Home > 225 Years Ago: October - December 1776

225 Years Ago: October - December 1776


At the beginning of October, 1776 Captain James Cook in the Resolution was in the Atlantic Ocean heading south for the Cape of Good Hope. Charles Clerke in the Discovery was a few weeks behind.

On 17th Cook "had sight of the Cape of Good Hope and the next day anchored in Table Bay in 4 fathom Water… As soon as we had received the usual Visit from the Master attendant and the Surgeon, I sent an officer to wait on the governor Baron Plattenburg, and on his return saluted the garrison with 13 guns, which complement was returned with the same number… I went on shore accompaned by some of my officers… I obtained leave to set up our observatory wherever I thought proper, tents for the Sailmakers and Coopers and to bring the Cattle on shore to graze near our tents and… order’d soft bread, fresh meat and Greens to be provided every day for the ships company."

Letters Home On 22nd David Samwell, surgeon’s first mate, wrote to his friend Matthew Gregson. "the Cape is a very plentiful Country & we live upon the Fat of the Land during our stay which will be about a Month, then we shall set off for Otaheite where we expect to be about the time you will receive this Letter which I imagine will be some time in Febry or March. I do not suppose we shall stay long at Otaheite as we must embrace the summer season to try for the North west passage; if we find it we shall be in England next Winter. We have various Opinions about it some think we shall & others that we shall not find it.

"Omiah is very hearty and I do not doubt but he will live to see his own Country again, he is not such a stupid fellow as he is generally look’d upon in England, ’tis true he learn’d nothing there but how to play at cards, at which he is very expert but I take it to be owing more to his want of Instruction than his want of Capacity to take it.

"I live on shore in a Tent close to the Town which is called Cape Town & is beyond exception the most beautiful I ever saw… here we have people who cultivate their Lands build handsome Towns & are much given to Dancing & merriment… Today Capt. Cook din’d with the Governor at the Garrison - 3 royal Salutes of 21 Guns each were given with the Toasts at Dinner. The Governor & all at the Cape pay Captn Cook extraordinary Respect, he is as famous here & more noted perhaps than in England."

The next day Cook wrote to the Admiralty Secretary, Philip Stephens, "…am now persuing the necessary measures for putting the Ship in a condition to proceed on the Voyage. The Discovery is not yet arrived."

On 5th November Cook wrote to William Strahan, who was printing his journal of the Second Voyage. "The Ham[p]shire Indiaman being here on her turn home, affords me an opportunity to write to my friends in England, of which number you will always be considered… I suppose by this time you have got my Voyage in hand, but I am so well satisfied with the hands it is in that I do not give my self a thought about it, I would however give some thing to know what Dr [Johann] Forster is about. He has written to several people here tilling them he would send them it when published, but I do not find he has mentioned to one how it was to be published."

And Cook also wrote to William Hodges, artist on the Second Voyage, "If it was not for fear you should think I had quite forgot you I should not have troubled you with this letter, for I have nothing to communicate worth your notice. I found all your friends at this place well, they much admire your drawings indeed I should wonder if they did not. Captain Clerke has not yet made his appearance and I am much afraid I shall have to sail without him. I fancy I may now give you joy of a Boy or a Girl. I hope Mrs Hodges is well."

Arrival of the Discovery

On 10th the Discovery arrived. John Rickman, second lieutenant, wrote "on the 11th, came to and anchored in six fathom water, where, to our great joy, we found the Resolution… Captain Cook, with the principal officers and gentlemen belonging to the ship, came on board to bid us welcome. By them we learnt that they had been at the Cape near three weeks… Nothing in nature can make a more horrid appearance than the rugged mountains that form the Bay. One would almost be tempted to think that the Dutch had made choice of the barrenest spot upon earth".

John Ledyard, corporal of marines on the Resolution, thought the place "very romantic and somehow majestically great by nature: the mountains that form the promontory are as rugged as lofty, they impel the imagination to wonder rather than admire the novelty."

William Bayly, astronomer on the Discovery, set up his observatory close to Cook’s for convenience of comparing the astronomical clocks and chronometers with each other. The site, he wrote, "very much exposed to the S.E. wind that blows very strong at times, and brings such clouds of sand along with it as to render the instruments useless in a few minutes."

