Over the decades that Hordern House, the antiquarian dealership in Sydney, have been in business we have dealt in some significant Cook material and can recognise the genuinely rare. Just recently we have been able to offer for sale an extremely rare example of Cook’s original autograph, one of very few to have appeared on the market in modern times.
Naval figures tend not to be great writers. They keep logs or journals, and sign official documents, but don’t do much more writing than that; a few write letters, but none is prolific. Cook autograph material has always been scarce, perhaps exaggeratedly so for the good reason that Cook has been such a great hero, for such a long time, that almost all the surviving examples of his handwriting were long ago collected by libraries or museums around the world.
We recently purchased one of the few examples still in private ownership, an official document from Cook’s period surveying in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The document is a Certificate of Discharge for a sailor on HMS Pembroke, signed by James Cook as Master of the ship on 16 January 1759. A single leaf, partly printed and completed in manuscript in ink, it has a brief caption or "docket-title" on the reverse and two wax seals. The document is signed by Cook and counter-signed by Cook’s mentor and Captain of the Pembroke, John Simcoe.
This is not only a very rare example of Cook’s autograph: it is also one of the earliest surviving examples. It dates from the pivotal period in his career when he served on HMS Pembroke in the Gulf of St Lawrence carrying out surveying work between 1757 and 1759.
Captain Simcoe guided the young Cook in the study of mathematics and astronomy and started him in the field of hydrographic survey. He lent Cook reference books, and from various sources we know that during the very severe winter of 1758-59 at Halifax, Cook used every moment for detailed study.
The military surveyor Major Samuel Holland later recollected that when he met Cook in London in 1776, before he set out on his Third Voyage and by then the most famous sailor in the world, Cook "candidly confessed that the several improvements and instructions he had received on board the Pembroke had been the sole foundation of the services he had been enabled to perform" (Holland’s letter to Simcoe’s son 11 January 1792). He also remembered that
"I was on board the Pembroke where the great cabin [was] dedicated to scientific purposes and mostly taken up with a drawing table… Under Capt. Simcoe’s eye Mr. Cook and myself compiled materials for a chart of the Gulf and River St. Lawrence…"
Cook’s time on the Pembroke was certainly the turning point in his career. The hydrographic skills that he acquired from working with Simcoe and Holland, exemplified in the charting and survey of the St Lawrence River, led directly to his recognition by the Admiralty and his subsequent appointment to the Endeavour.
This document (a discharge, by reason of death, on 22 August 1758 of a "Landman", Thomas Warren, who had been on the ship’s books since June 1757) has a special significance as it carries not only Cook’s signature as Master but also the signature of his mentor and Captain. The few surviving documents from Cook’s time on the Pembroke seem all to date from after the onset of Simcoe’s fatal illness in the first half of 1759.
Documents that relate to Cook’s career are of extreme rarity, and this example, from a period of active duty off the American coast and a major hurdle in his early career, which commemorates his important relationship with his captain, is particularly desirable.
Derek McDonnell, a director of Hordern House
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 31, volume 29, number 1 (2006).