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Captain Cook and St. Helena


Captain Cook called in at St. Helena on the return leg of both his first and second world voyages. His first visit was a brief one from 1st to 5th May, 1771, and his account of it even briefer: "At 6 in the AM Saw the Island of St Helena bearing West distant 8 or 9 Leagues. At Noon Anchord in the Road before James Fort in 24 fathom water". The next day: "In the PM Moor'd with the Kedge Anchor, and in the AM received some few Officers stores from the Portland". On the 3rd: "Employ'd repairing sails, overhauling the Rigging etc", and on the 5th: "At 1 PM weigh'd and Stood out of the Road in Company with the Portland and 12 Sail of Indiamen".

Joseph Banks, as usual, was more forthcoming: "we found his Majesties ship Portland Capt Elliot, sent out to convoy home the India men on account of the likelyhood of a breach with Spain... As the fleet was to sail immediately and our ship to accompany it, it became necessary to make as much of a short time as possible, so this whole day was employd in riding about the Island", and the next day was spent "in Botanizing". He wrote several pages describing St. Helena: its probable creation, its countryside, vegetation, inhabitants and town: "In sailing along the shore ships come uncommonly near it so that the huge Clifts seem almost to overhand and threaten destruction... in this manner they sail till they open Chappel Valley where stands the town... very small and except a few houses ill built". Chappel Valley, also called St. James's Valley, "resembles a large trench, in the bottom of which a few plants are to be seen, but its sides are as bare as the cliff". On the highest ridges grew Cabbage trees, on the lower ones the Red wood and Gum wood, and in the valleys European plants.

When John Hawkesworth edited the official account of Cook's voyage he often quoted from Banks' journal but still wrote in the first person in Cook's name. Banks' criticisms of St. Helena were published: "All kinds of Labour is here performed by Man, indeed he is the only animal that works except a few Saddle Horses", and "the simple contrivance of Wheelbarrows would Doubtless be far preferable to carrying burthens upon the head, and yet even that expedient was never tried". Cook did not see a copy of Hawkesworth's book until he reached the Cape of Good Hope during the second voyage, but he had to defend himself over what was said. George Forster noted the islanders' reactions: "There are many wheelbarrows and several carts on the island, some of which seemed to be studiously placed before Captain Cook's lodgings every day".

Cook's second visit was as brief as his first: from 15th to 21st May, 1775, but this time he spent several days ashore: "I received a very pressing invitation, both from "Governor Skottowe and his Lady, ... to take up my aboad with them during my stay". John Skottowe, governor from 1764 to 1782, was a son of Thomas Skottowe, on whose farm at Great Ayton Cook had spent his early years. Cook took up the offer of "the use of a Horse to ride out whenever I thought proper", which he did every day. His journal entries were long and glowing about the countryside, the industriousness of the men, and the women ("celebrated beauties").

Cook had approached St. Helena both times from the Cape of Good Hope. The first time he followed the common practice of aiming for a point well to the east and then, when the island's latitude was reached (for latitude was easy to find), steered west until land was sighted. On the second voyage "depending on the goodness of Mr Kendals Watch, I resolved to try to make the island by a direct course, it did not deceive us". The passage was made in company with an East Indiaman, and one incident was recorded by John Elliott, able seaman: "The day before we saw St Helena, the Dutton spoke us, and said they were afraid that we should miss the Island, but Capt Cook laugh'd at them, and told them that he would run their jibboom on the Island if they choose".

Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 96, volume 3, number 4 (1980).

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