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False Trails and Fallacies 1 - James Cook: Freethinker? Freemason?

 

"He had, as far as one can see, no religion". JCB's "Life" p.698.
The above verdict would seem to be a fair reflection of the facts available to us and, in its eighteenth century context, in no way conflicts with his status as a parishioner of the Established Church, married by its rites and with his children baptised there. One presumes he was at least an annual communicant or he would never have qualified for his commission. Having said all this it is of interest to note novelist William Golding's use of Cook's reputation for literary purposes in justifying the anti-clerical views of his character Captain Anderson. In "Rites of Passage" (1980) p.21 , Cook is described as "... a notable atheist and would as soon have taken the plague into his ship as a parson". "Good God!" "I assure you, sir."

I suspect this characterisation is an exaggeration of Cook's non-conforming (Quaker) associations plus the fact that on none of his voyages did he ever ship a chaplain though only because his ships were too small to rate one, a point made long ago by J.C. Williamson.

A perhaps associated claim is that Cook was a freemason. In response to an enquiry there, the Librarian of the United Grand Lodge of England assured me that although "... the question of Captain James Cook's possible membership of the Masonic Order... comes up from time to time... we have never been able to establish that he was a Freemason." (Letter to AWS 12/11/1975). Nevertheless, the story persists.

Alan W. Smith


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 1401, volume 20, number 3 (1997).

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