We know that James Cook joined the Royal Navy at Wapping in East London on 17 June 1755. Why he chose to join at all and why he chose that particular time have puzzled researchers and it is interesting to speculate as to what might have caused Cook to take the step he did.
In June 1755, James Cook was 26 years old with eight years experience on colliers sailing in the North Sea between the River Tyne and the River Thames. He had made some other short voyages that had taken him to the Baltic and Irish Seas but his experience had been mostly off the East Coast of England. Cook had learned to sail on ships belonging to the Walker family of Whitby and, gradually, he had acquired skills and abilities to impress the Walkers sufficiently for him to be promoted to mate on one of their ships, the Friendship. It is believed that, in 1755, Cook was close to being offered his own command on one of the Walkers’ ships, possibly the Friendship. By then, he must have known the rudiments of seamanship and navigation, and have shown the potential for leadership. However, having arrived in the Thames on 14 June, Cook resigned from the Walkers’ employ and, three days later, joined the Royal Navy instead.
So why might he have resigned a relatively secure position and future career with the Walkers? From the little we know of Cook’s personality, he continually strove to extend himself and to experience new things. It was these traits that contributed to his success later in the Pacific but, in 1755, they manifested themselves as reasons to leave the merchant service and join the Royal Navy. The colliers he had sailed on delivered coal to wharves on the River Thames in and around Wapping and Cook, himself, boarded close by. Wapping was a locality to meet seamen with experience on all the known seas and oceans of the world and Cook will have heard stories about places that would have fired his imagination. The thought of sailing to the East and West Indies would have proved much more exciting to a man like Cook than the prospect of repeating the same journey between the Tyne and Thames countless times for the rest of his working life. While Cook had become close to the Walker family, there was no guarantee that he would benefit financially to the extent that he would own his own vessel and be able to dictate his own destiny. More probably, he faced a future where he would be a master of a vessel but remain an employee serving on the Walkers’ or someone else’s fleet.
While places such as the East Indies would sound enticing, Cook would have been aware that various diseases were common in overseas waters and, in Royal Navy ships, you ran the risk of dying in combat. However, the North Sea was not without its own risks and colliers were regularly wrecked on England’s East Coast.
Another possible reason for Cook’s move may have been that he was running from somebody or something. However, there is no apparent evidence that that was the case with James Cook. He remained close friends with John Walker and other people in Whitby after he joined the Royal Navy so there appears to have been no problems with his usual employer. Similarly, he kept in touch, as much as he could, with his family in Cleveland so a rift there is unlikely. What we know of his character does not suggest he had fallen foul of the law. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that he was running away.
Cook saw the Royal Navy as a means of extending his experience and offering new challenges. Kippis reports Cook as having said:
He determined to take his future fortune that way
Beaglehole, in his biography of Cook quotes John Walker, Cook’s previous employer, as saying:
He had always an ambition to go into the Navy.
What may have tipped the scales for Cook and caused him to enlist when he did was the very active recruitment undertaken by the Royal Navy in the first part of 1755. Recruitment officers were active throughout the country and especially at all ports in efforts to increase manpower for the war anticipated to begin shortly. The Seven Years’ War (known in North America as the French and Indian War) had not yet begun formally (it was only officially declared by Britain on 17 May 1756 and a few weeks later by France in the June). However, a war of sorts had begun the previous year in 1754 in North America and some actions had already occurred at sea.
Those naval actions had been initiated largely by the Royal Navy, though ironically, the Royal Navy was in a very poor shape and, at the beginning of 1755, did not have the ships, men and resources to undertake a war. Manpower and resources had been run down by the British government since the end of the War of Austrian Succession in 1748.
Henry Pelham, First Lord of the Treasury (the equivalent of Prime Minister) from 1743 until his death in 1754 had assumed power during the War of Austrian Succession (begun 1739), which was ended by the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in1748. Once the war was over, Pelham began cutting government expenditure drastically to reduce interest on the national debt and so that he could reduce taxation. The navy was a principal sufferer and Pelham rejected the Admiralty’s request to maintain naval forces at something like wartime strength. As such the number of men employed by the navy fell from 50,596 in 1748 to 8,346 in 1753. Admiral George Anson, then First Lord of the Admiralty, had asked the Government to establish a naval reserve of 3,000 men but the Government bowed to pressure and nothing was done. The number of ships dropped similarly and the state of those ships that were retained worsened.
In March 1754, Henry Pelham was succeeded by his brother, Thomas Pelham-Holles, the Duke of Newcastle. Newcastle had been a Secretary of State since 1746 so part of the administration and a party to its policies. He did little to change those policies and, over the next two and a half years, proved to be an incompetent leader until he resigned in November 1756. Fighting between British and French forces began in North America in 1754 when border disputes in the Ohio valley erupted into war. France had moved into the region, which brought it into conflict with the claims of the British colonies, especially Virginia.
During the spring of 1754, George Washington (later to be the first President of the United States) was ordered to take Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh) at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers, a position held by the French. In May, en route to the fort, Washington and his 300 Virginian militiamen attacked a reconnaissance party, killing ten members, including a French emissary. Washington and his men took refuge in Fort Necessity where they were surrounded by a larger French force. Washington surrendered on 4 July 1754.
News of these event reached London later in July. Newcastle wanted to confine the war to North America and, after much hesitation and confusion, his Government resolved to send troops to North America. In the autumn of 1754, Major-General Edward Braddock was given command of an expedition charged with putting the British colonial troops on a war footing and removing the French from the Ohio valley. Fort Duquesne would be captured and the French sent back north into Canada and south to Louisiana.
