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In The Navy, You Can Sail The Seven Seas: James Cook's Naval Career 1755-1768

Captain James Cook (Part II)

by Dr Michelle Ann Smith

James Cook’s quest to ‘range’ further than any other man began incrementally. Having declined the offer by his employer, John Walker, to take command of one of his ships Cook volunteered for service with the British Royal Navy. Walker was unsurprised at Cook’s change in direction, observing that the twenty-seven year old ‘had always an ambition to go into the Navy’.1 Cook believed the navy was the way to advancement, despite having to start at the bottom, and his service began on 17 June 1755.2

Cook spent the first 2½ years of his naval career sailing in and around the English Channel, the Bay of Biscay, and the east coast of Scotland (as far as Lerwick in the Shetland Islands), first as an able seaman then boatswain. Promotions came quickly as he proved himself to be more than competent, and soon he was master’s mate. Cook spent most of this time on the HMS Eagle where he served with Hugh Palliser who became a friend and mentor, and after whom Palliser Bay was named.3 On the successful completion of his Sailing Master’s qualification in June 1757 he was promoted to Master on the frigate, HMS Solebay. Within six months Cook became Master of the HMS Pembroke which traversed the waters of eastern Canada between Nova Scotia and Quebec City.4

Tensions between Britain and France over control of North America had been simmering for a while. They came to a head in May 1756 with the declaration of what would become known as the Seven Years War; a war that had ‘control of trade and territories at its heart’.5 As part of George II’s naval fleet Cook had already seen blood spilled in the English Channel. Now in Canadian waters he played a small role in the campaign that ‘culminated in the surrender of Quebec’ in September 1759.6

In 1758 Cook was introduced to Samuel Holland an engineer serving with James Wolfe, Brigadier-General of the British army.7 From Palliser Cook learnt spherical trigonometry and under Holland, and John Simcoe captain of the Pembroke, he mastered the skills for cartography and the ‘necessary techniques of celestial navigation for ocean voyaging’.8 Holland also taught him how to use a surveyor’s plane table.9 During September 1758 Cook undertook his first surveying venture mapping the Gaspe Harbour, the results of which became his first published chart. Three months later he was working with Holland on sailing directions for the Cape Breton area, and compiling charts of the St Lawrence River and Newfoundland.10

Cook set sail for Quebec in early May 1759 encountering sea ice for the first time. Proving to be a skilled marine surveyor and cartographer, his skills were put to good use by the military. He sounded channels in order to map the entry to the St Lawrence River, which allowed Wolf and his army to make a covert attack on the French at Quebec.11 Immediately after Quebec surrendered Cook was appointed master of the HMS Northumberland under Captain Lord Colville. Spending the winter in Halifax, was not for the faint-hearted but the Yorkshireman used the time readying his surveys for publication.12

The summer of 1760 was spent supporting the military in Quebec, Montreal, and parts of Ontario during which time Canada surrendered to Britain.13 Cook sailed back to Halifax in October and remained there until August 1762. The Northumberland was overhauled and Cook spent the remainder of the year in Nova Scotia surveying Harbour Grace and Carbonear. He arrived back in England in late October 1762, presented his maps and observations to the Lords of the Admiralty, and married 21-year-old Elizabeth Batts. One wonders when Cook had had time for courtship, having spent the past four years on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean!14

Lord Colville was impressed with Cook and wrote to the Admiralty in London praising the master’s ‘Genius and Capacity’ and pronouncing him ‘well qualified for the Work he has performed, and for greater Undertakings of the same kind [sic]’.15 Rather than fighting, the rivalry between Britain and France manifested itself in expeditions that travelled far and wide searching for ‘land and commercial opportunities’.16 The navy continued to use Cook’s skills, and while they still refused to give him a naval commission they did appoint him as Surveyor in Newfoundland in May 1763. With newly purchased surveying equipment, Cook spent the first of five seasons mapping that country’s coastline.17 He returned home for the winter, a little late for the birth of his first son, but made amends to his wife with the purchase of their first home.18

