Home > Cook As A Commander - Kippis to Lloyd on Cook

Cook As A Commander - Kippis to Lloyd on Cook


My previous article covered the participant-historians of Cook, Johan Reinhold and George Forster. Following them, the task of evaluating Cook’s governance of his men fell to a wide variety of historians. The first two, were Anglican clergy.

Andrew Kippis

The first of these, was the Reverend Doctor Andrew Kippis (1788), who, claimed Beaglehole:

had all the opportunities and threw them away.... He boiled down the seven large volumes of the official accounts of the voyages all right; and made a half-hearted attempt to collect a few facts about his hero’s early life, and got most of them wrong.1

Kippis does not have a lot to say about Cook as a commander but near the end of his book, after commenting on Cook’s skill as a navigator, he adds:

To all these great qualities Captain Cook added the amiable virtues. That it was impossible for any one to excel him in humanity, is apparent from his treatment of his men through all the voyages, and from his behaviour to the natives of the countries which were discovered by him. The health, the convenience and, as far as it could be admitted, the enjoyment of the seamen, were the constant objects of his attention... 2

After this fulsome, and subjective list of encomiums, Kippis does admit that, "With the greatest benevolence and humanity of disposition, Captain Cook was occasionally subject to hastiness of temper. This, which has been exaggerated by the few (and they are few) who are unfavourable to his memory, is acknowledged by his friends."


Who "the few" were, and who were his "friends", Kippis fails to spell out. The same year that Kippis’s book was published, George Forster severely criticized it. According to Forster, it:

was nothing but a mere compilation; Kippis did not even try to draw a comprehensive picture of Cook’s personality and was unable to set Cook’s remarkable enterprise and their effects on his contemporaries and on posterity into the appropriate philosophical perspective... 4

George Young

Cook’s next ordained biographer was the Reverend George Young of Whitby, who penned, in 1836, what he considered, was a "respectable" life of Cook, alleging that no other such life had been produced since Kippis.5 Young claims he would have found it satisfying to dwell longer on, "the happy results [of Cook’s voyages] in the extension of commerce, science, civilization and religion, but it was necessary to confine the book within certain bounds, to adapt it for general circulation; especially among seamen, for whose use it is peculiarly designed." It was, accordingly, "a neat pocket volume", not "a bulky tome".6 Was it because it was written with the aim of uplifting seamen, that about the only mention of Cook’s treatment of his crew is a remark that Samwell had made in 1786 - "beloved by his people who looked up to him as a father"?

It is as well to pass over the contribution Sir Walter Besant made to Cook historiography in 1890. His book was a piece of Victorian prudery and nonsense. For example, "Let us think of the captain growing only more cheerful as his ship forced her way southwards, though his men lay half-starved and half-poisoned on the deck."7

W.J.L. Wharton

In 1893, the naval hydrographer, Captain W.J.L. Wharton, contributed an edited version of Cook’s journal of his first voyage.8 On Cook as a commander Wharton declares:

he drove his people hard; though he tried them with his irascibility; their conviction of his greatness, their confidence in his leadership and in his justice, led them to love him. He had no sympathy with the ordinary foibles and weaknesses of his men.... The strongest proof of his capacity as a commander is the devotion of his officers. Those who know the Navy know how difficult it is for any man who rises from the ranks to be successful in command. But Cook was a gentleman born; he had the intuition of great minds for fitting themselves to every position to which they may rise and there is never a whisper of disinclination to submit to the rule of the once collier boy, the son of a labourer.9

Arthur Kitson

The next Cook historian of note was Arthur Kitson (1907). Beaglehole maintains that although he did good and essential work, and "everybody copied him", he was nevertheless, "an amateur".10 On disciplinary matters, Kitson first of all comments on the punishment of A.B. Stephens and Marine Dunster at Madeira during the first voyage, for refusing their allowance of fresh beef. The twelve lashes each, that Cook ordered them to receive, were rationalized as:

This appears to be harsh treatment, but it must be remembered that the lash was at that time almost the only recognized method of punishment in the Navy for offences however trivial, and also that Cook knew from his own experience, how important it was to prevent the scurvy from once getting a foothold on board, and was determined to fight this, almost his most dangerous foe, by every means in his power.11

Able Seaman Archibald Wolfe’s two dozen lashes for breaking into the ship’s storeroom and stealing spiked nails, was noted by Kitson as the punishment which, "seems to have been the severest punishment meted out by Cook to any of his men during the [first] voyage."