Rickman explained that "What remained for Captain Cook to do when we arrived, was chiefly to purchase live cattle for presents to Arees [i.e. Polynesian chiefs] in the South Seas; likewise live stock for the ships use; these are always the last things provided, because it is found necessary to shorten, as much as possible, their continuance on board… Among the cattle purchased, were four horses and mares of a delicate breed, for Omai [the Polynesian being returned to Tahiti]; several bulls and cows of the buffaloe kind, as more suitable to the tropical climates than any brought from Europe; likewise some African rams and ewes; dogs of the she kind, some with and some without puppies; cats we had plenty on board, and goats Captain Cook had purchased at St. Jago [Cape Verde Islands]. Stored with these, the Resolution resembled the Ark, in which all the animals that were to stock the earth were collected; and with their provender, they occupied no small part of the ship’s stowage."

Exploring the Interior

On 16th William Anderson, surgeon on the Resolution, wrote "In the forenoon at ten o clock set out in a waggon with five more to take a view of some part of the country. We cross’d the large plain that lyes to the eastward of the town… Between six and seven we arriv’d at Stellenbosh the colony next to the Cape for its importance. The village does not consist of more than thirty houses". The next day he was "Employ’d in searching for Plants and insects about Stellenbosh but had little success as few plants are in flower at this season and insects but scarce."

On 18th "In the afternoon we cross’d the country and pass’d a few plantations… In the evening we arriv’d at a farm house [from where we had] a view of Drakenstein, the third Colony of this country, which lyes along by the foot of the lofty hills". The next day "In the forenoon went in quest of plants and Insects which I found almost as scarce as at Stellenbosh... In the afternoon went to see a stone of a remarkable size call’d by the Inhabitants the Tower of Babel or the Pearl [Paarl] Diamond." The following day "going a different road from that by which we came pass’d through a country wholly uncultivated till we got near the Tyger hills, when some tolerable cornfields appear’d. At noon we stopp’d in a hollow to refresh, but in walking about here were plagued with a vast number of Muskitoes or sand flies which were the first I saw in the country. In the afternoon set out again & in the evening arriv’d at the Cape tir’d with the jolting Waggon."

More Letters Home

On 23rd Clerke wrote to Joseph Banks "Here I am hard and fast moor’d alongside my Old Friend Capt Cook so that our battles with the Israelites [a reference to his Jewish creditors in London] cannot now have any ill effects upon our intended attack on the North Pole… I shall be ready for sea by the 25th or 26th. the Resolution is not yet quite compleat so that those curs’d procrastinations the Gentlemen of the law plagu’d us with, will exceed little if at all impede our leaving this place. Your Man [David] Nelson is one of the quietest fellows in Nature, he seems very attentive and I hope will answer your purpose very well… he has made a trip up the Country here with Gore who is very well and desires his respects & Compliments to you & the Good Doctor [Daniel Solander] to whom I mean presently to address myself." John Gore was First Lieutenant on the Resolution.

On 26th Cook wrote to John Montagu, 4th earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, "Captain Clerke joined me on the 10th Inst. and we are at length ready to put to sea and proceed on the Voyage, having on board Provisions for two years and upwards. Nothing is wanting but a few females of our own species to make the Resolution a Compleate ark, for I have taken the liberty to add considerably to the number of animals your Lordship was pleased to order to be put on board in England: as my intention for so doing is for the good of posterity, I have no doubt but it will meet with your Lordships approbation.

"The takeing on board some horses has made Omai compleatly happy, he consented with raptures to give up his Cabbin to make room for them, his only concern now is that we shall not have food for all the stock we have got on board. He continues to injoy a good state of health and great flow of Spirits and on every occasion expresses a thankfull rememberence of your Lordships great kindness to him. I have the pleasure to assure your Lordship that they have not been lost upon him, and that he has obtained during his stay in England a far greater knowlidge of things than any one could expect or will perhaps believe. Sence he has been with me I have not had the least reason to find fault with any part of his conduct and the people here are surprised at his genteel behaviour and deportment."

The same day Cook wrote to Banks "I am greatly obliged to you for your readiness to describe the Plants which are to be published in my journal and I hope Mr Strahan will give you the parts in time. I have no other way of makeing a return for this and many other favours than by using my best endeavours to add to your Collection of Plants & Animals: this you may be assured of, and that the Man [David Nelson] you have sent out with Captain Clerke to collect seeds & plants shall have every assistance in my power to give him."