Appointed master of HMS Grenville in April 1764, which came with a considerable pay rise, Cook continued surveying Newfoundland’s capes, bays, harbours and islands, producing the first accurate maps on a large-scale of the area which were still being used well into the twentieth century. He used local seamen to show him hidden dangers lurking along Newfoundland’s south and west coasts.19 Each season Cook departed England around April-May, returning home in November or early December when he would prepare and write up the results of each voyage. His schedule meant he missed all but two of his children’s births. Elizabeth had to cope on her own with the birth of each of her children, their upbringing, and their deaths. Three of the couple’s children died while Cook was at sea; the other three died before they reached the age of 21. Elizabeth’s strength and resilience cannot be ignored – she spent most of her sixteen-year marriage with an absent husband, never joining him on any of his voyages. After his death in 1779 she never remarried. Fifty-six years later Elizabeth died at the age of 94.20

Cook’s voyages across the Atlantic were not without incident. There were injuries - during one trip a large powder horn exploded in Cook’s right hand meaning he could not work for nearly a month – and damage to equipment and the small boat used to go ashore. In 1765 the Grenville required overhauling after running ashore. Two years later the same ship was involved in a collision and had to return to port to be fixed, delaying the start of the journey by nearly a week. The end of the trip also saw an unfortunate turn of events with the Grenville again running aground, only a few nautical miles from home.21

Why were the north Atlantic voyages of Cook significant? The ten years spent in and around Canada, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland saw Cook produce the ‘first scientific, large scale, hydrographic survey’ which used ‘precise triangulation to establish land outlines’.22 This meant voyages could become safer as ships’ navigators would now have accurate knowledge of the space they were traversing. Moreover, these charts were still in use well into the twentieth century.23 He would have seen many new species of birds, fish, flora, and mammals, and come into contact with some of the local people who lived on the islands. However, any notion of those people, their manners or customs were not transposed onto Cook’s maps. Near Burgeo, Cook witnessed an eclipse of the sun with the help of his ‘brass telescopic quadrant’. He named the island where his ship anchored Eclipse Island. When comparing his results with those from ‘an observation of the same eclipse from Oxford’, Cook accurately established ‘the longitude of the island’.24 The eclipse was the topic of his first ‘scientific communication’ with the Royal Society and demonstrated his mathematical, astronomical, and surveying skills.25 Cook’s findings slotted perfectly into the ‘intellectual awakening’ currently occurring in Europe; a movement that would become known as the Enlightenment.26

Between 1755 and 1768 Cook become a proficient cartographer and surveyor, often under the most adverse of conditions. During this time, he developed the qualities of leadership, ambition, and determination, all of which made him the eighteenth century’s ‘most outstanding explorer’.27 He caught the attention of the British Admiralty and Royal Society which set him on a course of exploration never been achieved before. James Cook, now promoted to Lieutenant, was set to ‘explore strange new worlds’, seek out ‘new civilisations’, and ‘boldly go where no man [had] gone before’.28

  1. Anne Salmond, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, London, 2003, p. 22; Richard Hough, Captain James Cook: a biography, London, 1994, p. 10. 

  2. ‘James Cook’, nzhistory.govt.nz/people/james-cook (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-Mar-2019. 

  3. Cook named this southern-most point of the North Island after Hugh in 1770. Ben Schrader, ‘Wairarapa Places – Palliser District’, teara.govt.nz/en/Wairarapa-places/page-10 (updated 11 June 2015); Nigel Rigby & Peter van der Merwe, Captain Cook in the Pacific, London, 2002, p. 27; Hough, p. 12. 

  4. Cook had had a small taste of being master of his own vessel in May 1756 when he was given temporary command of the Cruizer, a small cutter attached to the Eagle. A Sailing Master ‘was responsible for navigating the vessel’ although is ‘actual duties were much broader’ and he was assisted by Petty Officers and Midshipmen. Rigby & van der Merwe, p. 27; Salmond, p. 23. 

  5. William Frame with Laura Walker, James Cook: The Voyages, Auckland, 2018, p. 14. The Seven Years War was one long period of conflict during the 150 years Britain and France argued over territories on the North American continent (land in both American and Canada). The end of the Seven Years War in 1763 saw Britain emerge victorious. Under the Treaty of Paris, Britain acquired Quebec, Florida, significant holdings in the West Indies and in the east and Mediterranean they gained Minorca and large parts of India. bbc.co.uk/history; William R Nester, ‘The First Global War’: Britain, France and the Fate of North America 1756-1775, Westport, 2000, p. vii. 

  6. Quebec had been placed under siege, which lasted for three months. Nicholas Thomas, Discoveries: the Voyages of Captain Cook, London, 2003, p. 5; Rigby & van der Merwe, pp. 27-29; Frame, p. 17; Hough, p. 13. Cook’s ship, the HMS Eagle, ‘attacked and defeated a French ship at point-blank range, leaving the Eagle’s hull riddled with shot, and ten of her crew dead and eighty wounded’. Cook was lucky to have escaped unscathed. Salmond, p. 23. 

