Hugh Palliser, whose portrait has just been sold at auction [see page 39], played a most important role in the career of James Cook. Indeed, despite the very different circumstances of their origins, the two men became close friends. Palliser fashioned a distinguished career for himself before and after his friendship with Cook, but he is remembered most as being one of the patrons who assisted Cook.
Palliser was born at Kirk Deighton, Yorkshire, England on 22 February 1722. He was the son of Captain Hugh Palliser, an army officer from North Deighton, and Mary, daughter of Humphrey Robinson of Thicket Hall, Cottingworth. As well as the family base in Yorkshire, the Pallisers had connections in Ireland where a cousin, William Palliser, was Archbishop of Cashel.
Hugh Palliser entered the Royal Navy at age of eleven serving with his uncle, Nicholas Robinson, captain of HMS Aldborough. He then followed his uncle to Kennington (where he served for three years) and later, in 1741, was in HMS Essex. While in Essex he received his commission as a lieutenant and he was still with Essex (now under Sir John Norris) as first lieutenant at the battle of Toulon in 1744. He gained his first command, the sloop Weasel, in 1746 and captured six French privateers in the English Channel. In recognition of this capture, he became a post captain on 25 November 1746.
Palliser was appointed flag-captain of the ship Captain, under the broad pennant of Commodore Edward Legge, and they sailed to the Leeward Islands. Palliser soon transferred to Sutherland but was severely wounded by an explosion and returned to Britain. The War of the Austrian Succession ended and it was in April 1753 when Palliser was given command of Seahorse, which operated in home waters until January 1755. That year Seahorse sailed for Virginia with a convoy of transports. On the return crossing in July Commodore Augustus Keppel, who would feature large in Palliser’s career, was a passenger.
In October 1755 Palliser assumed command of Eagle at Plymouth, replacing Captain Joseph Hamar.1 It was then that the paths of Palliser and Cook first crossed. However, as captain and master’s mate respectively there would have been few occasions for them to have close dealings. Together, they took part in several cruises off the coast of France helping to blockade Brest and other French ports. It was Palliser who authorised Cook to assume commands of first Cruizer2 and then the captured French boat Triton3 in 1756. It is believed that Palliser was instrumental in Cook gaining the opportunity to sit his master’s examination,4 which led to him leaving Eagle in June 1757.
After Cook’s departure, Palliser remained with Eagle and took her as part of Rear-Admiral Francis Holburne’s squadron that attempted to blockade Louisbourg on Île Royal (Cape Breton Island). Eagle and her crew suffered badly during this expedition. In March 1758 Palliser commissioned a new third rater, HMS Shrewsbury. She was part of the British fleet that was able to sail up the St Lawrence to attack Quebec thanks to surveying carried out by Cook and others. Though both Palliser and Cook were present throughout the siege there is no evidence that they had any contact then. It fell to Palliser to accept the surrender of the lower town of Quebec in September 1759. He returned to Britain while Cook, now on HMS Northumberland,5 remained in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
When France attacked and captured St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1762, British forces were dispatched from several locations. Cook was part of the force from Halifax that recaptured the island6 and, as they were tidying up, a small squadron arrived from Britain under the command of Hugh Palliser on Shrewsbury. As everything had been accomplished, Palliser took his squadron back to Britain once more.
Cook followed shortly after and was appointed surveyor of Newfoundland in early 1763.7 He spent that summer charting parts of the Newfoundland coast for the then governor, Thomas Graves.
In early 1764, however, Graves was replaced by Palliser as governor and commander-in-chief of Newfoundland. Palliser returned to St. John’s in 1764 with his broad pennant in HMS Guernsey.8 The next four years marked the period when Palliser and Cook forged a close working relationship as Cook reported directly to the governor. Charting the coast had been identified as a priority so the governor was expected to make sure Cook had everything he needed to accomplish this task. It was then that the two men became good friends.
The work was undertaken during the summer with ships and men returning to Britain for the winter. For much of his term, Palliser was concerned with policing French access to fisheries around Newfoundland and St. Pièrre et Miquelon; he had to keep the French within the limits set by the 1763 Treaty of Paris. He also had to ensure that the British fishermen did not disrupt the French in their allocated fishing grounds.
