James Cook joined the Royal Navy in June 1755 at Wapping in East London as an ordinary seaman and, as there was a large shortage of seamen in the area, he was immediately sent to Spithead to join His Majesty’s Ship Eagle. We are fortunate that Cook immediately kept a log, albeit a basic one, which records where he was at most times between the end of June 1755 and when the log finishes in December 1756. That log is now housed in the Alexander Turnbull Library, part of the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington. The cover of the log shows that Cook re-signed his name as he achieved new ranks, ending the log as master's mate. The log covers the period of the "phoney" war before Britain (in May 1756) and France (in June 1756) formally declared war on each other. It then continues when the war proper had begun in Europe.
The Eagle, one of many Navy ships to carry this name, was a 4th rate of 1,124 tons, 44.8 m. by 12.8 m. and carried 58 guns. It had been built by Barnard at Harwich in 1745 and had seen action at the end of the War of Austrian Succession. When Cook joined the ship at Spithead, it had just come out of Portsmouth Dockyard after recommissioning. It also needed some repairs after a storm damaged it while in Portsmouth dockyard.
The captain of the Eagle was Joseph Hamar, an officer with a sound if somewhat undistinguished history. Hamar, having made the rank of post captain in 1741 and been given command of the Flamborough, operated off the coast of Florida and Georgia against the Spanish. The Eagle was his first command in the new campaign. Cook probably had little direct contact with Hamar and would have had far more with Thomas Bisset, the ship’s master. It is probable that Bisset had a deep and positive effect on Cook, setting an example in how to behave as a warrant officer and how to run a Royal Navy ship.
For the first few weeks, Cook’s log, which begins on Friday 27 June 1755, records the routine of the ship as it prepares itself for service. It is probable that Cook copied many of the details from another log, possibly the master’s. The weather features every day while the taking on of provisions and business to do with sails, rigging, etc., are regular entries. Cook mentions the movements of other ships and there are occasional pieces relating to out of the ordinary or special events.
Sunday 29 June. At 5 came on board longboat with water and boatswains stores.
AM Employed scraping the masts and paying of them. At noon sailed hence His Majesty’s Ship Sphinx.
On 3 July, Lord Anson, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and other Lords Commissioners inspect the fleet assembled at Spithead.
Thursday 3 July. At noon Admiral Anson with some of the Lords of the Admiralty viewed the fleet and then went on board the Prince. Ditto manned ship.
This is a prelude to another inspection two days later by the Duke of Cumberland. Admirals Edward Hawke and Temple West were preparing squadrons for action and ships began assembling off St. Helens on the Isle of Wight. On 25 July, the two squadrons departed leaving the Eagle still not ready for sea and still anchored at Spithead off Gilkicker Point.
Friday 25 July. At 6 PM sailed from St. Helens Admirals Hawke and West with the ships under their command. AM Employed scrubbing the ship’s bottom.
Finally, ten days later on 4 August, the Eagle weighed anchor and came to sail. The ship, which was to act as a lone cruiser patrolling off the Southwest coast of Ireland, set off west along the South coast of England. The log changes to record the activities of sailing a ship.
Tuesday 5 August. 1PM Tacked to the westward. 2PM Close reefed each topsail. Took in mizzen topsail. 3PM Brailed up the sails and hoisted up the longboat.
The Eagle was charged with stopping and inspecting any ship at sea and this was done near the Lizard on the 8th.
Friday 8 August. Fired a shot and brought to and examined a ship from Antigua bound to London out of which we impressed 3 men.
The Eagle rounded the Scilly Isles on the 9th and was off the Irish coast on the 11th. Hamar and his men had exchanged the routine of port for the routine of patrol. For the next few weeks they would ply back and forth near the coast chasing and stopping vessels. At the end of the month the weather worsened and on 1 September the Eagle was hit by a storm in which its main mast was sprung.
Monday 3 September. 3AM Brought to under a main sail. 6AM A very hard gale. Lost the driver boom overboard. 7AM Reefed the fore sail and balanced the mizzen. 9AM Brailed up the main sail and wore and brought to under fore sail and balanced mizzen. 10AM Found the main mast to be sprung in the lower partner.
Hamar was sufficiently concerned that he decided to return to port and, on 5th September, the Eagle anchored in Plymouth Sound. The master mast maker from the dockyard went on board and inspected the mast. In his view, given on the 13th, the mast was not sprung but Captain Hamar showed no inclination to return to sea and the Eagle slowly made its way in to anchor in the Hamoaze on 21 September. Hamar’s actions seriously displeased the Admiralty and he was removed from his command. He became a Superannuated Rear Admiral in 1758 under a scheme introduced in 1747 as a means of removing incompetent officers or, at least, officers not likely to be given another active command.
In the meantime, the Eagle was tied up alongside the Leopard, an old ship, and all stores and ballast were transferred to allow the lightened Eagle to go into the dock
Thursday 25 September. PM Employed in getting out the ballast. At 6 ditto cast off from the Leopard to go into the dock. At 8 got in having put all our men with proper officers on board the Leopard. At 8 AM having got her bottom cleaned and tallowed came out of the dock and made fast alongside the Leopard.
Then began the process of reloading everything back onto the Eagle. 1 October proved an auspicious day for James Cook when the new captain, Hugh Palliser, took over command of the ship. Palliser would prove an influential colleague and close friend to Cook over the years as their lives and careers crossed.