  7. Wolfe returned to England after the capture of Louisburg (July 1758). Despite being in ill-health, the British Prime Minister appointed him Major General and gave him the task of capturing Quebec from the French. He succeeded in his mission, but died from wounds received during the final battle; the Battle of Quebec (Battle of the Plains of Abraham) on 13th September 1759. britannica.com/biography/James-Wolfe 

  8. Hough, p. 18; Rigby & van der Merwe, p. 27. 

  9. Rigby & van der Merwe, p. 27; Hough, p. 18. A plane table is ‘a flat rectangular board . . . attached horizontally to a tripod’. Paper is attached to the board. Drawing commences ‘using a sighting vane or alidade, a clinometer for measuring angles, a compass and an aneroid barometer’. If using a large sheet of paper, plotting the position of triangulation points, such as mountains remote from the area the surveyor is working from, becomes possible. nla.gov.au/selected-library-collections/plane-table-surveys-collection 

  10. Rigby & van der Merwe, p. 28; Thomas, p. 5. 

  11. This attack was made during the Battle of Quebec. Prior to the battle Cook had been laying buoys in the channel at Beauport as markers. The French finally capitulated at Montreal the following year. Frame, p. 17; captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/life-in-the-royal-navy-1755-1767; Salmond, p. 23. 

  12. Rigby & van der Merwe, p. 29. 

  13. Even though Canada had surrendered, the Seven Years War would not end until December 1762. captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/life-in-the-royal-navy-1755-1767 

  14. Hough (p. 25) suggests the couple met while Elizabeth was visiting her mother, who was a neighbour of Cook. The couple married at St Margaret’s Church, Barking in East London. Elizabeth was the daughter of Samuel Batts and Mary Smith. Samuel ran the Bell Alehouse at Execution Dock, Wapping. He died shortly after Elizabeth’s birth. Mary continued to run the pub. Despite having never travelled outside of England, Elizabeth left behind pieces of embroidery which include scenes from her husband’s voyages to Australia and the Pacific. These are held, alongside her portrait, in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. trove.nla.gov.au/people/1486292?c=people; Rigby & van der Merwe, p. 30.  

  15. Letter dated 30 December 1762, reproduced in Hough, pp. 25-26; Salmond, p. 23. 

  16. Frame, p. 15. 

  17. In Georgian times the navy hierarchy followed society’s hierarchy. Few men from the labouring classes became commissioned officers. Cook travelled to Newfoundland aboard the HMS Antelope before joining HMS Tweed in June 1763. He spent the remainder of the year on this ship. Salmond, p. 23. captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/life-in-the-royal-navy-1755-1767 

  18. Hough, p. 31. 

  19. During 1763 and 1764 Cook surveyed the north-west coast of Newfoundland. In 1765 and 1766 he concentrated on the south coast between Burin Peninsula and Cape Ray. He surveyed the west coast of the island in 1767. gulfnews.ca/community/a-glimpse-of-eclipse-island-49098/ 

  20. Rigby & van der Merwe, p. 29; trove.nla.gov.au/people/1486292?c=people; Hough, p. 31. 

  21. Salmond, p. 24; captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/life-in-the-royal-navy-1755-1767; Hough, p. 31. 

  22. Quote on a plaque produced by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/corner-brook-newfoundland-canada 

  23. Hough, pp. 32, 33. 

  24. Burgeo is on the south coast of Newfoundland. Hough, p. 32; Frame, p. 17. Also: Thomas, pp. 7, 8; Salmond, p. 24. Cook’s charts are intricate and precise. Some are six or ten feet in length. 

  25. Rigby & van der Merwe, p. 29. The Royal Society was Britain’s ‘leading scientific and philosophical body’, established in 1660. See: Frame, pp. 20-25. 

  26. Frame, p. 20. Scientific findings from the early Enlightenment period focused on obtaining knowledge from outside Europe. The development of print allowed ideas to flow easily and quickly between people and countries. 

  27. bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/captaincook_01.shtml; Thomas, pp, 7, 8; Frame, p. 17. 

  28. Star Trek – Introductory Text - from the creators of Star Trek, 1966. Cook was finally a commissioned officer of the navy. 

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elocal Digital Edition – July 2019 (#220)

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July 2019 (#220)

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