I was delighted when my article The Path to Promotion: An eighteenth century chart of Newfoundland was re-published in Cook’s Log;1 and still more so when I was asked to write this follow-up article outlining the background to my research into William Parker’s unpublished chart and reviewing his successful naval career subsequent to his association with James Cook.
Parker’s career in the Royal Navy was a long and distinguished one, and as a distant relative of his, it has been a tremendous personal pleasure to research the story of his life. As a child I spent hours examining the family tree displayed on the staircase of my grandmother’s home. At the top of the tree were the names “Augustine Parker, Mayor of Queenborough, Master of the King’s Yacht” and his son “Sir William Parker, Vice Admiral of the Red, born in 1742 and buried in his vault in Greenwich Church 1802”. Over the years the memory of that family tree stayed with me, but I always wondered if these important-sounding people had really existed or if they were merely a Victorian invention!
My first visit to the library of the National Maritime Museum (NMM) in Greenwich established that Admiral Sir William Parker had indeed existed and that there were significant entries about him in the Dictionary of Naval Biography and the Dictionary of National Biography. So I was off, first, across Greenwich High Road to St Alfege Church where, down in the crypt, and with the aid of powerful torches, I found William Parker’s vault with its marble inscription confirming his dates. My next research visits were downriver to Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent to learn more about William’s birthplace, and then to the parish records in the archives of Canterbury Cathedral to trace the Parker family roots.
At the time of William’s birth in 1742, Sheppey was an area of key significance to the British Navy, and the bustling town of Queenborough, near to the great naval dockyards of Sheerness and Chatham, fronted onto a secure anchorage for dozens of warships. Sheppey was also of great importance to the Thames-side river economy. Not only were the deep off-shore waters at the junction of the Medway and Thames the best place for warships to moor while they waited for their tide, but it was also a convenient point at which to off-load goods from merchant ships coming upriver from the North Sea and the Channel.
Surrounded by such naval and mercantile activity, the young William would have been in and out of boats throughout his childhood. His father, Augustine Parker (1711-1784), was Master of the Admiralty yacht Queenborough, based at Sheerness,2 and became a Mayor of Queenborough. William’s naval career began when he was appointed midshipman first in Portland and then Centurion at the age of thirteen.
1756, the year when midshipman William Parker joined Centurion, saw the start of the Seven Years’ War with the French and the Spanish. Britain’s strategic focus at that time was centred on North America, and William was present at the capture of the key French stronghold of Louisbourg in 1758 and a year later at the battle of Quebec, where General James Wolfe (another Kentishman who is, incidentally, buried in a vault adjacent to Parker’s in St Alfege) was killed at the moment of victory.
William stayed with Centurion for almost six years, first as midshipman and then master’s mate on the Jamaica station. He passed his lieutenant’s examination on returning to England in 1762, but like many young officers he was not promoted for several years. It was at this point in his career that William’s association with James Cook began. In 1764 he sailed to Newfoundland aboard Guernseycommanded by Captain Hugh Palliser, the newly appointed Governor of Newfoundland, who was to play a key role as patron both to James Cook and to William Parker.
As part of my research into Parker’s life I consulted John Robson’s website page, Men who sailed with Captain Cook,3 and his book Captain Cook’s War & Peace,4 which covers Cook’s pre-Pacific naval career. From these sources I learned that during the 1760s James Cook had spent several years surveying the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador and that William Parker had been his assistant surveyor for the three surveying seasons from 1764 to 1766 aboard Grenville. At the end of each season Grenville returned across the Atlantic to winter in Deptford.5
In May 2008 while searching The National Archive (TNA) database I came across a reference to a manuscript chart of “The Island of Newfoundland” by “Lieutenant William Parker”. What I did not realise at the time was that this entry in the database had been opened to the public only a few days before and that I was probably one of the first people to access it. I suspected that it was an important document but since I was working in an area that was completely new to me I turned for advice to Gillian Hutchinson, the Curator of the History of Cartography at the NMM. Once she had confirmed that it was, potentially, a noteworthy find the hunt was on to discover if it was a previously known chart (i.e., whether it had been printed or published at any time, mentioned in any naval history, or recorded in either contemporary or more recent printed volumes of charts).
