Thanks to the diligence of the anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), we have a fascinating insight into the career of the boatswain’s mate in Endeavour – Isaac Parker.
In 1787, Clarkson was appointed to The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He was given the task of collecting information that could be used to persuade the British Parliament to introduce anti-slavery legislation. Over the next five years Clarkson is said to have ridden some 35,000 miles on horseback, visiting ports around Britain in his search for evidence. At each port he interviewed sailors who had a tale to tell about the slave trade. He is said to have interviewed a total of nearly 20,000 men.
During 1790 he tried to trace one particular sailor who was said to have witnessed various slaving atrocities. He searched the ports along the south of England from Deptford to Sheerness, and from Portsmouth to Plymouth. He visited 317 ships and interviewed over 3,000 seamen during this one trip. It was on the 57th vessel that he visited at Plymouth that he eventually found the man he was looking for. He was a 49 year old sailor, acting as ship-keeper of the frigate HMS Melampus, and his name was Isaac Parker.1
Clarkson interviewed Parker about his time on a slave ship, and found that his memory of events was remarkably sharp despite the 25 years that had elapsed. However, for Parker’s evidence to carry weight, Clarkson had to demonstrate that he was a credible witness. On asking a senior naval officer about Parker’s character, Clarkson was told that it was “highly respectable”. Later, Clarkson discovered that Parker had sailed around the world with Captain Cook “with great credit to himself”. Although Clarkson did not need any more proof of Parker’s character, he received further confirmation from his own brother Lieutenant John Clarkson RN (1764-1828). He recognized Parker from his time as a midshipman in HMS Monarch about 1776, and described him as “one of the most exemplary men in that ship”.
In 1791, Parker was called to give evidence before a select committee of Parliament that was investigating the slave trade. He told the committee how he had made three voyages to Africa in 1764, 1765 and 1766. His second voyage was in Latham, under Captain George Coley. It was a slave ship. Conditions on board had been so poor that he had jumped ship off the coast of West Africa and stayed ashore for five months. He then caught another ship to Barbados, and from there worked his way back to London. He then undertook another voyage in the slaver Ohara.2
His voyages to Africa immediately preceded his enlistment in Endeavour. The exact details of Parker’s subsequent service in the Royal Navy are still to be found. He is known to have served in HMS Monarch some years before he was appointed as ship-keeper of the five year old frigate HMS Melampus at Plymouth.
- Clarkson, Thomas. Abolition of the African slave trade by the British Parliament. PA Brinsmade. 1830.
- Observations on the evidence given before the committees of the Privy Council and House of Commons in support of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade. 1791.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 30, volume 36, number 1 (2013).