Braddock sailed from Cork in December 1754 and disembarked at Hampton, Virginia. Finally, on 10 June 1755, Braddock and a force of British troops and colonial militia marched from Wills Creek, Maryland. However, on 9 July 1755, the British were caught in a French ambush after crossing the Monongahela River on their way to attack Fort Duquesne. Braddock was among the casualties and he died on 13 July 1755.
While Braddock was preparing for Fort Duquesne, the Royal Navy dispatched Vice-Admiral Edward Boscawen from Portsmouth on 27 April 1755 with11 ships. Boscawen sailed into the Atlantic with orders to reinforce British interests in North America and to intercept French attempts to do likewise. Though Boscawen missed most of a French fleet en route to Louisbourg he did encounter a small part of the fleet near the Grand Banks in June 1755. In capturing two ships, Boscawen’s actions helped trigger war in Europe. The British were soon also intercepting and capturing French vessels returning to French ports. Britain was moving onto a war footing and recruitment and impressment had started in earnest.
In January, the Admiralty had obtained new powers to issue press warrants. Officers known as Regulating Captains were attempting to recruit volunteers all over the country but also using “press gangs” to impress men into naval service. On 13 September, two months after he had joined the navy Cook reported in his log:
At 4 PM sent out a tender with a lieutenant and men to impress seamen.
Impressed men would look for a chance to escape and on the same day as above Cook reported the desertion of one of the crew:
At 11 ditto swam ashore and ran away Robert Gordon seaman.
“Ordinary citizens” could obtain rewards if they reported suitable men for recruitment. However, amongst those suitable men were many unemployable men and criminals with the navy and war being seen as an easy way of disposing of undesirable members of society. To offset the landsmen and misfits who required immediate training, the navy also impressed many seamen from merchant ships. While some merchant seamen had protection from being pressed many did not. In his log on the Eagle for 9 August 1755, Cook describes their stopping a merchant ship and taking some of the crew on board:
1PM Moderate and clear weather. Brought to and examined a ship from Barbados bound for London… out of which we impressed 4 men. Passed by HMS Blandford who spoke with us.
(four days later the Blandford was the first British ship captured by the French).
It was against this background that Cook enlisted in June 1755. He was, in fact, one of 20,175 men who joined the Royal Navy in the first six months of 1755. Such numbers were necessary for, as well as the initial shortage, acute sickness was rife in the navy. When Boscawen returned to Britain he reported that 2,000 men had either died or were too sick for service. Admiral Hawke was also experiencing great difficulty at Portsmouth in manning another fleet to go out on patrol in the July.
There was no immediate financial benefit for Cook in that the bounty paid on enlistment for a man like himself with naval experience was only £3 0s 0d. He would also have received 2 months wages in advance and travel expenses to Portsmouth to join his first ship. In the immediate short-term Cook’s actual wage would have dropped though. An able seaman on a merchant ship would have earned £1 4s 0d a month at the time and a mate would have earned more than that. New Royal Navy volunteers with naval experience were rated accordingly and Cook was, no doubt aware that he would not remain an able seaman for very long. In this Cook was correct as, within weeks of enlisting, he was at least a boatswain’s mate (£1 10s 0d a month) and may have been a master’s mate (£2 7s 10d a month) by 24 July 1755. On 22 January 1756, he described himself as taking over boatswain’s duties and the boatswain earned £2 10s 0d a month.
AM Had a survey on boatswains stores when succeeded the former boatswain.
Cook’s actual rating during this period is a little difficult to confirm. The title page of his log describes him as master’s mate.
Cook’s opportunities for promotion were numerous. He was competing with men, many of whom had never been to sea before; many resented being there having been impressed; and many of whom were sick and not in a condition to serve. Added to that, Cook was experienced and possessed obvious abilities so, what might have seemed like a rash misjudgement, was really more of a calculated gamble. What, perhaps, Cook could not have realised at this stage was that any promotion would only be through the petty and warrant officers’ ranks. Becoming a commissioned officer was much more difficult and rare.
Though Cook joined at Wapping he was sent south to Portsmouth where Admiral Edward Hawke was experiencing his shortage of fit and able men. Cook was allocated to His Majesty’s Ship Eagle, anchored at Spithead. The ship, which had recently been damaged in a storm requiring repairs, had just emerged from Portsmouth harbour but was not ready to join Hawke’s fleet when that left on 24 July. The Eagle’s new captain, Joseph Hamar, was able to take the ship to sea on 4 August 1755. Cook started a log as soon as he joined the Eagle and we have his descriptions of the preparations for sailing. He was now very much a member of the Royal Navy.
Cook may have been contemplating his move for some time but the catalyst was the recruitment drive of the Royal Navy in early 1755. He would have been aware that on colliers he was not necessarily safe from impressment and that, as a volunteer, he would be treated more favourably than a pressed man. Cook’s chances for advancement were high given the limited opposition both in quantity and quality. It was a gamble that may, in the short term, have seen very limited in success but, in the long term, was a masterstroke. And, of course, if Cook had not made his move there probably would have been no reason for this article.
Beaglehole, J.C. The Life of Captain James Cook. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1974.
Gradish, Stephen F. The Manning of the British Navy during The Seven Years’ War. London: Royal Historical Society, 1980.
Kippis, Andrew. The Life of Captain James Cook. London: 1788.
Rae, Julia. Captain James Cook Endeavours. London: Stepney Historical Trust, 1997.
Rodger, N.A.M. The Command of the Ocean: a Naval history of Britain, 1649-1815. London: Penguin, 2005.
Thornton, Clifford E. Captain Cook in Cleveland: a study of his early years. Middlesbrough: Middlesbrough Borough Council, 1978.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 13, volume 28, number 4 (2005).