Naval historians have written extensively about the gradations of ranks and ratings in the Royal Navy, and have traced the changes that have occurred in those ranks and ratings from Tudor times to the present day. Only an outline summary of the different categories of men that constituted Cook's ships' companies is attempted here.l
Officers and Ratings
In pride of place as the captain's executive-assistants, came the "sea" or "commission" officers. (The word "commission" was not changed to "commissioned" until much later.) They were the lieutenants who held the "King's Commission" and who were appointed by the Admiralty. Commission officers included the marine lieutenants who commanded that special breed of sea-soldier, the marines (later Royal Marines). After the commissioned officers, came the warrant officers, appointed by the Navy Board. Some, "of wardroom rank", such as masters and surgeons, were entitled to "walk the quarter deck" in the company of the captain and lieutenants. In Cook's day, sea-going officers were called "sea officers", to distinguish them from "naval officers", who were civil officers appointed by the Navy Board, and who filled such appointments as customs officers and store-keepers on overseas stations.2Then there were:
warrant officers who were sea officers and those who were reckoned only as inferior officers, petty officers with the status of inferior officers, and others who were simply ratings, slightly superior to the rest of 'the people', the common term for the ratings of the ship as a body.3
Two ratings (everything is "rated" in the navy), which were petty officer ratings, were those of midshipmen and masters' mates:
The position of these two ratings well illustrates the curious amalgam of an official system of ranks and ratings with the social reality of class and education. In principle, both midshipmen and masters' mates (often just mates for short), were a sort of superior petty officer with more general authority, but they remained no more than ratings.4
Midshipmen and masters' mates were the potential sea officers of the future. They had the social distinction of the right to "walk the quarter deck", provided they behaved like officers and dressed respectably. The midshipmen on Cook's ships were "young gentlemen who fluctuated in de facto rank on the voyage between midshipman and A.B."
Not all midshipmen throughout the navy were "young gentlemen" though. Then there were warrant officers who were fo'c'sle (forecastle) men or foremastmen. They were the boatswain, the gunner, the carpenter and the cook. Beneath them, were a group of "inferior officers", such as the armourer, the sailmaker, surgeons' mates, the master-at-arms (and his corporal or assistant). In the eighteenth century navy, "the company of every ship was divided in many overlapping, ambiguous and untidy ways, some ill-defined by the regulations, and some not mentioned at all."
The complements of Cook's ships followed the general pattern for ships of comparable size in the navy, although he was allowed an extra commissioned officer and extra mates and midshipmen to help work the three watch system adopted on parts of the voyages. However, this was not standard practice in the navy as a whole, at that time.
The second major grouping that Cook governed were those who lived 'forrad' (forward of the mainmast, or in the fo'c'sle), who constituted the majority of the seamen and marines (the latter interposed between the seamen and officers). They came from diverse origins and from a very different social caste to the "officers and gentlemen aft". This both naval and social distinction corresponded with the distinction between "lower deck" and "quarter deck", which distinguished "men" or "people" from "officers":7
Every Fighting Service has, and must have, two main categories —'Officers' and 'Men'. The Royal Navy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was no exception. The distinction existed: was indeed more than ordinarily marked. It was not only a naval distinction, but a sharp social one too. 'Officers' as contemporary society used that word, came from one walk of life, 'Men' from another: and, as it was not easy in Society to pass from a lower stratum to a higher, so in the Navy, it was not easy for a 'Man' to become an Officer. But it was possible.8
As Michael Lewis further points out, the division of everybody into "quarter deck" and "lower deck" does not altogether hold when a whole ship's organization is considered.
In practice, the chain of command merges a ship's company into a kind of discontinuous hierarchy. There is, of course, no better example of a "Man" making the comparatively rare transition to "Officer", than James Cook who, in the naval slang of the day, was, "a collier's nag,"
who "had come up through the hausehole". A "collier's nag" was a seaman bred "north of Yarmouth".