It was only as this particular area of research progressed that the significance of the chart became apparent. I realised that it could be of interest to historians of James Cook’s pre-Pacific career and of mapmaking in the North Atlantic region, to students of 18th century naval patronage patterns and, most importantly (because of Parker’s annotations and his careful depiction of indigenous people) that it had ethnographic and anthropological importance. I now felt the time was right to publish details about the chart and my research in the Journal of the International Map Collectors’ Society. So why is the chart important? For a start, and without going too far into detail discussed in the last issue of Cook’s Log, it is a manuscript that was never printed for widespread distribution, as were many of the other charts prepared by James Cook and Michael Lane (the assistant surveyor who succeeded Parker). It is more detailed than many of Cook’s printed charts. In addition to coastal details, currents and tidal movements, Parker includes references to the navigability of lakes and rivers in the interior of Newfoundland. It also contains notes by Parker about fur trading and British naval expeditions into the interior. Most fascinating of all, the central cartouche depicts an Inuit family hunting and gathering food on the barren shoreline. It is an important “early encounter” image of potential interest to students of North Atlantic anthropology.
Parker left Grenville when she returned to her home port of Deptford in November 1766. In the same month he was promoted Lieutenant and on 28th December he married Jane Collingwood in St. Nicholas Church, Deptford. In 1768 he returned to Newfoundland waters aboard Niger, and it was probably during this period, after he had left the Cook survey team, that William began to prepare his intricate presentation chart.
He almost certainly remained in close contact with Cook and his successor as assistant surveyor, Michael Lane, during this time.6 It is likely that the chart was presented to the Earl of Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty, in early 1771, when a letter from William Parker was sent to the Admiralty requesting promotion.7 The presentation of the chart (perhaps on the advice of Hugh Palliser, who had become Comptroller of the Navy in 1770 following his years as Governor of Newfoundland) seems to have had the required effect. On 30th April 1771, the Middlesex Journal reported that “Lieutenant William Parker is appointed to command of the schooner Egmont, employed to cruise off the French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon near Newfoundland.” 8
For the next four years Lieutenant William Parker was to spend each summer – roughly April until November – in Newfoundland and Labrador waters. For most of that time, under the governorships of John Byron and Molyneux Shuldham, he was given “surrogate” powers up and down the coast. The records9 find him settling land disputes, legal cases and fishing disputes. August 1772 seems to be fairly typical of this period of his career; on 22nd he reports seeing cannon guarding the entrance to the harbour of St Pierre “in violation of the treaty terms”. He is then sent to Bonavista “to see an end to the dispute with the French over fishing rights to which they are excluded by treaty”, and to adjudicate on whether the wife of one Maurice Poore did in fact murder him. He was acting as a kind of maritime district commissioner and certainly learning the responsibilities of naval and territorial command.
Just as Newfoundland had been important in James Cook’s career, allowing him to demonstrate his navigational and surveying capabilities ahead of his South Pacific voyage of 1768, so too this strategically important territory played a part in preparing William Parker for subsequent fame and fortune.
But unlike James Cook, whose series of Pacific voyages laid the basis of what might be called the “Second” British Empire, William Parker’s career was concentrated in the Atlantic. This part of the world was where the “First” British Empire had developed, with its focus on the Caribbean and North America. During the 1770s, following his Newfoundland years in Egmont, he was appointed to command a series of frigates of increasing size and firepower. Three of his early commands were Deal Castle (22 guns), Iphigenia (32 guns) and Jupiter (50 guns). In the 1780s he commanded the Medway guardship (an appointment which must have been the source of much pride and pleasure to his family and friends in Sheppey) and ended that decade as commodore on the Leeward Islands station. He had a “good war” during the last decade of the eighteenth century, which saw a continuing conflict with the navies of Revolutionary France and Spain.
He distinguished himself in two major sea-battles, the Glorious First of June in 1794 and the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797, and in the years between rose to the rank of Rear-Admiral of the Red and served as commander-in-chief in Jamaica.
In tracing Parker’s career and in consulting his correspondence, I began to form a view not only of the kind of officer he was but also of his character and personal values. At every stage of his career, Parker seems to have been concerned above all for fair dealing. For instance, it can be argued that his preparation of the Newfoundland chart and its subsequent presentation to the Earl of Sandwich was a result of his concern, as an ambitious young officer, to ensure that his contribution to the early survey of Newfoundland should not be overlooked. Similarly, Parker seems in both his professional and private life to have been driven by a sense of rectitude, even if it meant that in career terms he was sometimes in conflict with his superiors. It is perhaps fanciful to suggest that this concern for rectitude and fair dealing came from his early service under James Cook (reputedly a man of scrupulous fairness and humanity) but it is perhaps worth giving some examples of Parker’s approach.