This is not true, as Able Seamen James Nicholson and John Thurman, received twenty-four lashes each for stealing from natives, some eight days after Wolfe was punished. Also, the following month, Marines Clement Webb and Samuel Gibson received two dozen lashes each, for desertion. Later in his book, Kitson repeats his allegation that two dozen lashes for theft was the heaviest sentence decreed on the first voyage, after claiming that, "There appears to have been only twenty one punishments entered in the log during the whole voyage."


This accords closely with the modern (2003) findings of Anne Salmond, who lists nineteen punishments during the first voyage.


For conditions on board the


while in Antarctic waters on the second voyage, Kitson quotes Marra: "Icicles frequently hung on the noses of the men more than an inch long" and, "The men [were] cased in thick snow as if clad in armour" and, "the running rigging had been so enlarged by frozen sleet as hardly to be grasped by the largest hand... yet under all these hardships, the men cheerful over their grog, and not a man sick, but of old scars."


Kitson quotes Marra too, on Cook’s major illness in February 1774: "the Captain was taken ill to the grief of all the ship’s company"; followed by, "The Captain this day much better, which each might read in the countenance of the other from the highest officer to the meanest boy on the ship"; concluding with, "The Captain perfectly recovered from his illness to the great joy of the ship’s company."


There is a passage in Cook’s, A Voyage to the South Pole that Kitson quotes with approval:

I had all the reason in the world to be satisfied with the choice of the officers. The Second and Third Lieutenants, the Lieutenant of Marines; two of the Warrant officers; and several of the petty officers had been with me during the former voyage. The others were men of known abilities; and all of them, on every occasion showed their zeal for the service in which they were employed, during the whole voyage.17

In another context, he applauds Cook’s remarks about his officers’ concurrence in his plans to continue exploration in the South Atlantic in 1774. He sees no irony in Cook’s remarks about the seamen, "so far from wishing the Voyage at an end that they rejoiced at the Prospect of its being prolonged a nother year and soon enjoying the benefits of a milder Climate."


On Cook as a disciplinarian, Kitson alleges:

the recorded punishments during the whole of the three voyages were not only very few in number, but also much less severe than those found in the logs of men-of-war of that period, when the lash was almost the only recognized penalty for all offences, however small. Three dozen lashes appears to have been the highest number awarded at a time, when hundreds were often allotted to the unfortunate offenders against discipline.19

In his final pages, Kitson cites the eulogy he found in the

Gentlemen’s Magazine

: "His character was calculated to command love and respect, being equally brave, modest, and intelligent in his profession." From which he proceeds:

That it [Cook’s character] commanded the respect and confidence of his superiors is shown by the almost unquestioned manner in which his demands were met, by the evident care taken in the selection of his officers, and by the quality of his juniors who accompanied him to qualify for commissions in the Navy, several of whom in after years greatly distinguished themselves in the service of their country. That he commanded the love and respect of his men is proved by the fact that several accompanied him through all three voyages, and several more through two, and by the ease with which he filled up his complement when it was announced he was to hoist his pennant.20

G. Arnold Wood

After Kitson, there was a hiatus in Cook historiography. The Manchester-and-Oxford-trained, English expatriate, Professor of History at Sydney University, G. Arnold Wood, had his, The Voyage of the Endeavour, published in 1925. In this book, he describes Cook as, "a first-rate seaman, a first-rate astronomer, and a first-rate officer of the King’s Navy."21 He also quotes Admiral Isaac Smith’s letter of 1830: "As for myself, who was with him in the first two voyages as a petty officer, a youngster [a midshipman], I never thought him severe, and he was both loved and properly feared by the ship’s company."22 Wood’s assessment of Cook as a commander of men is:

In Cook’s opinion a dozen or two lashes now and then were a useful means of persuasion. But he believed far more in the persuading power of words of encouragement and praise; and he gave them as he gave lashes, when they were deserved and much more frequently. And when the faults were incurable, he thanked God that they were not worse.23

One aspect of Cook’s management of men that Wood highlights, was his fairness in the distribution of any extras that nature and / or fortune provided. Commenting on what the Australian coast furnished in the vicinity of the Endeavour River, (mostly turtles and fish), Cook wrote and Wood quotes:

Whatever refreshments we got that would bear a division I caused to be equally divided amongest the whole company generally by weight, the meanest person in the Ship had an equal share with myself or any one on board, and this method every commander of a Ship on such a Voyage as this ought ever to observe.24

In his,

The Discovery of Australia

, Wood gives a vivid description of the behaviour on board the Endeavour when it was holed on the Great Barrier Reef. After describing the occurrence he alleges:

Cook seldom praised people, and when he praised, he praised in measured words. His sailors got more floggings than compliments, and there are hints that he regarded ‘gentlemen’ as a nuisance. Yet he now allowed himself to write-’In justice to the Ships Company I must say that no men ever behaved better than they had on this occasion, animated by the behavour of every gentleman on board, every man seem’d to have a just sence of the danger we were in and exerted himself to the very utmost.25

Wood’s final summing up is:

Both officers and gentlemen proved themselves heroes. But let us not miss the opportunity to do justice to the seamen of the Endeavour. They were not wholly heroes. They got drunk whenever they could get drink. They ‘tapped every cask of wine on board’, says Banks. ‘They grumbled, and growled, and swore. Yet they were at least able to see something heroic in the man who ruled them, and to strive bravely and faithfully for the ship in the face of appalling danger.26

J. Holland Rose

On the evening of 17 December 1928, J. Holland Rose read a paper to a meeting of the Geographical Society. He sought: "Not to sing once more the praise of Captain Cook (for that is surely needless), but rather to show his relation to the ideas of his age, and then briefly set forth his connection with the men who came before and after him."27 This the professor did with consummate skill, and in the course of the lecture made the point that while, "hammering away at the Antarctic barrier" in the course of the second voyage, Cook’s "iron strength" broke down, but, "the crew never mutinied-none of Cook’s crews ever did."28 (Emphasis added.)

R.T. Gould

R.T. Gould made his notable contribution to Cook biography in 1935, with what is possibly, the best short summary of the great navigator’s career.29 He points out that in dealing with scurvy, Cook "took his own line, based on his own experience and practised on his own initiative." Gould directs attention to the facts that Cook had served for years as a fo’c’s’le hand; that he knew, as few men in independent command did, what the A.B. of his day ate and how he cooked it; where and in what condition he slept; and in what state he habitually kept his clothing and bedding; and much else about the conditions seamen lived under.30 Gould continues:

Consequently, in all matters of personal hygiene and dietary the Endeavour’s seamen-intensely conservative, as all seamen are-found themselves being persistently and remorselessly shaken out of their ‘old, heavy, dull and shapeless ease’. They had to keep their quarters clean, and their clothing dry. Whenever possible, the former were fumigated, and the latter aired. Fresh meat and vegetables were issued whenever such could be procured-and, at other times, sauerkraut or ‘portable soup’ accompanied the salt provisions. Whatever was issued, too, had to be eaten. And-a grievance beyond all others-their Captain would delegate no part of his responsibility for their health, either to the ship’s surgeon or anyone else; when he gave any order on that subject he saw to it, personally and with emphasis, that the order was exactly obeyed. At first they were by no means grateful-they endured his ‘fads’ simply because they had at once realised that he was not the man to brook their doing otherwise-but they had good cause to change their minds before they saw England again.31

Gould saw Cook as, a man who fired his officers and men with his own spirit of determination and judged Zimmermann’s appreciation:

the most striking of all... a sincere and an obviously faithful portrait of a man who was really great... the unsolicited and gratuitous tribute of a humble German seaman... worth all the floods of official eulogy poured forth on the occasion of Cook’s bicentenary, and the sesquicentenary of his discovery of Hawaii in 1928.32