The hausehole is the aperture on the fo'c'sle through which the anchor rope or chain passes, when the anchor is/was lowered or raised. Hence the whole expression was a piece of naval slang that could be translated as meaning "a coal-boat seaman who had risen from the lower-deck.
Cook rose from the lower deck of a North Sea collier to become one of the Royal Navy's most prestigious explorers, navigators and captains of all time, "second in the line of the three greatest seamen of British history—Drake, Cook, and Nelson."
Reverting to the seamen, "I shall, without scruple, pronounce them to be the most injured race on earth", wrote James Moncrieff in 1759.l3 In 1905, John Masefield claimed:
It cannot be too strongly insisted on that sea life in the eighteenth century was brutalizing, cruel and horrible; a kind of life now happily gone forever; a kind of life which no man today would think good enough for a criminal. There was barbarous discipline, bad pay, bad food, bad hours of work, bad prospects.l4
It is noteworthy, that Moncrieff and Masefield did not make any distinction between the Merchant Service and the Royal Navy.
More recently (1968), Dr. N.A.M. Rodger has challenged the opinion that naval discipline was, "harsh and oppressive, officers frequently cruel and tyrannical, ratings drawn from the dregs of society, ill-treated and starved."l5 In his study concentrating on the period of the Seven Years War (1756-63), and applying his conclusions to the period 1740-75, he has presented a plausible background to the naval victories that occurred during that time, and which, "are frankly difficult to account for if the Navy was run as a sort of floating concentration camp."l6
The Character and Behaviour of Cook's Men
An eyewitness's summation of the character and behaviour of seamen on board the Resolution during Cook's second voyage, was given by George Forster. He held:
Their long acquaintance with a seafaring life had inured them to all kinds of perils, and their heavy labour, with the inclemencies of weather, and other hardships, making their muscles rigid and their nerves obtuse, had communicated insensibility to the mind. It will be easily conceived, that as they do not feel for themselves sufficiently to provide for their own safety, they must be incapable of feeling for others. Subject to a very strict command, they also exercise a tyrannical sway over those whom fortune places in their power. Accustomed to face an enemy, they breathe nothing but war. By force of habit even killing is become so much their passion, that we have seen instances during our voyage where they have expressed horrid eagerness to fire upon the natives on the slightest pretences. Their way of life in general prevents their enjoying domestic comforts; and gross animal appetites fill the place of purer affections... Though they are members of a civilized society, they may in some measure be looked upon as a body of uncivilized men, rough, passionate, revengeful, but likewise brave, sincere , and true to one another.l7
In another context he reports:
Among the crew of the Resolution, we had several individuals of the worst moral character, who had escaped the infliction of severe punishment, and the horrors of prison, by entering the King's service.l8 We had further some patterns of complete brutality, who set a very bad example to the rest; men without principles, and without reason, subjected to absolute command, and therefore cruelly tyrannical where they had power to follow their inclinations. We had likewise, fortunately, among our officers, several gentlemen, whose morals, good temper, and benevolent heart, contributed as much as in them lay, to restrain the mariner's impetuosity and unthinking cruelty.l9
Writing of events at Dusky Sound, in 1773, George Forster gives another insight into the natures of some of the
crew, when he describes a boat trip in which he accompanied Cook into an arm of the Sound. They camped out for the night and after supper:
we listened awhile to the original comic vein of our boat's crew, who huddled round the fire, made their meal, and recited a number of droll stories, intermixed with hearty curses, oaths and indecent expressions, but seldom without real humour.20
Johann Reinhold Forster embellishes his son's description with:
Whilst the Officers & better people eat their meal, the Sailors dress theirs & give way to mirth and jollity & crack jokes, wherein you observe a good deal of genius, & goodnature, blended with roughness, bluntness, hearty curses, oaths & baudy expressions. Often I heard very smart repartees, witticisms & jokes from the mouth of an honest tar that would have done honour to the greatest genius of the age; & their stories though for the greatest part bawdy and indelicate, are often as chaste as possible but never without the true [Greek] geloion, [which translates as "a sense of the ridiculous" or "sense of the absurd"].2l
Later in the same year, when the Resolution was approaching Queen Charlotte Sound in a howling storm, the younger Forster adds to his description of the tumult on board with:
To complete this catalogue of horrors, we heard the voices of the sailors from time to time louder than the blustering winds or the raging ocean itself, uttering horrible vollies of curses and oaths. Without any provocation to serve as an excuse, they execrate limb in varied terms, piercing and complicated beyond the power of description. Inured to danger from their infancy, they were insensible to its threats and not a single reflection bridled their blasphemous tongues... 22
These sailors, whose worst proclivities Forster and Sparrman, highlight, formed, nevertheless, a major part of the crew, about whom, Cook could say in his report to the Admiralty at the end of the voyage, "The behaviour of my Officers & Crew during y
whole course of y
Voyage merits from me the highest recommendations."
