In early 1756, Britain and France were still not officially at war though fighting between the two countries was taking place in North America and preparations were being made in readiness in Europe. The Royal Navy was already carrying out a policy of stopping, searching and arresting foreign vessels in the English Channel, the North Sea and other waters close to Britain. James Cook was serving on HMS Eagle under the captaincy of Hugh Palliser during this period, taking part in long and arduous patrols as part of British policy.
Cook, Palliser and the Eagle arrived back in Plymouth Sound on 23 November 1755 after several weeks patrolling in stormy conditions off Ushant (Ouessant) and in the northern Bay of Biscay. The ship had suffered during the gales and was in need of repair while the crew were tired and many were ill from scurvy and related complaints. A week later, on the 30th, the Eagle anchored in the Hamoaze near the gun wharf.
Over the next month the crew cleaned and repaired the ship while damaged sails and rigging were replaced. Fresh stores and provisions were taken on board and water was obtained from Southdown. There was no break for Christmas or New Year festivities and work continued right through. The hull needed attention so, on 28 December 1755, the Panther came alongside the Eagle and the process began of transferring all stores, ballast and other moveable objects across to the other ship so that the Eagle could go into the dock for inspection and repair. The Eagle was hauled into the dock on 1 January 1756 and out again the next morning.
Over the next three weeks, as cleaning and repairs continued, all the material was slowly reloaded into the Eagle from the Panther. Cook’s log interestingly makes reference to the brandy and fish rooms:
Friday 2 January AM Got the brandy and dry provisions out of the Panther and stowed them away. Stowed also in the brandy room 26 pigs of ballast taken out of the fish room.
The brandy (or spirits) room was located in the hold to contain the spirits that would be drunk by the crew. It was always secured. Between the brandy room and the after-hold was the fish room where all the salted fish was stowed. Ballast was heavy bulk material carried in the hold to help stabilise the ship and some of the ballast was iron cast as pigs.
By February Cook was reporting on the provisions being taken on board. The lists give an impression of the types of foodstuffs used on navy ships of the time:
Thursday 5 February. AM Received on board 10 casks of pease, 25 casks of flour, and 10 hogsheads of brandy. Also fresh beef for the Ship's company.
Monday 9 February. AM Received on board 10 barrels of oatmeal, 11 ditto of suet, 4 of raisins 4 casks of vinegar and 4 jars of oil, 42½ firkins of butter and 188 cheeses. Employed stowing them away.
While among the tasks being undertaken was:
Friday 6 February. Employed working up junk.
where junk was old or inferior cable or rope (hence the word junk for old things), which was cut up into short lengths and used for making fenders, reef-points and gaskets.
Being in port, the Eagle was an observer of and a participant in all that was happening in Plymouth. Cook’s log noted signals and the movements of other ships in and out of the harbour. The deaths of two crew members were also recorded. Several courts martial took place on other ships, occasionally leading to drastic sentences, as happened on the 23rd February:
Monday 23 February. AM a midshipman punished with 20 lashes alongside of every ship for sodomy, by the sentence of a court martial.
A more mundane activity took place every Thursday with the visit of the Clerk of the Cheque. This elaborate title was applied to a senior member of the Dockyard staff who visited each ship to carry out the muster of the ship’s company on a weekly basis.
Many of the Eagle’s crew had been pressed and were not, therefore, experienced seamen. Opportunities were taken when they arose to train the men and give them practise in their duties. At the end of February Cook recorded:
Wednesday 25 February. PM Exercised small arms. At sunset got down topgallant yards and lowered down lower yards. At sunrise got them up again and so continued by way of exercise.
For Cook personally 22 January was an important day. In his log he wrote:
Thursday 22 January. AM Had a survey on boatswains stores when succeeded the former boatswain.
Cook had not recorded previously that he was the boatswain’s mate though the entries in his log suggest that he was working with the boatswain. The previous boatswain was Jonathan Atkinson (a will from this time exists recording his position on the Eagle).
Finally, on 12 March, the Eagle left the Hamoaze and sailed back down into Plymouth Sound. The next day, the13th, they put to sea. Its orders this year were to patrol in the English Channel off the north coasts of Normandy and Brittany. About the 19th, the Eagle began two weeks patrolling north of the Cotentin peninsula of Normandy. Sailing off Cap (Pointe) de Barfleur (the northeast point) and Cap de la Hague (the northwest point) shipping was monitored around the port of Cherbourg.
