. He was horrified when I told him I wished to join the navy. But really he was to blame for my ambition. The more he told stories about his career in the navy and adventures at sea, the more my desire to follow in his footsteps grew. Where he described danger, I heard adventure, and when he described hardship, I imagined excitement. I was a good sailor, having been out fishing with my father in rough seas on many occasions. The sea was in my blood.
Eventually Uncle decided the best cure for me would be to go to sea and discover what it was really like. He used his influence to secure a position for me as a cabin boy on the Endeavour during its voyage to the South Seas. He was aware that it was under the command of Lieutenant James Cook, who had a good reputation for caring for his crews. Uncle was convinced that two years at sea, under harsh conditions, would put me off my ambition to join the navy. I was convinced that they would not.
I was brought back to the present when I was almost run into by a seaman wheeling a barrow.
“Clumsy fool!” Lieutenant Gore snarled. “Take more care or you’ll be tasting the ‘cat’!” I was surprised by his sharp tone and wondered what he meant by ‘the cat’. I was soon to discover its meaning.
Lieutenant Gore called out to a burly seaman who was coiling a rope nearby. “Report here, Ben Johnson. I have a task for you.”
“Ay, ay, Mr Gore.” The sailor left the rope and strode over.
“This is Toby Robinson, one of our new cabin boys. I’m putting him in your mess. Take him below and show him his hammock and where he can stow his haversack. Then take him to John Thompson, the captain’s cook. He’s always complaining that he needs an extra hand.” They both laughed at that. I wondered why.
“Follow me, lad,” the big seaman said, “and watch your step!” He led the way past the busy carpenters and crewmen to an open hatch, and we descended a narrow ladder to the crew’s quarters below. It was dark, gloomy and stuffy down there. A row of hammocks hung along one wall.
Ben pointed to a hammock and said, “Your ‘private suite,’ Master Robinson! You may store your haversack in the locker below.” The hammock was less than eighteen inches wide and there was an empty space beneath it.
“You can safely stow your things there,” Ben reassured me. “The penalty for theft at sea is death at the yard-arm!” Was he joking?
Ben, as I came to know him, offered some advice. “It can be a bit noisy down here at night; with the waves pounding, the ship creaking and the men snoring and, ah – breaking wind! It’s a good idea to make yourself some ear-plugs.”
My dreams of a peaceful voyage to a tropical paradise were shattered. I was also beginning to realise that my new ‘friend’ had a very dry sense of humour.
“Now I’ll take you to meet John Thompson, the cook that Mr Gore wants you to work for.” Ben led the way back up the ladder and across the deck to a door near the stern. We passed along a narrow passage with cabins at the side. They were tiny and furnished with narrow bunks and chests of drawers, but they seemed luxurious after the dungeon below.
We entered the ‘Great Cabin’. It was enormous compared to the other cabins and very light and bright. The windows looked out over the stern of the ship. It was furnished with a huge table, several chairs, a settee, a bookcase and a writing bureau.
We found John Thompson in a small galley to one side of the Great Cabin, where he prepared the meals for the officers and passengers. He was grumbling over some papers and did not hear us approach.
Ben hailed him. “Ahoy there, John, I bring you good news!”
He stopped grumbling and turned to us. He did indeed have only one hand! “What now?” he asked suspiciously.
“I’ve brought you a helping hand,” Ben replied with a smile. “This is Master Toby Robinson, our new cabin boy.”
The cook studied me carefully. “Probably ’cause he’s no use for anything else. The cap’n’s left me to check all the stores while he’s away and make sure they ’aven’t palmed any rotten food off on us, as if I’ve not got enough to do – cook’n’ for the officers and all the passengers,” he grumbled.
“But the passengers haven’t arrived yet,” Ben replied, patting him on the back.
“Ay, but they soon will. Then I’ll ’ave a dozen at table. Am I the cap’n’s cook, or running a bloomin’ restaurant?”