The next day Gore wrote to Banks "I did not intend writing To you as my Friend Charles has put a word or two in his Letter from me to you… There has been a Misunderstanding between Charles And Burney, - Sometimes Young Officers Forget there Place, all is well now and is likely To Continue. If I return in the Resolution the next Trip I may Safely Venture in a Ship Built of Ginger Bread". James Burney was First Lieutenant on the Discovery.

Captain Cook by             John Webber
Captain Cook
by John Webber
engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi

Some time during this stay at the Cape of Good Hope John Webber produced his first portrait of Cook, from which this engraving was later made by Francesco Bartolozzi in 1784. The portrait is unsigned and is likely to have been painted on board the Resolution. Cook is depicted wearing a dark blue captain’s uniform. From the pose and attitude it was used as the model for the later full-length paintings made after his return to London.

Rickman considered the health of the Dutch East-Indiamen sailors. "While we remained at the Cape, two of their ships arrived full of sick soldiers, who had been enlisted in Holland, and who were in a miserable condition both as to health and want of common necessaries. They had been near five months on their voyage from Amsterdam, and had lost on the passage, more men than the compliments of both our ships amounted to, owing to nastiness and close confinement. It is remarkable, that no ships have the appearance of being neater kept than those of the Dutch; nor any more slovenly where they are not exposed to open view."

Two people left the company. William Hunt, armourer on the Resolution, was convicted of coining bad money and sent home on the Hampshire. On 26th November William Brown, a marine on the Discovery deserted. What happened to him is not recorded.


Leaving the Cape

On the 30th Cook wrote "having given Captain Clerke a Copy of my Instructions and an order how to proceed in case of separation, we… repaired on board and… we weighed and stood out of the bay". Rickman wrote "having quitted our moorings, we next day came to an anchor in 18 fathom water, Penguin Island bearing N. by W. five or six miles.

"On the 1st of December, at three in the morning; we took our departure, after saluting the Fort with 11 guns, which they returned with the same number."

On 4th Anderson wrote "A pretty high sea… We find our Consort scarcely able to keep pace with us though she sail’d faster yesterday when the wind was more moderate… Put the Ships company to 2/3ds allowance of bread." The same day Bayly wrote "The sea frequently broke over the Ship with great Violence running down the hatches so that the water between decks was Ancle deep." The next day Cook wrote "a Squale of Wind carried away the Mizn Topmt we had another to replace it so that the loss was not felt especially as it was a bad stick and had often complained." The continuing high seas "made the Ship roll and tumble exceedingly and gave us a great deal of trouble to preserve the Cattle we had on board, and notwithstanding all our care several goats, especially the Males died and some Sheep, owing in a great measure to the cold which we began now most sencibly to feel."

The Prince Edward Islands

On 12th Cook "saw land extending from SEBS to SEBE which upon a nearer approach we found to be two Islands… They seem’d to have a rocky and bold shore and excepting the SE parts where the land is rather low and flat, a surface composed of barren mountains which rise to a considerable hieght, and whose sumits and sides were covered with snow… These islands… were discovered by Captains Morion & Crozet Frenchman in Janry 1772, on their passage from the Cape of Good Hope to Manila as mentioned in my late Voyage… As these islands have no name in the French Chart, I shall distinguish the two we have seen by the name of Prince Edwards Islands after His Majestys 4th Son". Prince Edward Augustus, fourth son of George III later had a daughter who became Queen Victoria.

On the 13th Thomas King, master of the Discovery, recorded "Serv’d out a good stout Mageline Jacket and a pair of Fearnought Trowsers to every Man in the Ship (it being a present from the Government to the People)".

Foggy weather was encountered which caused Burney to comment on 21st they "were in continual fear of the 2 Ships parting Company, the Fogs being so thick that frequently for many hours we have not been able to see twice the length of the Ship. Scarce a day passed without losing Sight of each other, in these Situations we kept company by Sound, firing great Guns every hour, sometimes oftener and guessing from the report the place of the other Ship."

