James King joined Resolution for Cook’s Third Voyage on 12 February, 1776, at Deptford, as Second Lieutenant. He was First Lieutenant from 15 February, 1779, and transferred to Discovery on 22 August, 1779, as Commander.
James King was born in July 1750 in Clitheroe, Lancashire. He was baptised on 13 July at St. Mary Magdalene, where his father was the Perpetual Curate. His father, also James King, in 1771 became Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons in London. From 1774 until 1776, he was Canon of Windsor, before moving to become Dean of Raphoe in Northern Ireland.
The Kings were well-connected and, when he was 12 years old, James went to sea under the patronage of a relation, Captain William Norton, in HMS Assistance. She was a 4th rate ship of 50 guns, and the voyage was to Virginia. William Norton’s father, Thomas Norton, and James King’s grandfather, Thomas King, were brothers-in-law, having married the sisters Elizabeth and Alice Serjeantson. Elizabeth married Thomas Norton, and Alice married Thomas King.
James King served as a midshipman in various ships before spending time from March 1768 in HMS Guernsey on the Newfoundland station. On 10 January, 1771, King was appointed lieutenant, and served on four vessels in this capacity.
Lieutenant's Certificate for James King
In pursuance, etc of the 4 March 1769, we have examined Mr. James King who by certificate appears to be more than 20 years of age, & find he has gone to sea more than six years in the Ships and qualities undermentioned (viz)
William and Mary yacht
He produceth Journals from William and Mary yacht, Gibraltar, Liverpool and Guernsey. He produceth Certificates from Captains Norton, Brathwaite and Chads 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 March, 1769.
Captain John Campbell, Captain Abraham North.
In 1773, while on half-pay, King took leave to visit France. After four days in Paris, he moved south to stay with his brother Thomas King, and Richard Burke, at Auxerre from 1 June to 9 July. Thomas was tutor to Richard, son of the statesman Edmund Burke. The King family became friends of Edmund Burke when he was secretary to Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, another relative of the King family through marriage.
James returned to Britain, and went to Oxford University, where he lived with his brother Walker, a fellow of Corpus Christi College. He attended several science lectures unofficially, including those of Dr. Thomas Hornsby, the Savilian Professor of Astronomy, and a member of the Board of Longitude. It is not recorded, but seems possible, that these arrangements had been made through Sir Fletcher Norton, another member of the Board, who was the brother of Captain William Norton. The aim was to assist King’s advancement in the Navy. When Cook’s Third Voyage was being planned, Hornsby recommended King.
King, who combined naval experience with his scientific background, joined Resolution as second lieutenant and as the ship’s “Nautical & Astronomical Observer”. William Bayly held the same position in Discovery. King shared the astronomical duties with Cook and Bayly, and these three men had sole charge of the chronometers. He proved to be a very good and popular officer. James Trevenen would later write, “in short, as one of the best, he is one of the politest, genteelest, & best-bred men in the world”.
After Cook’s death, readjustments took place among the ships’ companies. Captain Charles Clerke moved from Discovery to Resolution to become the overall commander. First lieutenant John Gore moved from Resolution to become Captain of Discovery. King was promoted to first lieutenant in Resolution. When Clerke died in August 1779, Gore moved from Discovery to Resolution, and King transferred to Discovery to become her captain. He brought the ship home to Orkney, arriving in August 1780. There, Gore, the commander of the expedition, sent King ahead to London with copies of the journals. On 4 November, he presented the documents of the voyage to the Board of Longitude. He was later given the task of editing the official account Cook’s voyage for the period after Cook’s death. It was published in 1784. Artifacts collected by King were donated by him to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1781. He was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws (LLD) by Trinity in return.
King was made post-captain on his return, and was appointed to HMS Crocodile, a 6th rate ship of 24 guns operating in the English Channel. In 1782, he commanded HMS Resistance, which escorted a fleet of merchant ships to the West Indies. His health failing due to the onset of tuberculosis, he was obliged to resign his commission in 1783, and return to England. In June 1784, he was nursed by Jane Burke, the wife of Edmund Burke, at their house in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. Later that year, he left for Nice in the south of France to recuperate. On the way, in September, he revisited Auxerre. Friends including Trevenen accompanied him. John Law, the Discovery’s surgeon, attended to him, but King did not recover, and died on 16 November, 1784.
King was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1782, and was given an honorary LLD Oxon. There is a memorial to King in Woodstock, outside Oxford. King Island in the Bering Sea and King Passage in Nootka Sound are named after him. George Vancouver named an island on the coast of British Columbia for King and his family. There is plaque on the site of the King family home in Clitheroe. Norton Sound in Alaska was named after King’s uncle, Sir Fletcher Norton, Speaker of the House of Commons. Edmund Burke wrote an affectionate piece about King beginning, “some particulars of him which may illustrate this material point of courageous and manly prudence”.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 17, volume 47, number 1 (2024).
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