It is believed that Palliser was one of the senior officers who, in May 1768, endorsed Cook’s nomination for the upcoming expedition to the Pacific on Endeavour. His own career was also now taking off and 1768 was Palliser’s last year as governor of Newfoundland. From 1770 until 1775, he was Comptroller of the Navy9 and, as such, he worked closely with the Admiralty Board and the Navy Board. On 6 August 1773 he was created a baronet and in the following year he was elected as MP for Scarborough. Then, in March 1775, Palliser was promoted rear-admiral, and shortly afterwards he was appointed one of the lords of the Admiralty, under the Earl of Sandwich.
Palliser had been one of the officers under the wing of Admiral Sir Charles Saunders and on Saunders’s death in 1775 he and Augustus Keppel were among the principal beneficiaries. Palliser received several portraits and paintings that he subsequently left to Greenwich Hospital. He even succeeded Saunders as lieutenant-general of marines. In 1778 he was promoted vice-admiral of the blue and was appointed as one of Keppel’s commanders in the Channel Fleet.
Keppel’s fleet engaged the French off Ushant in late July 1778 in a drawn-out battle over several days that proved indecisive. Afterwards, sections of the British press (sympathetic to Keppel) accused Palliser of inaction, which had led to Keppel being unable to press home a British advantage. Palliser asked Keppel for a public vindication of his actions but Keppel refused to provide one. The two men clashed in the House of Commons in December 1778 when Keppel accused Palliser of disobeying commands, whereupon Palliser demanded a court-martial for Keppel. The mood of the people was with Keppel and he was honourably acquitted in February 1779. Palliser was portrayed as the guilty party and his house in Pall Mall, London was gutted by a mob and his effigy was burned.
Devastated, Palliser resigned his appointments, including his Admiralty seat, withdrew from parliament, and applied for a court martial on himself in February 1779 in an effort to regain some of his lost prestige. His court-martial was held at Portsmouth in the April but while Palliser’s “conduct was considered in many respects highly exemplary and meritorious”, and he was acquitted of any misconduct, his acquittal was neither unanimous nor with honour.
Palliser’s active naval career had effectively ended (though he automatically rose to become an admiral in September 1787) and his only new appointment was as a governor of Greenwich Hospital in 1780. This appointment owed much to the Earl of Sandwich, as did Palliser being offered the vacant seat of Huntingdon, which he successfully contested in October 1780.
In the 1760s Palliser had purchased a house and estate near Chalfont St. Giles in Buckinghamshire called The Vache10 and James Cook had done some surveying on the estate in early 1768. Now Palliser retired to The Vache to live quietly and avoid the vilification and embarrassment of life in London society. Palliser died at The Vache in March, 1796.
While he never married, Hugh Palliser had a relationship with an Anne Thomas and together they had an illegitimate son, George, whom Hugh recognised in his will: “and I give and bequeath unto my natural or reputed Son, George Thomas, now Clerk of the Survey in Plymouth Dock Yard” (PROB 11/1274 proven 1 April 1796).
George Thomas assumed the surname Palliser and received The Vache and other property after Hugh’s death but, being illegitimate, could not succeed to the baronetcy. It passed, instead, to Hugh Palliser Walters (1768-1813), the grandson of Hugh’s sister, Rebecca, who had married William Walters. Walters also assumed the surname Palliser. His son, Hugh Palliser (1796-1868) died without issue and the baronetcy died with him.
Palliser played an active role in assisting Cook’s career. However, as one of the people who most unwisely encouraged Cook to undertake the Third Voyage to the Pacific, he could be accused of an action that indirectly led to Cook’s death.
He did much to promote Cook’s reputation after the explorer’s death in 1780 and made sure Elizabeth Cook and the family were looked after. He even erected his own monument to Cook in the grounds of The Vache.
Cook named a point in New Zealand,11 some islands in the Tuamotus12 and an inlet on Kerguelen13 after his friend. Perhaps more importantly the Cooks named their youngest child Hugh after Palliser. As well as the portrait of Palliser by Nathaniel Dance recently auctioned, there is a full length one by Dance’s brother George held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
Robert Palliser Cooper,14 a second cousin, was Cook’s first lieutenant on Resolution during the Second Voyage.15 Laurence Sterne, the author of “The Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”, was a distant cousin.16
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 15, volume 32, number 4 (2009).
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