At the beginning of April, the Eagle, in company with HMS Windsor (John Gore, later to sail with Cook, was a master’s mate on the Windsor at the time) and HMS Isis moved west to patrol off the Brittany coast near Morlaix and the Île de Batz.
On 5 April, another important event in James Cook's career took place:
Monday 5 April. 10 AM Brought to on the starboard tack. When I went on board the Cruizer cutter to take command of her with men, arms and ammunition.
12 noon In company with Eagle, Falmouth, Greyhound and Ferret ships.
This was to be Cook’s first command in the navy though the details of this event are very sketchy. For example, it is not known why a junior petty officer, as Cook was at the time, was chosen to command a vessel, a task normally entrusted to persons with at least the rank of lieutenant. Details of the Cruizer are also few. Cook refers to the vessel as a cutter but in the Royal Navy of the time the terms sloop and cutter were sometimes interchangeable. It was definitely not one of the Eagle’s small boats. A sloop called the Cruizer had been built at Deptford in 1752 and it is very possible that this was the vessel entrusted to Cook. (That Cruizer was 141bm, 75.5 x 20.5 feet and carried 8 guns. It was lost off South Carolina in 1776).
Cook’s log for 7 April has his first known coastal view, albeit a very cramped and naïve sketch. It shows Roscoff and the Île de Batz, close to the mouth of the Morlaix River. Buildings, including windmills, are depicted while a note across the bottom refers to the rocks close to the shore.
Cook and the Cruizer began patrolling off the coast of Brittany, concentrating near the Île de Batz. The cutter was ideal for the conditions, being able to sail close to shore in the shallows and rocks. This type of vessel would be used by Customs officers and become known as a revenue cutter.
The Cruizer chased, fired on and stopped several vessels, sometimes in company with the Ferret sloop and the John and Robert cutter. They operated as far west as the Aber Wrac'h Rocks but, on 18 April, put into St. Peter Port, Guernsey to repair leaks in the cutter’s bottom. Cook was now reporting to and obtaining provisions from HMS Falmouth as the Eagle had returned to Plymouth on the 16th. The Cruizer briefly resumed its patrol but left the coast on 21 April, sailing north to re-enter Plymouth Sound on the 24th. There is no record that Cook actually sailed on the Falmouth.
Having safely returned the Cruizer to port, Cook and his crew were taken on board HMS St. Albans on the 27th. On 30 April, the St. Albans left Plymouth taking Cook to rejoin the Eagle, which was already at sea patrolling once more off Ushant and Brest. Cook went on board his ship on the 9th of May 1756. A week later, on the 17th, Britain declared war on France with France soon reciprocating. The war, which would become known as the Seven Years’ War, finished in 1762 and was resolved by the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
The first four months of 1756 had seen James Cook promoted and given his first brief taste of command. Two and half months of routine in port had given way to six weeks of activity at sea. The next few weeks would prove equally eventful for him.
The location of Cook’s March-April 1756 patrol can be seen on the map below. The line depicting the track is hypothetical and serves to show only the approximate route taken. In his log, Cook gave locations at sea in relation to land features. Bearings were listed together with estimated distances to the features. The locations were therefore approximate and the exact route between them not given.
The other map is of Plymouth Sound, which, while strategically located near the entrance to the English Channel, was not, in Cook’s time the most sheltered of ports. The navy based its operations in the more sheltered lower reaches of the River Tamar in a stretch called the Hamoaze. However, sailing up into the Hamoaze was difficult and depended on tides and winds. Ships often had to ride at anchor off Drake’s Island or in the Barn Pool until conditions were favourable and a pilot was available. Early in the nineteenth century a breakwater was constructed across the mouth of the Sound, which provided much improved shelter. The breakwater was built by Joseph Whidbey, who had been master on the Discovery, George Vancouver’s ship to the Northwest coast of America in the 1790s.
Cook, James. Log book on board His Majesty's Ship Eagle, kept by James Cook, Master's mate, commencing the 27th June 1755 and ending the 31st of December 1756. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. qMS-0537-0539.
Will for Jonathan Atkinson, Boatswain of His Majesty’s Ship Eagle of Plymouth Dock, proven 26 March 1756, 11/821.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 11, volume 29, number 2 (2006).