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Cook's Navy


Over the past twelve months or so I have received a number of enquiries from Society members as well as non-members about the ranks and titles of James Cook.
Questions such as: "Before taking command of the Endeavour, as Lieutenant, Cook is said to have held the rank of Master; isn't Master higher than Lieutenant? The guy in charge of the QE2 is described as Master".
Or this question: "I am confused, I read that Cook was Captain on his first voyage of discovery, but held the rank of lieutenant and signed some of his charts as Commander: as far as I know he did not become Commander till after the first voyage".
Etc etc; so I think it is time to put the record straight and tell you about the structure of the Navy in Cook's days and his roles in it.


Before taking command of the Endeavour in 1768, Cook's rank in the Navy was that of Master. This was the highest ranking non-commissioned or Warrant officer, standing just below that of Lieutenant, yet outranking a Marine Lieutenant (despite the latter holding a commission from the Admiralty). The Master, originally called the Sailing Master, was responsible for navigating the vessel, but his actual duties were much broader. His assistants or mates, were typically Petty Officers and Midshipmen, who would one day also be in line for promotion to Master or Lieutenant. A Warrant Officer in Cook's navy was a specialist representing one or more of the skilled trades employed aboard ship. Examples of such trades include carpentry, navigation, medicine, artillery and sail making. A Warrant Officer was appointed to his position by "Warrant" issued by the Navy Board, whereas a Commissioned Naval Officer received his appointment from the Admiralty in the form of a "Commission".

Advancement to Warrant Officer was afforded to any exceptionally skilled seaman or marine, as well as certain skilled landsmen such as shipwrights, surgeons, parsons and clerks. The one mandatory trait they all had to pass was the ability to read, write and "cipher". Warrant Officers were allotted a personal crew of subordinates or "Mates" to assist them in carrying out their duties. (Boatswain's mate, - pronounced Bosun -, Master's mate, Gunner's mate etc.) These "mates" were typically "Petty Officers" (appointed to their position by the ship's captain, but just as quickly could be demoted by him for any misbehaviour), but in some cases also included other Warrant Officers. Within their own ranks, Warrant Officers had varying levels of authority and status, categorised as Wardroom Officers, Standing Officers and Lower Grade Officers.

Wardroom Officers were referred to as such because they had access to the Wardroom and Quarterdeck; privileges normally reserved for Commissioned Officers. They had the most prestige of others in their ranks. Included in this classification were the ship's Master, Surgeon, Chaplain and Purser.

Standing Officers included the Boatswain, Carpenter and Gunner. Unlike their shipmates, who transferred from vessel to vessel, the Standing Officers remained permanently attached to their vessel, even while she was not in commission. These men were heavily involved with the fitting-out of the vessel.

Lower Grade Officers were basically Petty Officers with warrants and like other Petty Officers could be demoted at the Captain's whim. Such were the Master-at Arms, Sailmaker, Caulker, Armourer, Ropemaker and Cook.

The term "Master", meaning the person responsible for the running of the ship, was adopted by the merchant navy as the title for the Officer-in-charge or Captain, whilst his First Officer is to this day referred to as the "Mate".

This tradition often causes confusion when Royal Navy and Merchant Navy ranks and titles are cross-referenced.

James Cook was promoted to Lieutenant by the granting of a "Commission" from the Admiralty. The distinction of "Commissioned Officer" is very old and medieval in origin. In the feudal system, royalty and nobility exercised all military command. Their authority descended from the Sovereign; the "King's Commission" was an instrument giving an officer command in the name of the Sovereign and as such was restricted to the nobility and gentry. When Captains went aboard vessels to take charge of them as men-of-war, they held their authority by virtue of their commission. The Lieutenants were also commissioned officers, but none of the rest of the vessel's officers (Warrant and Petty Officers) were deemed worthy of this distinction and were seen as "second class" officers, and though they might be officers, they were no "gentlemen". Gentlemen status, though slippery to define, was nonetheless clearly understood in the British class structure. Generally, any person who had to work with their hands for a living, was not a "gentleman"; but the technical nature of the' nautical profession meant that gifted mariners could rise to commissioned status. The status of gentleman however, was not so easily transferable, and these officers often lead a strained social life in the service. In Cook's case this was by and large overcome by his celebrity status and one of the most important ingredients in a naval officer's career: Patronage.

Whilst being of the right social origins helped in gaining entry to the commissioned officers ranks, some, like James Cook, rose through the ranks of Seaman and Master to gain their position. They had to pass formal examinations in all aspects of seamanship and had to serve no less than six years at sea, at least two of these in the rank of Master's mate before they could be commissioned as Lieutenant, the rank held by Cook when he commanded the Endeavour on the first voyage. Cook was brought into the officer corps as an act of patronage by Captain Hugh Palliser, himself an officer of humble origins, to command the first expedition. Cook escaped his humble background, whilst Palliser basked in his reflected glory.