In his 1795 correspondence with Lord Balcarres, the Governor of Jamaica during the period when Parker was commander-in-chief in the island,10 he was particularly concerned at the treatment accorded to the Maroons, the descendants of escaped slaves who had fought a guerrilla war against the British in the Blue Mountains until a treaty brought an end to the war. The Governor had undertaken to transport them out of the island, but Parker was evidently concerned that this had not been thought through: “The Maroons put into transports appears to me to be attended with consequences your Lordship is not aware of… I think sending of them to Halifax or any other place until their final destination is determined seems extraordinary”. Despite Parker’s protests, over 500 men, women and children were taken from the tropical heat of Jamaica to spend half a decade shivering in Nova Scotia before the survivors were sent on to Sierra Leone.
In 1797, following the Battle of Cape St Vincent, Parker conducted a somewhat aggrieved correspondence with Horatio Nelson about the latter’s conduct during the battle.11 Parker was third-in-command under Sir John Jervis and, according to his letter to Nelson, at the height of the battle Parker’s ship Prince George (90 guns) engaged the Spanish ship San Josef (112 guns) “until the San Josef struck her Colours”. Nelson in Captain (74 guns) having broken the line, boarded the Spaniard and after taking her surrender, proceeded to board another enemy ship, San Nicolas (which in the confusion of battle had become entangled with San Josef). This manoeuvre afterwards became known as the “Nelson bridge” – using one enemy ship to board another – and encouraged by Nelson, the British newspapers made much of the story. It is quite clear that Nelson’s behaviour, and his deliberate seeking-out of celebrity in the modern sense, was not at all to Parker’s taste. Once again, his concern for fair dealing, for a proper apportionment of the credit due for this naval victory, came to the fore. The letter that Parker wrote to Nelson, in which he fully acknowledges Captain’s active part in the battle, concludes, “I observed nothing but gallantry and good conduct in every ship that came under my observation, from first to last, and think myself equally entitled to an acknowledgement of a proportion of the success of that day, with any man present at it”. Along with a number of other senior officers, Parker subsequently protested to Sir John Jervis (who became Earl St Vincent following the battle of 1797) when Nelson, who was junior to them, was given an independent command in the Mediterranean the following year (leading to the Battle of the Nile).
Towards the end of Parker’s life, his concern for fair dealing seems to have led him into increasing conflict with Jervis, who went on to become First Lord of the Admiralty in 1801. Parker was among a number of senior officers who brought a landmark case against Jervis for payment of freight money, overturning a provision whereby a commander-in-chief alone (rather than all commanders within a fleet) was entitled to a share of the amount paid to the captains of naval vessels that carried bullion or coin.12 There were personal grounds for resentment as well: in a letter to Admiral Sir John Duckworth, Parker noted that Jervis had reneged on an earlier undertaking to confirm Duckworth’s promotion of Parker’s son, William George, to the rank of lieutenant. The disgusted Parker says of Jervis “I fear [this] man is faithless”.13
In 1800 Parker was appointed commander-in-chief of the Halifax station, but just over a year later was recalled by the First Lord for having sent two of his ships to the West Indies contrary to Admiralty orders. One ship was commanded by Parker’s son-in-law Captain Joseph Bingham, and the recall by Jervis carried the tacit implication that Parker had sent the ships off for mercenary rather than strategic reasons, in a “cruise for prizes” and for the extraordinary rewards that could accrue to senior officers from the capture of enemy ships. Parker immediately demanded a court martial, and the case was extensively reported in the newspapers, which had picked up on a general disquiet among senior officers at the tenor of Jervis’s conduct as First Lord of the Admiralty. When Parker was honourably acquitted “the bells at Portsmouth rung immediately on the information being conveyed from the Gladiator of the acquittal of this gallant and meritorious officer, who after landed amidst the plaudits and acclamations of all descriptions of persons, and was further flattered by receiving the congratulations and greetings of all the Admirals and Heads of the Civil and Military Departments”.14
Sir William Parker died on New Year’s Eve 1802 at Beaufort House, his country estate at Ham, Surrey, and was buried in his vault in the church of St Alfege within sight of his Greenwich home, 12 Crooms Hill, now the Fan Museum. His epitaph in the church paid tribute to “an Officer who passed through all the stages of the Naval Service with admirable conduct, uniting every moral consideration with his military character, and solely by merit rose to high command… he acquired a fortune by subduing the enemies of his King and Country, and not at the expense of his fellow subjects”.15
Parker’s concern for fair dealing persisted to the last. He left over £50,000 (millions in today’s money) to his wife and children. In a codicil to his will he stated that four of his daughters, who had exceeded their quarterly allowance while he was alive, should have the overspend plus interest deducted from their inheritance “in justice to the rest of my children”.16 When he drew up this codicil, Parker may well have reflected that it was a provision worthy of his old friend James Cook himself: the kind of plain open dealing that the commander of a well-run ship should always demonstrate to his crew, so that nobody might feel left out or aggrieved.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 4, volume 36, number 3 (2013).
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