“Well, I must be getting back on deck,” Ben said, and he hurried away, leaving me with the cantankerous cook.
I wanted to ask him what had happened to his hand, but Ben had warned me not to. “He’ll tell you himself when he’s good and ready,” Ben advised, “and probably a different story each time!”
The cook brightened when I told him that I could read and write. “Y’ might be of some use after all,” he said and he thrust a sheaf of paper into my hand. It was a list of supplies of food and beverages that the ship required for the voyage. “Now folla me and we’ll check the salt beef and pork for spoiled casks,” he growled. We went out on deck and descended through a hatch and two ladders to the bowels of the ship.
I noticed he was surprisingly agile. He had little difficulty descending the ladders despite having only one hand. He knew his way around the ship as well as he knew the back of that hand. The lower hold was dark and stuffy. John lit a lantern and we began to inspect the stores. The timber from which the ship was constructed was exposed in the hold. Only the planks of the deck separated us from the bilge. I could hear water sloshing below.
John told me that on some ships the captains allowed waste liquids and even sewage to be emptied into the bilge, but Captain Cook would not hear of that. All waste and rubbish went over the side. I later discovered that emptying that waste, including the officers’ and passengers’ chamber pots was one of my jobs!
My first task was to count the casks and barrels and check that they had been correctly recorded. I was amazed by the quantities: 6,000 pieces of salted pork, 4,000 pieces of salted beef and 10 tons of bread in the form of ship’s biscuits. The liquid requirements were also staggering: 2,000, gallons of beer, 2,000 gallons of spirits (mostly rum) and 30 tonnes of water. When I questioned John about the quantities he reassured me that they would all be required on the voyage, and that we would also be taking aboard fresh supplies of meat, vegetables and water at every port we visited.
John went about testing the casks for rotten contents. He did it by smell, which was surprising because the whole place smelt badly, but he had a sensitive nose. Eventually he identified two casks in which the contents were rotting. Even I could see signs of liquid seeping through cracks in the side of one. We rolled them aside for crewmen to hoist on deck. Later they would be returned to the naval storehouse and replaced.
John explained, “Navy rules are that the oldest stores must be used first, but we don’t ’ave to take rotten food on this voyage, the cap’n’s seen to that.” He spoke of the captain with admiration and pride.
“What’s marked on them casks over thare?” he asked, pointed to several new-looking casks.
I was able to read the labels stamped on the lids. “Sauerkraut,” I read.
“What the devil is thart?” John growled.
“I know, it’s pickled cabbage!” I explained.
“Ah! The cap’n told me to look out for thart, though I can’t imagine what he wants it for. He’ll ’ave trouble persuading the crew to eat thart stuff. Mark down six casks and we’ll check the ship’s biscuits for weevil.”
We later inspected the livestock. There were seventeen sheep, four pigs, twenty-four chickens and one nanny goat, whose task was to supply milk for the officers’ coffee. There were also three cats on board to keep down the rats. Rats were already on the ship. I could see their droppings on the storeroom floor.
They reminded me that I needed to make a visit myself and, after some difficulty I managed to explain that to John.
“Ah-ha!” he said. “You’ll be looking for one of the ‘seats of ease’. Folla me.”
‘Seats of ease’. I liked the sound of that and I followed him up the ladder.
“Surely they are not out on the open deck?” I asked in alarm.
“Ay, right at the bows of the ship. It’s best not to choose one on the windward side,” he added. “Y’re likely to get your own back!”
They weren’t just at the bows but over them! John explained that they were ‘self-cleaning’ and in heavy seas you got a bath at the same time. He emphasized the importance of ‘hanging on’.
That is what I decided to do – at least until after dark; there were still lots of crewmen on deck. As I had discovered, one of my tasks was emptying the gentlemen’s chamber pots, and there was nothing to stop me from making a contribution of my own – when nobody was looking, of course!