Gould’s final tribute reads:

Only to a handful comes that strange, intangible thing which men call Fame-and none can ever be certain in his life-time, that he stands among them. Many would give-who have given-their lives for fame, have failed to achieve it: some who have snatched at it too eagerly have found that, once in their grasp, it was not fame but infamy: And those who have won it have never, I think, consciously aimed at it, but have been content simply to do their duty, as they saw it, in accordance with a self-set standard too high for their fellows. Such men are the true salt of the earth-and such a man, beyond all question, was James Cook.33

Gordon Campbell

Vice-Admiral Gordon Campbell had his Captain Cook published in 1936. His work draws attention to the fact that there were more volunteers for the second voyage than were required, and that many had to be turned away, "a fact which shows that men had confidence in Cook as a leader, and liked him, in spite of his stern discipline and manner."34 Like Kitson, Campbell also quotes Cook on the satisfaction he expressed about the quality of the officers of the second voyage and the behaviour of the crew.35 Campbell’s book is one of the few that gives the wording on Sir Hugh Palliser’s memorial to Cook at his retirement home, "The Vache".36

Hugh Carrington

Hugh Carrington wrote a very good Life of Captain Cook that was published in 1939. To Carrington:

Cook was no blustering sea-bully; rather he was one of those combinations of the scientific and the practical who appear once in a generation, leaving behind an indelible mark upon the progress of the human race.’37

Carrington is worth quoting on Cook’s measures to combat scurvy:

Much has been made of Cook’s part in the elimination of scurvy. After all he applied only the methods and preventives prescribed or suggested by his superiors. The point is he applied them. He took every precaution against scurvy and insisted by precept, example and authority upon the precautions being taken. It was a matter of discipline not medicine; just as in France in 1917-18, the condition known as ‘trench foot’ became a disciplinary matter. His conquest of scurvy had nothing to do with the invention of remedies; it is a tribute to him as a commander and leader of men.38

Carrington alleges that in his personal relations, Cook suffered from a lack of humour, but that he could be sympathetic to the requests of others, and that he could, at the appropriate occasion, "unbend into cheerful good fellowship". That both officers and men continued to sail with him was, Carrington contends, "a criterion of their opinion". At sea, Cook was able, "to relax discipline when possible and suitable, as the Forsters so bitterly complain, but he was strict and secretive. People in the ship seldom knew his intentions or in what direction he would sail until he set out the course."


Carrington comments too, on the thoroughness of Cook’s administration and his ability to personally attend to detail when necessary. He claims that Cook did, nevertheless, give his subordinates their proper responsibilities and left them to solve their own problems. "Through his loyalty to his officers and men he was assured of their loyalty to him."


Carrington also quotes with approval the words of the Maori proverb said to have been reported at Whitianga, on the Coromandel coast of the North Island, New Zealand, about Cook:

E kore te tino tangata a ngaro i roto i te tokomaha kapene kuka. A noble man-a rangatira (chief)-cannot be lost in a crowd, such a man was Captain Cook.’41

John Reid Muir

1939 also saw the publication of Surgeon-Rear-Admiral John Reid Muir’s, The Life and Achievements of Captain James Cook, R.N., F.R.S. He delineates Cook as a governor of men, first of all in these words:

He... was humane to the men who worked under him at time when humane treatment of inferiors was apt to be considered a form of weakness; studied the health of his subordinates, and eased, in every possible manner, their conditions of service at a period when death, disease and intolerable hardship were looked upon as the inescapable consequences of sea service.42

In another context Muir states:

All his contemporaries agree that Cook was a stern disciplinarian and did not hesitate to award severe punishment when the occasion demanded, but his crew were always in good health and therefore ready to follow him wherever he chose to take the ship and they invariably strove to join him in any expedition he commanded.43

Muir goes on:

Looking at Cook’s portrait one is inevitably driven to the conclusion that he was one of the few men who had the "power of command". This "power of command" is rare and must not be confused with the "habit of command" which is the common substitute for it.... That Cook possessed in a remarkable degree this "power of command" which never fails the owner, no matter what the circumstances may be, is evidenced by his career, the testimony of his shipmates and the extraordinary influence he exerted on savages.44

Referring to the two dozen lashes Able Seaman Archibald Wolfe received for stealing nails at Tahiti, Muir remarks:

This was the maximum number of lashes that the commanding officer of a ship was entitled by the regulations to inflict, any greater number being awarded only by sentence of court-martial. Cook seems to have been unique in never exceeding his legal powers.45

James A. Williamson

In 1946 James A. Williamson produced his, Cook and the Opening of the Pacific. In an opinion shared by R.A.Skelton,46 he epitomizes Cook as, "the greatest explorer of his age and the greatest maritime explorer of his country in any age." Williamson examines the relationship of the ship’s complement to the tonnage of the Endeavour, finding a proportion of approximately one man to four tons of ship’s capacity, or, if seamen alone, are considered (i.e. if officers and supernumeraries are excluded), one man to five tons, compared with ratios on earlier voyages of one man to two tons. This greater ship-space per individual; plus Cook’s attention to hygiene; securing fresh food wherever possible; the use of known antiscorbutics; and the use of the three watch system; Williamson sees as the principal factors contributing to the success of the first voyage.47 Concerning the second voyage, Williamson sees Furneaux as having, "less drive and determination, a lower power of discipline, a tendency to be satisfied with something short of the utmost performance".48 In another work, Williamson compares Wallis’s and Cook’s treatment of nail-stealers at Tahiti, declaring that:

Cook’s men, like those of Wallis, stole nails for their personal traffic with the natives; but Cook, on detecting an offender, gave him two dozen lashes with the cat, which probably made more impression on his tough hide than Wallis’s farcical flogging with nettles. But even Cook’s severity was very moderate by the standards of the age.49

Christopher Lloyd

One of England’s naval historians, Christopher Lloyd, edited, The Voyages of Captain James Cook Round the World: selected from his journals, a work published in 1949. In his preface, Lloyd calls attention to the fact that James Lind’s, Treatise on Scurvy was published in 1754, and that in it, he had advised the use of fresh vegetables, and lemon and orange juice as antiscorbutics on long sea voyages. Lloyd claims that Lind’s ideas were first put into practice by Wallis, who lost only one man during his voyage round the world in 1766/67.50 On Cook’s character, Lloyd stresses his tenacity of purpose, "Call it obstinacy or firmness of will". He claims Cook was lucky in the patronage he enjoyed, that he had a high degree of moral courage, and:

a sense of modesty which made it very difficult for anybody to quarrel with him, and the humility of the really great. Moreover, it is this impression of calm self-confidence which assured the loyalty of his crews.51

Lloyd alludes to the few attempts that were made to desert in the course of Cook’s voyages. "But it is only necessary to compare what happened to Bligh a few years later with Cook’s series of longer voyages in those same seas to appreciate the humanity with which he treated his subordinates." He goes on to quote Zimmermann as giving, the most unprejudiced and illuminating view of Cook’s personality, and concludes, "To these qualities which made Cook such an outstanding leader of men, we must add those which made him the ideal explorer."


This brings the story of comment on Cook as a commander of men up to the 1950s. In 1955 appeared the first volume of Professor J.C. Beaglehole’s massive, erudite, four volume, edited versions, of Cook’s original manuscripts that constituted his journals of his three voyages. Beaglehole’s elucidation of Cook’s governance of his ships’ companies and accompanying super-numeraries, requires an article in itself.

