James Burney was born in London on 13 June, 1750, the son of Charles Burney, the musicologist. At the time Charles Burney was the organist at St. Dionis Backchurch, London. As his health was poor, he and his family soon moved to King’s Lynn to a similar appointment at St. Margaret’s Church. The Burneys had several children, including a daughter, Fanny, who was later to become a famous novelist and diarist. The Burney family were acquainted with the family of George Vancouver. In 1760, the family moved back to London, and about the same time, James joined the Royal Navy.
Charles Burney married twice. With his first wife, Esther (née Sleepe), he had nine children. In addition to James and Frances (commonly known as Fanny), there was Susanna, who married James’s colleague from Resolution, Molesworth Phillips. With his second wife, Elizabeth (née Allen), Charles Burney had two more children. One of them, Sarah Harriet, also become a novelist.
James Burney’s naval career began as captain’s servant to John Montague in HMS Princess Amelia, serving in the Bay of Biscay and Western Approaches. Burney followed Montague to HMS Magnanime in 1762. After a short period ashore, Burney joined HMS Niger, under Captain Sir Thomas Adams, in June 1763. He spent two years in Niger, until June 1765, and may have still been with that ship when James Cook encountered her at Newfoundland.
In February 1766, Burney joined HMS Aquilon as a midshipman under Captain Richard Onslow. For much of the following three years, Burney was based in the Mediterranean. During this time his mother died, and his father remarried.
In February 1770, James sailed to Bombay in Greenwich, an East Indiaman. He was away for 15 months, returning to Britain in May 1771. Shortly after, Cook returned to Britain after the First Voyage in Endeavour. When plans were being made for a Second Voyage to the Pacific, Burney prevailed upon his father to use his friendship with the Earl of Sandwich, then First Lord of the Admiralty, to successfully secure him a position on board.
On 16 November, 1771, Burney joined HMS Scorpion, a little-known sloop commanded by Cook for only three months. He then transferred with Cook to Resolution on 17 December, 1771, as an Able seaman (AB). Meanwhile, in January 1772, Burney passed his lieutenant’s examination, though he would not immediately receive his commission.
After an illness forced Joseph Shank, first lieutenant in Adventure to return home from the Cape of Good Hope, Cook reorganised his officers. Burney was transferred to Adventure on 18 November, 1772, and promoted to be second lieutenant on that ship, under the command of Tobias Furneaux. The most dramatic action of the voyage came when Burney was detailed to lead a party to Grass Cove, in Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand. He discovered that eleven of his colleagues had been killed by Māori. Burney kept a log and a journal during the voyage.1 He also made surveys and drew charts. Beaglehole wrote of the log in complimentary terms. “The log has so much of interest, however, that while Burney is one of our chief authorities for the Adventure, his observations extend also to the voyage in general.”
Adventure reached Britain in 1774. Burney helped introduce Mai (Omai), the Raiatean, to London Society. However, he was soon appointed second lieutenant in HMS Cerberus, and sailed to Boston, Massachusetts, colony. News of another voyage to the Pacific caused his father to once again pull strings, and James was summoned back to Britain to sail on Cook’s Third Voyage.
Burney was appointed first lieutenant in Discovery under the command of Charles Clerke, and joined the ship on 10 February, 1776. Events in Clerke’s personal life delayed his joining Discovery, so it fell to Burney to take the ship from the Thames to Plymouth, where the commander finally joined them.
After Clerke’s death at Petropavlovsk on 22 August, 1779, Burney transferred to Resolution on the 23rd. Near the end of the voyage, Commander John Gore sent Lieutenant James King, who had taken over command of Discovery, ahead from Orkney to London. Burney transferred back to Discovery as commander for the last leg of the voyage to the Thames.
Burney kept a journal during the Third Voyage, which was later copied, and several versions are extant.2 He also drew several charts, very much in his own style.
In November, 1781, Burney was given charge of HMS Latona, which patrolled in the North Sea for several months. He was promoted post-captain in June 1782, and given command of HMS Bristol, in which he convoyed twelve East India Company ships to Madras. During this voyage, Burney disobeyed some orders, which contributed to his being passed over for promotion, and led ultimately to his retirement. While in India, under Sir Edward Hughes, Bristol took part in the battle with the French fleet off Cuddalore on 20 June, 1783. Unfortunately, in late 1784, Burney became seriously ill, and had to return home to Britain. He went on the half pay list, and his active naval career was over.