Kerguelen Island

On 24th Cook wrote "as we were Steering to the Eastward, the fog clearing away a little, we saw land bearing SSE which upon a nearer approach we found to be an Island [Isle de Croy] of considerable height… Soon after we saw a nother of the same Magnitude one league to the Eastward [Isle Rolland], and between thme in the direction of SE some smaller ones [Iles de Ternay] and… a third high island was seen [Isle de Clugny] and at times, as the fog broke away, we thought we saw land over the small islands… I thought proper to haul off and wait for clearer weather least we should get intangled amongst the islands in a thick fog… At 11 oClock the Weather began to clear up and we immidiately tacked and Stood in for the land… we observed the Coast to the Southward to be much indented by projecting points and bays so that we made sure of soon finding a good harbour, and did not run a mile farther before we discovered one behind the Cape into which we began to ply… I immidiately dispatched Mr [William] Bligh the Master in a boat to Sound the Harbour, who on his return reported it to be safe and commodious with good anchorage in every part, and great plenty of fresh water, Seals, Penguins and other birds on the shore but not a stick of Wood."

The following morning at day break "we weighed and… worked into the harbour to within a quarter of a mile of the sandy beach at the head… The Discovery did not get in till 2 o’clock in the after-noon… As soon as we had anchored I ordered all the boats to be hoisted out, the Ship to be moored with a Kedge anchor and the water casks to be got ready to send on shore. In the Mean time I went a shore to look for the most convenient place to fill them and to see what else the place aforded. I found the shore in a manner covered with Penguins and other birds and Seals, but these were not numerous, but so fearless that we killed as ma[n]y as we chose for the sake of their fat or blubber to make Oil for our lamps and other uses… In the evening we hauled the seine at the head of the harbour but caught only half a dozen sml fish, we tried the next day with hook and line with no better success, so that birds were our only resource for fresh Provisions of which here was an inexhaustible store."

The next day they "went to work to fill Water and to cut grass for our Cattle". According to Anderson it "was done from a brook at the left corner of the beach, that to the right being less convenient though larger." On the 27th Cook decided "The people having worked hard the preceding day and nearly completed our Water, I gave them this to celibrate Christmas. Many of them went on shore and made excursions in different directions into the Country which they found barren and desolate in the highest degree."

According to Ledyard "one of them found a glass bottle suspended by a wire between two rocks: it was corked and sealed over with a parchment within it, he brought it on board to be examined by the Captain, well imagining the circumstance to be very extraordinary." Samwell explained the Latin inscription as "the French King’s Name & Titles & Dated 1774 but no Name of a Ship or Captain." In fact there are two dates: 1772 and 1773. Cook "supposed it to have been left by the hip which accompanied M. de Kerguelen when he discovered this land."

The next day, according to Anderson, "the bottle found yesterday was put upon some stones rais’d on a little hill abreast of the ship, on the north side of the bay" with a suitable inscription on the other side. Cook added "a Silver 2 penny piece of 1772", probably Maundy money. He "display’d the British flag and named the harbour and Christmas harbour as we entered it on that Festival."

A View of             Christmas Harbour in Kerguelen’s Land
A View of Christmas Harbour in Kerguelen’s Land
by John Webber,
engraved by James Newton

On 29th Anderson on the Resolution "weigh’d and saild out of the Bay being soon after follow’d by the Discovery… About two several breakers were seen on the lee bow, and though now sailing over two leagues from the shore many large beds of sea weed were every where about us, so that it was thought necessary to send the Discovery ahead to lead the way". They "anchor’d about five on the west side of a pretty large Bay". Cook named it "Port Palleser in honour of my worthy friend Admiral Sr Hugh Pallisser". Palliser had been a patron of Cook’s for many years, and was currently Comptroller of the Navy.

Cook sailed on the next morning. "We had scarce finished takeing the bearing at noon, before we observed low land… it proved to be the very eastern extremity of this land, and I named it Cape Sandwich in honour of my Noble Patron the Earl of Sandwich". It was later given the name Cape Digby and subsequently renamed Cape Sandwich, a cape further north being given the name of Cape Digby.


On 31st December, Cook "had several observations of the Sun and Moon… These observations were the more usefull as we had not had any for some time before, and served to assure us that no material error had crept into the Timekeeper", 225 years ago.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 1902, volume 24, number 4 (2001).

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