Malcolm Barker: Voyage of great country born from the spirit of Endeavour

BY now, the replica of His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour will be sailing along the northern coast of Australia as she continues a circumnavigation of the island continent due to last 12 months. Her customary berth is adjacent to the National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour, Sydney.

Here visitors may arrive on a harbour ferry called the Fishburn, named after a vessel of that name which was among the first fleet sent from England in 1787 to start the new colony. She in turn was named after Thomas Fishburn, at whose yard in Whitby the Endeavour was built.

This is a pleasing juxtaposition, and it stimulates the thought that if by some miracle the craftsmen who created the original by “skeg o’t’ee” (by sight of eye) could chance on the new version, they would blink in astonishment to find her apparently still afloat, fully rigged, her timbers unshivered, and berthed with honour amid one of the great cities of the world.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Endeavour earned her place in history in 1770 when James Cook sailed her up the eastern seaboard of the new land he had discovered, and to which he laid claim on behalf of King George III.

I was in Australia for 10 weeks this year, staying at Lismore in New South Wales. Close by is Ballina, a small town in a beautiful setting at the mouth of Richmond River. A breakwater commands a view of the Pacific, and Endeavour passed this way on Tuesday May 15, 1770.

Cook recorded that they were about a league off the land and saw “people and smook (sic)”. A nearby headland, which later proved to be the most easterly point in the continent, was named Cape Byron, and a “remarkable sharp peaked mountain” was dubbed Mouth Warning, as a reminder for future passing mariners that there were dangerous shoals inshore.

This was all a mere 241 years ago. Since then, Australia has become one of the great democracies, for us a happy land far, far away. Her standing in the world league for all-round contentment was confirmed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

With the third highest life expectancy (81.5 years), she was placed fifth for median household income, after Luxembourg, the US, Norway and Iceland. More than 90 per cent of people questioned were satisfied with life.

The official accolade is confirmed by personal observations. The usual response to the question “How are you today?” is “good”. This does not refer specifically to health or wealth.

It is not a claim to national virtue either for, judging from their newspapers, Australians are as prone to crime and assaults (known as “bashings”) as people in less happy lands. No, “good” may be taken as a reference to a feeling of well-being.

This has persisted through a prolonged drought, and the floods and tempests that brought it to an end. It has survived catastrophic bush fires. It has come bravely through the loss of the Ashes. Nor has it succumbed to the follies of its governments, of which it had nine at the last count.

There is a sound basis for contentment. Australia is very wealthy indeed. Its riches in raw materials are hawked round the world, but find their readiest markets in India, China and Japan. Coal is a prime earner, with exports in 2008-9 valued at $A52.1bn. Next came iron ore ($A 33.7bn).

These and other exports, including gold, are producing what one commentator described as a “tsunami of wealth”. Another described the country as “a vast mine”. He went on to warn that, having abandoned manufacturing and industrial diversity, Australia might become hostage to a volatile global economy, such as an abrupt downturn in the Chinese market, on which she was hugely dependant.

Economists may fret, but there is no evidence of their concerns filtering down into the community at large. Australians enjoy an enviable lifestyle.

In Lismore, a university city, you may lurch up and down hills and sway round sharp corners on the circular suburban bus service and discern an extraordinary fact. No two homes are alike. They sit on spacious plots, and the great variations in construction do not extend to a terrace or even a semi-detached. An unkempt verge is a rarity.

The place looks, feels, and is prosperous. Its Southern Cross University is a big employer, and Lismore is the centre of a rich farming area famous for its beef, and with large milking herds in fertile paddocks. Elsewhere there are extensive macadamia plantations. In short, Lismore is very much part of the happy land of Oz.

The beginning of Australia’s great mineral boom can be traced back to 1966 when the first train laden with iron ore travelled 290km from the mine at Mount Tom Price in the Hamersly Ranges of Western Australia to the port of Dampier on the coast. New sources of wealth continue to emerge, and Australia is already the world’s fourth largest exporter of gas in its liquefied form (LNG).

Some cash could usefully be spent on infrastructure. Train services are dire or non-existent and, astonishingly, the country’s main like between Sydney and Brisbane, the Pacific Highway, is in parts still a single carriageway, and some towns, including Ballina, have yet to be bypassed.

Australia’s population now exceeds 22,600,000, and is rising. They live well, these inheritors of Cook’s legacy. Of the original Aboriginal inhabitants, few of pure blood remain. Cook wrote of those he encountered: “They may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier (sic) than we Europeans.”

Alas, that is not true today. Happiness does not seem endemic in the Aboriginal communities. Cook ascribed their tranquillity to ignorance; knowledge, and the loss of traditional lifestyle, which followed the arrival of those they now call “invaders”, perhaps engendered despair.

The “new” Endeavour sailed from Darwin this week. On passage to Fremantle, near Perth, where she was built, she will pass Dampier where, last year, 170 million tons of Australia was exported worldwide, including 141 million tons of iron ore.

Should any of the vast bulk carriers that load at the port encounter the tiny bark, they might consider lowering their flags of convenience to the spirit of the vessel that started it all.

Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.