Once a Royal Navy ship had been commissioned or selected for a particular activity (such as a voyage to the Pacific), it needed to be manned, and the task of appointing men to all the relevant positions on board began in earnest. As men were chosen and came on board their names were entered in the ship’s books. But not all those men would stay in the ship for the duration of the voyage, or even a part of it; some left even before the ship left port.
Men were often discharged before the voyage began, with some being ordered to other ships, while others were sent to sick quarters. The thought of a long voyage was not to the liking of some men who took it upon themselves to desert, usually disappearing in the night. Similarly, when some men found out that a “peaceful” voyage (such as Cook’s) offered little or no chance for prize money, they jumped ship. Of those men that did sail in a ship, a few died or were killed. Others deserted at foreign ports. And other men were taken on during the voyage to fill the gaps. These departures often allowed the chance of promotion for those that remained. All these events needed to be recorded and the ship’s muster served that purpose.
For a complete list of the men in Cook's ships, read The musters of Cook's Ships
The muster records of Cook’s ships are a wonderful source of information about the men who sailed with him. Royal Navy regulations of the time required a muster be maintained, which was the record of everyone supposedly on that vessel at a particular time. It was repeated every week. Commissioned officers, warrant officer and seamen were grouped together and listed in the order of their appearance in the ship. Marines and anyone else on board (usually referred to as supernumeraries) had separate lists.
The lists were used as the basis for paying wages, recording those who were being provided with victuals (food, etc.) and sundry things such as allocation of clothes and tobacco. On large ships, a purser was employed, and his duties included maintaining the muster. However, no pursers sailed with Cook, and the muster was kept by the ship’s clerk. These clerks performed several of the duties normally done by pursers, and the similarity of their roles is shown by the fact that several of Cook’s clerks later served as pursers on other ships. The content of the muster was the ultimate responsibility of the commanding officer on board so Cook as captain was always required to sign. The ship’s master always signed, as did the ship’s boatswain. The master had the responsibility for the day to day running of the ship and, as the muster was the basis for the men’s wages, he was confirming their entitlements and deductions. During the voyage, men could be issued with extra clothing, beds or tobacco, the cost of which would be deducted later. The boatswain, who had responsibility for stores, etc., signed the muster accordingly.
All officers, men and boys were assigned a number as their name was entered in the book for the first time, and that number was not usually re-used during the voyage (or period the vessel was operating). Occasionally, men transferred from the supernumerary list to the main list or vice versa, or a change of role might occasion someone to be given a new number. During Cook’s Third Voyage to the Pacific, Gregory Bentham, clerk in Discovery encountered a problem at the beginning of July 1776 that led him to renumber the muster. All the men already listed and still present (71 people) received new numbers. The next men to join the ship received numbers following this new sequence (i.e. from 72 onwards).
Men were mustered once a week for the time they were in the ship. Their presence was recorded with a letter inserted in a column at the right hand side of the muster pages. Week one was denoted by the letter a, week two by b, etc. There were eight columns sufficient for two months, after which a completely new listing would start on new pages. Details for each person were entered in columns over two pages of the muster book. Not all of the approximately 30 columns were always completed.
The age listed in column 8 was often a guess, as many men had little idea of their correct birth date. Their real age could be out by several years. Similarly, their listed place of birth in column 7 cannot always be trusted.
Another possible problem lies with spelling which, at the time, was not standardised or consistent. The clerks who compiled the musters often recorded the names in column 10 as they thought they should be spelt. For example, Joseph Billings on the Third Voyage was listed as Bellens. Occasionally, they even varied the spelling in the course of the voyage. A degree of caution is, therefore, required when using information derived from musters for genealogies, etc.
Captains, such as Cook, had a limited say in selecting their crew. Sometimes men chose themselves through loyalty to a particular officer. For example, when Cook transferred from Grenville to Endeavour in 1768, eight members of the Grenville company followed him: William Howson, Isaac Smith, Peter Flower, John Charlton, Alexander Weir, William Grimshaw, Timothy Rarden and Thomas Hardman.
Occasionally, Cook requested particular men, as when he wrote to Philip Stephens, the Admiralty Secretary on 11 March 1776:
Mr Robt Mackie, Midshipman on board the Nonsuch, who was the late voyage in the Adventure, hath appli’d to me to go out in the Resolution – As I have great reason to believe, that he will, on many occasions, be a very usefull Man, I beg you will move their Lordships to Order hime to be discharged from the Nonsuch into the Resolution.
Far more often, men were allocated to a ship purely based on their presence in the same port and their availability. Cook did have a say, though, in appointing men to positions. The majority of crew were first entered as able seamen (ABs). Then, in the months prior to sailing, men’s abilities were assessed before they were promoted to positions such as quartermasters, boatswain’s mate and carpenter’s crew. Similarly, men could be demoted.
Early in this article, I wrote “everyone supposedly on that vessel”. The reason for this phrase is that many captains included the names of men or boys not actually in the ship while others had people on board whose presence was not noted in the muster. James Cook was guilty of both of these actions.
It has been suggested that captains would enter their sons so that the time could be used later as part of the experience requirement for becoming a lieutenant. Others have suggested it was merely a ploy to gain more money for themselves. Whatever the reason, Cook had his two sons, James and Nathaniel, listed in Endeavour’s muster when they were still just little boys back home in Mile End. On the Grenville brig in 1767, off the west coast of Newfoundland, James Surridge, a seaman, died. William Howson’s name suddenly appeared on the muster. This change happened in a remote unpopulated area so he must have been on the brig all along but for some unknown reason his presence had not been acknowledged.
Another inclusion in the list on many ships was that of widows’ men. A widow’s man was a fictitious seaman entered on the muster whose wages would be set aside to be used to make payment to the families of dead crew members. The number of widows’ men on a ship was proportional to the ship’s size (one per hundred company members) so Cook’s small vessels only had one if they had one at all.
Each two-month set of musters would be signed by the captain, master and boatswain as a correct representation of what had taken place. A front cover page was also completed. This page carried a synopsis of the period and indicated the code letter for each week under consideration. It also showed totals for each week for the ship’s complement, the number of men actually borne and also those already discharged sick. A listing of all the men who had run was kept separately near the back of the document. When a ship returned to its home port all musters were handed in to the clerk of the cheque for wages, etc., to be calculated and distributed.
Muster records have proved most useful in the pursuit of information about the men who sailed with Cook. The date and place of birth have made searching such genealogical databases as the London Parish records offered by the London Metropolitan Archives and the website Ancestry.co.uk that much easier and certain, even allowing for some of the problems mentioned above.
Statistical analysis of the records is also interesting. For example, nearly as many men mustered in Resolution before the Second Voyage did not sail (89) as did sail (93). Of these 89: one person died, 30 were discharged and 58 ran.
Before the Voyage
During the Voyage
HMS Resolution also had one widow’s man listed.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 14, volume 35, number 4 (2012).
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