Similarly, after the first voyage he had avowed, "In Justice to the officers and the whole crew I must say that they have gone through the fatigue and dangers of the whole voyage with that cheerfullness and alllertness that will always do honour to British Seamen."
Undoubtedly there were "bad apples" among Cook's crews, but there were also men such as William Watman, "beloved by his fellows for his good and benevolent disposition",
and Henry Smock, whose, "good natured character, and a kind of serious turn of mind caused him to be regretted
(emphasis in the original) among his shipmates".
However, as one writer puts it:
It is difficult for a historian to penetrate the exact atmosphere or conversation of diverse groups without imagination and guesswork. Those multiple manifestations of a past life, of the quality of mind and matter that passes in every English salon or every English meeting during the early years of the eighteenth century are difficult to evidence or generalize.27
The subjects of this comment were literate men of the eighteenth century, but the remark applies equally to less well-educated groupings such as the crews of men-of-war.
Cook's Officers and Ratings
It has been said that Cook was fortunate in the quality of the officers who sailed with him. "Cook had chosen his subordinates well or had been lucky. The officers of the third voyage were a remarkably intelligent group of men. They suffered much."28 Leaving aside the question of their alleged sufferings, there would be widespread accord on the overall high-quality of Cook's officers. There were, however, two officers of the Resolution on the third voyage, on whom, the judgement of historians has been severe. Lieutenant John Williamson has received almost universal condemnation for his failure to go to Cook's assistance at Kealakekua Bay; and it is generally agreed that Marine Lieutenant Molesworth Phillips' marines, were a sloppy lot. Their inexperience and lack of discipline made their own contribution to events when they were called out to earn their keep as Cook's guard.at Kealakekua Bay. William Bligh (later Captain Bligh), Master of the Resolution on the third voyage, described Phillips as a "person who never was of any real service the whole Voyage, or did anything but eat & sleep"29 Williamson and Phillips excepted, there was a remarkable aggregation of talent distributed among the officers of all three voyages. David Mackay's summation of the quality of Cook's officers, must find wide agreement among scholars who have studied Cook and his career:
Some of his crews, products of that stern school of seamanship inherited these capacities [previously listed] and the traditions that went with them. His discipline in this regard infused a whole era of navigation. All the great remaining voyages of the eighteenth century drew on Cook's officers. Bligh, Portlock, Vancouver, Colnett, Riou, and Hergest all got their commands and served with great distinction. These men then passed on their skills to a second generation of men such as Flinders and Broughton.30
This comment bears out the "Dynasty of Cook's Lieutenants" that Hugh Carrington elaborated in a bound, unpaginated typescript.
I have modified and expanded it to make the following table:
The Dynasty of Cook's Lieutenants
Key to table
A = Adventure, D = Discovery, R = Resolution
0 Promoted to captain in the course of the voyage
* Successors trained by Cook's Lieutenants
William Wyndham's oft-quoted exclamation to James Burney on hearing of Bligh's boat journey in 1789 after the mutiny on the Bounty, provides a fitting ending to this article:
But what officers you are! you men of Captain Cook, you rise upon us in every trial!34
Allan S. Arlidge
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 10, volume 27, number 3 (2004).
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1755 - 1757
1772 - 1779