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Cook’s Coat of Arms


Finding a memorial plate painted with a crude version of Captain Cook’s Coat of Arms,1 prompted the question: what did the Coat of Arms granted to Mrs Elizabeth Cook in 1785 (after the Captain’s death in 1779) really look like?


An online search revealed quite a number of differences in the various depictions of the heraldic achievement: in the colour of the Pole stars, the detail of the globe, the flag supporters which are sometimes plain or painted with a version of the Union Jack, and even in the crest itself.


The only place to get a definitive answer was from the College of Arms. Happily, my enquiries produced a most helpful response from the Somerset Herald, David White,2 who advised that the Letters Patent granting the Coat of Arms to Elizabeth Cook are now at the State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW). The document, giving a full description of the arms with a painted copy of the arms in the margin, together with the salutation and signatures of the Garter and Clarenceux Kings of Arms, is being digitised and one hopes eventually will be available online.3


A message from David Berry, a librarian at the SLNSW,4 advised that the Letters Patent were acquired by the NSW Government in 1887, from Canon Frederick Bennett, whose maternal great-uncle was Admiral Isaac Smith, Mrs Cook’s first cousin. Smith and Mrs Cook shared the same residence during their later years in London and at the Admiral’s country house, Merton Abbey in Surrey. On his death in 1831, Elizabeth Cook financed his memorial at Merton Church;5 and as the Cooks left no known living descendants, much of the estate was apparently left to Admiral Smith’s extended family.


The Letters Patent formed part of a substantial display of Cook material loaned by members of Admiral Smith’s family among others, exhibited at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1887.6 After the exhibition, over 100 items were purchased by the New South Wales Agent-General, Sir Saul Solomon, on behalf of the government, and housed at the Australian Museum in Sydney, where they were mentioned in a long article about the Cook relics in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in 1906.7


In November 1935 much of the documentary material in the collection was handed over to the Mitchell Library, now part of the State Library of NSW, although Mr Berry notes the Letters Patent were transferred in 1955.


The relevance of the material to NSW, of course, is that Cook’s discovery of Botany Bay for the Europeans in April 1770 led to the first British settlement at Sydney 18 years later.


Even more closely connected, a story has it that Isaac Smith was the first of Cook’s company to land at Botany Bay. “Isaac, you shall land first”, the Captain is supposed to have said to his wife’s first cousin, as the longboat reached a rocky ledge on the littoral.8


The Letters Patent are contained in a leather case tooled with gold. The document is a very beautiful scroll, the head illuminated with the Royal Coat of Arms, and those of the two Kings of Arms, their seals contained in two small boxes attached with ribbons.


After the customary salutations “To All and Singular” it gives the moving reason why Mrs Cook sought the grant of Arms six years after the Captain’s death in Hawai`i. It was because of “her Anxiety to preserve on record in the College of Arms the Memory of her late dear Husband the ablest and most renowned Navigator which this or any other Country has produced”. She requested “such Armorial Ensigns as may allude to his distinguished Character to be borne by his Descendants and placed on any Monument or otherwise to his Memory according to the Laws of Arms”.


Apparently, it is the only Coat of Arms to have been awarded posthumously. Its formal descript­tion, or blazon, is

Azure, between two Polar Stars Or, a Sphere on the plane of the meridian, North Pole elevated, Circles of Latitude for every ten degrees and of Longitude for fifteen, shewing the Pacific Ocean between sixty and two hundred and forty West, bounded on one side by America and on the other by Asia and New Holland, in memory of having explored and made Discoveries in that Ocean, so very far beyond all former Navigators: His Track thereon marked with red Lines.9


In simple terms, the scalloped shield is blue, the globe is white, the Pole stars (usually represented with wavy arms) are gold, and the Pacific Ocean, bordered by the land mass, is marked with the lines of latitude and longitude as above, with the tracks of Cook’s three great voyages shown in red.


The crest is described in the blazon as follows

On a Wreath of the Colours an Arm embowed, vested in the Uniform of a Captain of the Royal Navy, in the Hand the Union Jack on a staff proper. The Arms encircled by a wreath of Palm, and Laurel.


Again, in simple terms, this means the arm is on a circlet of blue and white, the principal colours of the shield; it is bent, the colour is navy blue, the Union Jack is on a brown staff, and the arm is circled with a wreath of palm and laurel, presumably symbolising the tropical lands of the Pacific, as well as victory and honour.


The blazon does not speak here of the two mottos, but they are shown on the painted representation of the Arms in the margin of the Letters Patent. The crest motto is Circa Orbem (Around the Globe), and the main motto is Nil Intentatum Reliquit (He left nothing unattempted – or perhaps, more colloquially, He never gave up).


Once again, the blazon does not mention the supporters, but as depicted on the Letters Patent they include four flags, two on either side of the shield. There is one plain green and one red at the rear, the two front ones are white.


Similarly, while the blazon does not mention them, the Letters Patent show the shield resting on four cannons on a mound, with two groups of cannon balls and two sprigs of foliage. David White, The Somerset Herald, says that this is unusual but not unique, and they are also shown on a silver salver engraved with Cook’s arms at the National Library of Australia.10 The salver itself, hallmarked for 1764, is thought to have been in Cook’s household and engraved after the arms were granted. The catalogue notes that much of the salver bears the marks of daily use, but very few are on the engraving, suggesting it was little used after it was done.


This then is the background, source and correct description of Captain Cook’s Coat of Arms, against which members can compare the various other depictions available on the internet and elsewhere. They are a far cry from the simple achievement on my little blue plate—but even there, the desire to honour the memory “of the ablest and most renowned Navigator which this or any other Country has produced” remains the same.


I acknowledge the assistance of David White, Somerset Herald; David Berry of the State Library of New South Wales; Mal Nicholson, President of the Captain Cook Society in Australia; Vanessa Finney, Australian Museum; Glenys Savage and Chris Farrington (NZ) who provided information on Admiral Smith’s extended family.


Anthony Hill


  1. Cook’s Log, page 12, vol. 41, no. 2 (2018).

  2. Email message to the author 6-7 April, 2018.

  3. The website of the SLNSW is at www.sl.nsw.gov.au

  4. Email messages to the author 18 April, 2 May, 2018. The reference number is 889102. The full catalogue entry is: Grant of arms made to Mrs Cook and to Cook's descendants in 1785 / Call Number: LR 27.

  5. Cook’s Log, page 31, vol. 34, no. 1 (2011).

  6. Cook’s Log, page 27, vol. 28, no. 3 (2005).

  7. Sydney Morning Herald. 28 April, 1906. Page 6.

  8. Cook’s Log, page 774, vol. 14, no. 2 (1991).

  9. As quoted in John Robson’s book The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia. Chatham Publishing. 2004.

  10. National Library of Australia call number MAP RM 4249. The salver can be viewed online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-232446503/view
    See also Cook’s Log, page 7, vol. 31, no. 2 (2008) and Cook’s Log, page 31, vol. 32, no. 4 (2008).

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 31, volume 41, number 4 (2018).

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