James Colnett was baptised on 18 October 1753 at Stoke Damerel, Plymouth.1 His parents were James and Sarah (née Lang) Colnett, who had married on 9 January, 1748, at St. Thomas, Portsmouth. He had two older sisters, Sarah and Martha, and a younger brother, Richard. Although James was born at Plymouth, the Colnett family was originally from the Stepney district of East London. James Colnett senior was in the Royal Navy, taking him and his family to Plymouth and Portsmouth. He died in 1760, his will describing him as master of Salisbury. His widow, Sarah, was left to bring up the four children alone.
James Colnett junior went to sea on 28 June, 1770, as an able seaman in Hazard, a small sloop. On 4 September 1771, he joined Scorpion,2 to which James Cook had been appointed after returning to Britain in Endeavour. Midshipman Colnett was one of several men who followed Cook in December of that year to Resolution in preparation for Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific.
Colnett served as midshipman throughout Cook's second voyage from 1772 until 1775. One of his midshipman colleagues, John Elliott, described him later as “Clever and Sober”. Colnett does not feature in the record of the voyage until September 1774 when he was the first person to sight New Caledonia. A headland and the mountain behind it were named after him in recognition and still bear the name.3
After Cook’s voyage, Colnett was appointed to Juno, a 5th rate, as gunner on 1 January, 1776. He was then appointed master of Adventure during the War of American Independence before passing for lieutenant on 4 February, 1779. Ten days later he was appointed third lieutenant of Bienfaisant, a 3rd rate, remaining on that ship until 1783. However, the war had come to an end and Colnett was placed on half pay. Colnett next secured a position as first lieutenant in Pégase, another 3rd rate. He was able to have his nephew, James Poate, with him as his servant. After three years of carrying out harbour duties at Portsmouth, he left the ship on 17 August, 1786.
A London merchant, Richard Cadman Etches, had formed the King George’s Sound Company to send ships to the Northwest coast of North America to exploit the sea otter pelt trade. Two ships, King George and Queen Charlotte, had already been dispatched in 1785 under the command of Nathaniel Portlock and George Dixon,4 and it was now proposed to send another two ships. Colnett had been in discussions with Etches and, having obtained permission from the Admiralty for extended leave of absence, he took command of the expedition and Prince of Wales, the larger ship. Charles Duncan was appointed to command Princess Royal, the consort vessel.
The ships left Britain in October 1786 and spent the summer of 1787 trading in the Queen Charlotte Islands and the adjacent mainland. After wintering in Hawai`i, Colnett traded alone in 1788 in Prince William Sound before rejoining Princess Royal in the Queen Charlotte Islands. The two ships then sailed in August 1788 for Hawai`i, and from there they went to Canton to sell their cargo of sea otter pelts, reaching it on 12 November, 1788.
At Canton, Colnett met John Meares, a trader who had been trading illegally on the Northwest coast. They joined forces, forming a new company, known as the Associated Merchants Trading to the Northwest Coast. Prince of Wales was sent back to England with a cargo of tea while a new vessel, Argonaut, was purchased to replace her. Colnett and Argonaut sailed from Canton on 26 April, 1789.5 However, on his arrival in June at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, Colnett discovered that the Spanish had asserted their control over the inlet and the region by establishing a post there.
Colnett and Estéban José Martínez, the Spanish commander, soon clashed and Martínez had Colnett arrested and his ship seized. Both men were at fault but the events led to the Nootka Sound Incident and nearly precipitated a war between Britain and Spain. Colnett was sent to the Spanish naval base of San Blas in Mexico.6 Eventually, he and Argonaut were released on 8 July, 1790, and compensation was made in salaries and provisions.
Colnett returned to Nootka, and resumed fur trading until 3 March, 1791 when he sailed for China. When he arrived at Macao on 30 May, he discovered that Chinese ports were closed to foreign fur traders, so he sailed instead to Japan, where he sold some of his furs. He then returned to Britain in the East India Company vessel General Coote. In April 1792, he reached Britain, where he sold the remainder of his skins to the East India Company for £9,760. He had been away for five and a half years during which time his mother had died, in 1790. A codicil to her will was witnessed by Nathaniel Portlock, who had led the other Etches expedition to the Pacific.7
Later in 1792, the Admiralty and the whaling firm of Samuel Enderby appointed Colnett to command the sloop Rattler for a voyage to the Southeast Pacific to discover suitable ports and anchorages that British whalers could use. Rattler sailed on 3 January, 1793, and returned to Britain on 2 November, 1794. During the time away, Colnett visited harbours from Chile to Baja California. He also made detailed surveys of the Revillagigedo Islands, Cocos Island and the Galapagos Islands. Colnett’s narrative of the voyage was published in 1798 together with a series of charts.8 Colnett’s voyage opened up the South Pacific whale fishery.
Britain and France were once again at war so a month after his return to Britain Colnett rejoined the Royal Navy, was promoted commander on 19 December, 1794, and was given command of the sloop Merlin. In March 1795, he transferred to another sloop, Hawk, and undertook an examination of the coastal defences of the east coast of England from the River Thames north to Lincolnshire.
On 4 October, 1796, Colnett was appointed to command the sloop Hussar, and was promoted captain the following day. In late December 1796 Hussar was wrecked near Île Batz, off the coast of Brittany, and Colnett was taken prisoner by the French. After six months, he was released. On his return to Britain he was court-martialled for the loss of his ship. He was acquitted, but remained on half pay until 29 June, 1802.
His next active command was Glatton, a 4th rate being used as a naval transport. Colnett transported 400 convicts to Port Jackson, New South Wales, and returned to Britain with a cargo of timber. This voyage proved to be the end of Colnett’s naval career. He went on half pay on 7 March, 1805.
Colnett had not married but did have a partner, Catherine Aulte, with whom he had two daughters. His will,9 written in August 1806, refers to only one daughter, Elizabeth Caroline. Preumably, their other daughter, Ann Catherine, had already died—according to her birth record she was born in 1796. James Colnett died on 1 September, 1806, at his lodgings in Great Ormond Street, London. He was buried on 6 September in St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney.
Of Colnett’s sisters, Sarah, who had married George Poate, a tallow chandler in Gosport, had been dead for some years. The Poates had two surviving children; Elizabeth had married a Jeremiah Sinderby, while James Poate, who had accompanied him to the Pacific, had a naval career. Colnett refers to his other sister in his will as Martha Colnett, suggesting she had never married.
Colnett does not refer to his younger brother, Richard, in his will. Richard also had a naval career, becoming a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He left the navy and had a successful career captaining several East India Company vessels to India and China. According to the memoirist William Hickey, Richard was not very tall but made up for it in spirit. He died in 1814, leaving a wife, Sarah, and two daughters.
Colnett’s daughter, Elizabeth Caroline Colnett, married Edward Powell Spickett in 1819, and went to live in Glamorgan where she had at least eight children.
- Cook’s Log, page 13, vol. 28, no. 3 (2005).
- Cook’s Log, page 23, vol. 34, no. 4 (2011).
- Cook’s Log, page 1664, vol. 22, no. 3 (1999).
- Cook’s Log, page 15, vol. 33, no. 2 (2010).
- Cook’s Log, page 17, vol. 30, no. 4 (2007).
- Cook’s Log, page 10, vol. 37, no. 2 (2014).
- Cook’s Log, page 22, vol. 34, no. 3 (2011).
- Cook’s Log, page 44, vol. 30, no. 1 (2007).
- Cook’s Log, page 28, vol. 28, no. 1 (2005).
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 18, volume 38, number 1 (2015).