Allan Arlidge



  1. Beaglehole, "The Unknown Cook", in New Zealand. Listener, 3 October 1969, pp. 2-3. On Kippis, see also Beaglehole, "Problems of Cook’s Biographer", p. 25, and Hoare, "Two Centuries’ Perceptions", Fisher & Johnston, op. cit., p. 216.
  2. Kippis, The Life of Captain James Cook, London, 1788, p. 351.
  3. ibid., pp. 352.
  4. Bodi, Leslie, "George Forster the ‘Pacific Expert’ of the Eighteenth Century Germany", in Historical Studies Australia and New Zealand, vol. 8, no. 32, 1959, p. 351.
  5. Young, George, The Life and Voyages of Captain James Cook, London, 1836, p. viii.
  6. ibid.
  7. Besant, Sir Walter, Captain Cook, London, p. 186.
  8. Wharton, Captain W.J.L., Captain Cook’s Journal during his First Voyage Round the World, London, 1893.
  9. ibid., pp. xlix-l.
  10. Beaglehole, "The Study of Cook : a host of questions to ask", in The Times, 31 May 1969, pp. 2-3.
  11. Kitson, Arthur, Captain James Cook R.N., F.R.S., London, 1907, p. 99.
  12. ibid., p. 123.
  13. ibid., p. 215.
  14. Salmond, Anne, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, London, 2003, pp. 433-34.
  15. Kitson, p. 272.
  16. ibid., p. 276.
  17. ibid., p. 228. See also, Cook, James, A Voyage to the South Pole, pp. xxiv-xxv.
  18. ibid., p. 274.
  19. ibid., p. 504. Author’s Note: Cook ordered Marine Thomas Morris to receive three dozen lashes in total, one dozen per day on three successive days, 30 October-1 November, 1777. See Journals III, p. 238, n.2. Surgeon Rear-Admiral Muir (see below) must have overlooked Morris’s punishment when he stated that Cook never exceeded two dozen lashes. Morris’s punishment is the only punishment I have found, where Cook exceeded two dozen for any individual.
  20. ibid., pp. 504-5.
  21. Wood, George Arnold, The Voyage of the Endeavour, Melbourne, 1925, p. 41.
  22. ibid., p. 65.
  23. ibid.
  24. Spelling and punctuation as in Journals I, p. 366.
  25. Wood, G.A., The Discovery of Australia. Revised by J.C. Beaglehole (2nd revised edn.), Melbourne 1969, pp. 298-99.
  26. ibid.
  27. Rose, J. Holland, "Captain Cook and the Founding of British Power in the Pacific", in The Geographic Journal,vol. 72, no. 2, 1929, pp. 102-09.
  28. ibid., pp. 102 and 107.
  29. Gould, Rupert Thomas, Captain Cook, London, 1935, new edn., 1978.
  30. ibid., pp. 47-48.
  31. ibid., p. 74.
  32. ibid., p. 122.
  33. ibid., p. 123.
  34. Campbell, Vice-Admiral Gordon, V.C. D.S.O., Captain James Cook R.N., F.R.S., London, 1936, p. 142.
  35. ibid.
  36. ibid., pp. 304-06.
  37. Carrington, Arthur Hugh, Life of Captain Cook, London, 1939, p. 6.
  38. ibid., p. 293.
  39. ibid.
  40. ibid.
  41. ibid., p. 117. See also Journals I, pp. 196-97 n.1 and John White, Ancient History of the Maori, vol. 5, Wellington, 1889, pp. 21-30.
  42. Muir, Surgeon Rear-Admiral John Reid, The Life and Achievements of Captain James Cook R.N.,F.R.S, London, 1839, p. 2.
  43. ibid., p. 61.
  44. ibid., pp. 61-62.
  45. ibid., p. 105. On this question see Rodger, "Crime and Punishment" in, The Wooden World, London, 1986, pp. 218-29.
  46. See Williamson, James A., Cook and the Opening of the Pacific, London, 1946, p. 213 and Skelton, R.A., Captain James Cook-after two hundred years, London, 1969, p. 9.
  47. ibid., pp. 104-05.
  48. ibid., p. 159.
  49. Williamson, James A, "Exploration and Discovery" in Johnston’s England, A.S. Turberville (ed.), London, 1933, vol. 1, p. 116.
  50. Lloyd, Christopher, The Voyages of Captain James Cook Round the World, London, 1949, p. xxii.
  51. ibid., p. xix.
  52. ibid.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 6, volume 28, number 3 (2005).

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