Wednesday 1 October. AM Cast off from the Leopard and warped over and made fast to a mooring upon the wethering shore. Ditto came on board Captain Palliser and took possession of the ship.
The Eagle was able to return to sea on 8 October. Its duties were similar to before but this time it was to patrol further south in the Western approaches to the English Channel. The important French naval port of Brest was situated at the end of the Brittany peninsula and the British attempted to blockade the port or at least monitor the movement of ships in and out of the port.
Admiral Edward Hawke was in overall command but, given that war had not been officially declared, it was unclear what could and what could not be done. The British had orders to detain French ships of the line but they should not fire first. The Blandford was captured in June (and released in the September) by the French, which provided a vague excuse for British actions. By August 1755, the British were ordered to capture French merchant ships and take them into British ports.
The Eagle was soon in action when a French banker (a fishing vessel), returning full of fish from the fishing grounds on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, was captured on 12 October. 149 prisoners were taken on board the Eagle while a prize crew went on the banker to sail it to Britain. A week later, this action was repeated when a French snow was taken. In the meantime British and neutral ships were inspected and sent on their way. Sunday the 19th proved a dramatic day
Sunday 19 October. At 5PM saw from the masthead to the northward 30 sail great and small, some sloops all steering about SW or SW by W. Judged them to be an English convoy. 6PM Handed the topgallant sails. ½ past the main topmast went by the board. Wore in order to save as much of the wreck and lay to under the foresail and mizzen. The topmast broke the main cross trees.
The Eagle’s crew was now occupied with replacing the broken topmast, yards and rigging. The Monmouth appeared and joined the Eagle, its carpenters assisting with the repairs. The two ships sailed in company and chased several ships over the next few days. On 2 November, another French ship returning from Newfoundland was captured and 45 more prisoners accommodated on the Eagle while another crew took over the prize.
The wintry weather conditions were taking their toll on the Eagle, which suffered more damage on 5 November.
Wednesday 5 November. 12Noon. Very fresh gales with strong squalls. In chase.
½ past noon found the fore topmast sprung about 2 foot above the caps. Got the fore topgallant yard and mast down and handed the fore topsail. Employed in unrigging the topmast and getting to hand and fitting the spare one.
Again repairs were affected. On the 10th, the Eagle encountered Admiral John Byng with his squadron of five ships. About seven months later, Byng would make an unsuccessful defence of Minorca in the Mediterranean and he would be court martialled and executed, a scapegoat for the British loss. They next encountered, on the 13th, Admiral Temple West with his small squadron and a French ship, the Esperance, which had been captured the night before.
The Esperance, under Captain Louis Jubert de Bouville, was a French ship of 74 guns, which had sailed as part of a fleet from Brest on 3 May that year across to Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. The fleet was under the command of the Count Dubois de la Motte and part of it had been harried by Admiral Boscawen’s squadron. The Esperance, which had carried troops to reinforce the fort, left Louisbourg on 17 October to return to France when it was intercepted on November 11th. The Orford led the attack that left the Esperance on fire and sinking. Heavy seas, though, hindered the removal of the French crew.
Friday 14 November. At 9AM the Esperance fired a gun and made a signal in distress.
½ past set the foresail. At 11 wore ship. Set main topsail. The Esperance fired 2 guns in distress but no possibility of relieving her the sea running so high.
All the crew were eventually removed and distributed among the watching British ships before the French ship sank. Admiral Byng wrote:
The French Ship of War that Admiral West brought into the squadron... was in the most distressed condition I ever saw a ship, extremely leaky and not able to carry any sail, having only her lower masts standing and foretopmasts...
Worsening conditions and the state of the ships and crews caused the British to sail back to home ports and the Eagle made for Plymouth. On 23 November, the ship anchored off Penlee Point in Plymouth Sound and began unloading French prisoners. It then began the journey round into the Hamoaze and anchored there alongside the gun wharf on the 30th. Further sorties were not expected that year and the slow process began of cleaning, repairing and restocking the ship.
Wednesday 3 December. Employed in examining the rigging and sending what we found bad on shore to go there with some of the sails.
Friday 19 December. Fidded the main topmast and seized in the dead eyes futtock shrouds. And rattled the topmast shrouds.
As the Eagle needed to go back into the dock, the Panther was brought alongside and the crew began transferring material across to the other ship to lighten the load.
Sunday 28 December. AM Transported the Panther alongside to take in our stores and lumber.
1755 finished therefore with Cook and the Eagle in port at Plymouth. Cook had completed his first six months in the Royal Navy and had experienced two short patrols off the Western Approaches to the English Channel, interspersed with the somewhat boring routines of shipboard life in port at Spithead and Plymouth. He had also encountered Hugh Palliser, who would feature prominently in his life.
The location of Cook’s two 1755 patrols can be seen in the accompanying maps I have drawn. The longitude and latitude co-ordinates from Cook’s log for positions of the ship at noon have been used. There are a few gaps as, in some cases, the figures were not recorded, in others the figures are illegible and, in a few, the position was recorded as a bearing and distance from a fixed point on land. The line joining the points is obviously hypothetical and serves to show only the approximate route taken.
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
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 45, volume 29, number 1 (2006).