Robert Craig (1716?–1769?) was captain of HMS Solebay, which James Cook joined as master at Leith, near Edinburgh, in 1757. Very little is known about Craig.
Details of his birth and early life remain unclear. He may be the Robert Craig baptised on 13 January, 1716 at St. Dunstan’s, Stepney, the son of Robert and Margaret Craig. When he joined the Royal Navy is unknown, but on 27 February, 1741, he became a lieutenant. Near the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, Craig was promoted to commander on 23 June, 1748. Two months later, on 21 September, 1748, he was given command of the sloop Vulture. This command lasted until 16 June 1749. In a letter from him at South Carolina, to the Navy Board dated 18 April, 1749, he sends an account for “carpenters stores”.1
Much of the next few years was spent by Craig on sloops in British waters. When the next war, the Seven Years War, was underway, he was promoted to post-captain on 4 January, 1757. He was given command of HMS Solebay a month later, on 1 February, 1757. This Solebay was the third vessel to carry the name, which commemorated the Battle of Solebay that took place on 28 May, 1672, marking the opening of the Third Anglo-Dutch War. Solebay was a 6th rate, built in the Plymouth Dockyard in 1742. She was 442 tons, 106 feet long, 30 feet 5½ inches wide, and carried 24 guns.
Craig had been in the ship only a few months when Cook arrived in July 1757. Craig remained in command after Cook’s departure in September.
On 26 May, 1758, Craig was wounded in the throat by a musket-ball during Solebay’s engagement with Maréchal de Belle-Isle commanded by the French privateer, François Thurot. This injury caused Craig’s retirement from the Navy, and may have led to his eventual death. Correspondence from Craig dated from 8 June, 1758 to 26 December, shows the extent of his injuries, his state afterwards, and requests for transfer to a warmer climate.2
8 June, 1758. Leith. The musket shot I received from the privateer has passed through my lungs and lodged in my back, affected the nerves there, and in my left arm in such a manner, as it is impossible for me to come up in the ship: and that I humbly subject my case to their Lordships consideration to have the ship kept for me, or another when able to go to sea.
24 August. Admiralty Office. He says he is as well as can be expected but wishes to serve in a warm climate—Med or West Indies, he is staying at Blackheath till he hears from Admiralty.
21 September. Admiralty Office. Sends surgeons certificate as to his wounds, and asks to be examined by the Sick and Hurt Board—presumably for a pension.
25 October. Admiralty Office. Renews his application to be sent abroad to warm climate. Says that for the most part of winter he will be confined to his room. Asks for discharge from Solebay for his servant Charles Mitchell along with himself. His discharge may have been discussed earlier.
26 December. Seething Lane. Again asking leave, to go to Portugal or Italy to prevent, if possible, a lingering death
Newspaper reports describe some of the action with Maréchal de Belle-Isle and Thurot’s opinion of Craig.
Caledonian Mercury. Thursday, 1 June, 1758.
To the publisher of the Caledonian Mercury.
Upon Friday morning, the Dolphin, Capt. Marlow, and Solebay, Capt. Craig, about 7 o’Clock saw a Sail of the Red-head, which they made for: about 8 o’Clock, Capt. Marlow in the Dolphin, came close along-side of her and hailed her, as she had then English Colours flying, whereupon the Enemy immediately hoisted his French Colours, and retuned for Answer a whole Broad-side, which the Dolphin returned very smartly, and continued close along side, for the Space of an Hour and a half, before the Solebay could come up to fire one Gun, in which time the Dolphin sustained very considerable Loss. After the Solebay came up, they both continued in close Action till 12 o’Clock, when the Enemy thought proper to sheer off, leaving our Ships in such a shattered Condition, that we could not come up with her.
Caledonian Mercury. Saturday, 22 July, 1758.
A Gentleman from Gottenburg informs us, That he was at Gottenburg, when the Belleisle Privateer came in to be refitted: And that one Evening, in a Mason-lodge, the Captain (Thurot) acquainted them with the Particulars of his Engagement with the Solebay and Dolphin Men of War, when he acknowledged that he had lost 80 men: And further added, That if he had no more than a single Sixpence in the whole World, he would share it with Capt. Craig of the Solebay, whose Bravery he extolled even to the Skies; and swore that nothing would gave him greater Pain than to hear of his Death. In many Encomiums he passed on the gallant Behaviour of the Solebay, he said, They engaged him so desperately, that he believed they were rather D[evi]ls than Men; and that he would sooner engage some other Ships of 50 Guns, than Captain Craig and his Crew with twenty.
No further actions are known for Craig, who relinquished command of Solebay on 25 January, 1759. However, he remained on full pay for three years before being reduced to half pay, which he remained on until he died in either 1767 or 1769. Like his birth, details of his death are unclear. According to John Hardy’s A chronological list of the captains of his majesty’s Royal navy, published in 1784,3 Craig died on 9 July, 1769 in England. It is not known if he married.
The HMS Dolphin that took part in the engagement with Thurot was the same vessel that visited the Pacific twice, first under the command of John Byron, and secondly under Samuel Wallis.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 27, volume 45, number 3 (2022).
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