In 1785, Burney married Sally Payne, daughter of the bookseller Thomas Payne. They had three children, though one died in infancy. In 1798, and already married for thirteen years, Burney eloped with his half-sister, Sarah Harriet. They lived together for five years before James returned to his wife and children. Taking a cue from his sister, Fanny Burney, he began a new career as a writer, and from 1803 until 1817 the five volumes of his major work, A Chronological History of the Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean were published.3 They were followed in 1819 by A Chronological History of the North-Eastern Voyages of Discovery; and of the early Eastern navigations of the Russians.4
Burney was able to mix in both naval and literary societies. He enjoyed the friendship of Samuel Johnson and Sir Joseph Banks, and became a friend of writers such as Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Robert Southey. Burney’s home in James Street, Westminster, was a popular venue for friends to play whist. Burney even wrote a text on this card game.5
Burney was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1809. After a very long wait, with much lobbying, he was promoted to rear-admiral on the retired list in 1821. He had probably been tarnished by his career record and through his acquaintance with the Earl of Sandwich, who was now out of favour. A few months later, he died on 17 Novem-ber, 1821, leaving a will,6 and was buried in St. Margaret’s, Westminster.
After his death, Charles Lamb wrote to William Wordsworth, “There's Captain Burney gone!—What fun has whist now?” 7 James Trevenen described him as “not only a good man, but a good seaman, [and] a good officer”. Burney’s Beach in Queen Charlotte Sound is named for him, though Burney Island, in the Arctic Ocean, has reverted to being called Kolyuchin Island. Part of Burney’s journal from the Second Voyage has been published.8
Burney’s son, Martin Charles Burney, became a barrister. He and his wife, Ann, continued to live in the St. James Street house until his death in 1852. Martin remained close to his father’s friends, and Charles Lamb dedicated a poem to him. He played racquets with Hazlitt. Burney’s daughter, Catherine Sarah (known by everyone as Sarah), married John Thomas Payne, who took over the Pall Mall booksellers from his Uncle Thomas. Ludwig van Beethoven dedicated a piece of music to Sarah Burney Payne in 1825. The Paynes retired to Rome in 1850.
Lieutenant's certificate for James Burney
In pursuance, etc of the 2 December 1771, we have examined Mr. James Burney who by certificate appears to be more than 21 years of age, & find he has gone to sea more than seven years in the Ships and qualities undermentioned (viz)
He produceth Journals kept by himself in the Aquilon and a certificates from Captain Onslow of his diligence, etc. He can splice, knot, reef a sail, etc and is qualified to do the duty of an Able Seaman and Midshipman. Dated the 7 January 1772.
1.Burney’s log runs from 18 November 1772 to 23 January 1774. ADM 51/4523/1-2. His journal runs from 19 November 1772 to 20 May 1774. ADM 51/4523/3-4. Both are held at The National Archives (TNA).
2.Journal of a Voyage in the Discovery Chs Clerke Esqr Commander in Company with the Resolution Captn Jas Cook 10 February 1776 to 26 April 1778. ADM 51/4528/45. Held at TNA. Journal of Lieutenant James Burney with Captain Jas Cook 1776 to 1780 10 February 1776 to 24 August 1779. BL Add. MS 8955. Held at the British Library. MS Journal of the Proceedings of his Majys Sloop, the Discovery, Chas Clerke, Commander, in Company with the Resolution, Captn James Cook 4 vol. 10 February 1776 to 24 August 1779. Held at the Mitchell Library.
3.Burney, James. A Chronological History of the Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean. 1803-1817.
4.Burney, James. A Chronological History of the North-Eastern Voyages of Discovery; and of the early Eastern navigations of the Russians. 1819.
5.Burney, James. An Essay by way of lecture, on the Game of Whist. 1821.
6.PROB 11/1653. Held at TNA.
7.Manwaring, G.E. My friend the admiral: the life, letters, and journals of Rear-Admiral James Burney, F.R.S. The Companion of Captain Cook and Friend of Charles Lamb. George Routledge. 1931.
8.Hooper, Beverley (ed). With Captain James Cook in the Antarctic and Pacific. The private journal of James Burney, Second Lieutenant. National Library of Australia. 1975.
Rickard, Suzanne. Sailing with Cook: Inside the Private Journal of James Burney RN. National Library of Australia. 2015. Reviewed in Cook’s Log, page 44, vol. 39, no. 3 (2016).
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 28, volume 40, number 2 (2017).