Further promotion to Commander and then to Captain was through merit, bravery or patronage. Captains were promoted to Admiral through seniority. Patronage was an essential ingredient in the triumph of the 18th century British navy. It allowed the best officers, those who held the prime commands and won the battles, to pick their followers. As professional men, they chose juniors who would reflect credit on them and secure them further victories, prize-money and profit. Similarly, ambitious young officers sought the patronage of the best Admirals; those that could help them.


One of the oldest military ranks in the navy, the Lieutenant was the assistant to the captain commanding the company of soldiers embarked on a war vessel. Initially the Lieutenant was an aristocrat officer, waiting for a place as an aristocrat Captain. By the late 17th century, the Lieutenant had evolved from these origins and was a thoroughly trained, professional sea officer. Unlike a Captain, a Lieutenant was not guaranteed promotion, and many officers, lacking influence or patronage, served their entire commissioned careers in this rank. For example: at his death in October 1807, Thomas Moody was at 93 one of the oldest Lieutenants on the list; a protege of Admiral Sir Charles Knowles, he had no further employment after that Admiral retired in 1757. This situation was added to by the somewhat transient nature of the early navy; formed, reduced and reformed at the next crisis. This was reflected in the nature of the British officer's commission. He was not appointed as a Lieutenant of His Majesty's Navy, but as Lieutenant of his Majesty's Ship So-and-So. When the vessel's commission was up, so was the officer's. When the ship was paid off, usually after no more than two or three years, the officer no longer held a commissioned rank, though he was given half pay as a form of retainer. While he still held his seniority in the list of officers, if he was not employed, he had no real status. This remained the practice in the Royal Navy until 1860, when an officer's commission was altered to name him an officer of Her Majesty's Fleet, rather than of a specific vessel. In 1748 Lieutenants were declared to be the equal of Captains in the army.

At sea, Lieutenants took charge of watches and in battle commanded divisions of guns. The most senior, the first Lieutenant, took charge of the administration of the vessel and did not normally stand a watch. In battle, the first Lieutenant's station was with the Captain, ready to assist him, or take over should the need arise.

Excluding the smallest vessels, brigs, gunboats, coastal vessels etc., naval ships were classified or "rated" according to the number of ports or perforations through which a gun could be fired. There were eight Lieutenants on a ship of the first rate carrying 100 guns, five on a third rate of 74 guns and two or three on a 24 gun sixth rate.

Lieutenants could also command "unrated" ships, smaller than a sloop and it is in this situation that we find Lieutenant James Cook in command of the Endeavour Bark. Being in command of the vessel, he also carried the title of Captain, a tradition going back to the Middle Ages. Both Joseph Banks and Sydney Parkinson refer in their journals to "the Captain" or "our Captain". But Cook was more than in command of the vessel, he was also in command of the expedition and as such was the expedition's Commander; also a title going back to the Middle Ages, when a person in command of a military campaign was its Commander, regardless of his actual rank.

On several occasions, Cook found it necessary to press his authority as "Commander" and also emphasised it on some of his charts, such as his chart of New Zealand, signed by" Lieut'd J. Cook Commander of the Endeavour Bark" The confusion is often caused by the fact that after the first voyage Cook was promoted to the next rank in the naval hierarchy, the rank of Commander, or more correctly, known by its full title of "Master and Commander".


The rank of "Master and Commander" appeared in the late 17th Century, when there was a need for officers to command sixth rate vessels (20 to 28 guns) that were considered too small to require a full or Post-Captain. Such vessels were also deemed too small to carry a Master, so the duties were combined in one officer. When sixth rates became Post-Captain's commands, the Master and Commander inherited command of sloops. In fact, the sloop, which could have anyone of several deck and rigging arrangements, became defined by its commanding officer being a Master and Commander, hence Cook's ship on the second voyage was the Resolution Sloop. In 1748 Master and Commander were declared to be equal to Majors of the Army. In 1794, the navy simplified the title to "Commander".

In the navy of the 1700's, a Master and Commander could only command a sloop, and had no place on larger or smaller vessels. Therefore, if the number of Masters and Commanders promoted exceeded the number of sloops - and it usually did - the officer's odds of employment were definitely against him, especially if he failed to attract patronage. This was remedied in 1827, when the Admiralty allowed Commanders to serve as second-in-command on ships of the line.


On return from the second voyage, Cook was promoted to the naval rank of Captain. Originally it was the same as its army counterpart, that is, the military officer commanding a company of soldiers. When a medieval merchant ship was converted to a ship of war, the company of soldiers came aboard, and the Captain took charge of the vessel and its merchant commander, the Master. Over the years, the need for more permanent war vessels led to more permanent Captains. These officers became more proficient in navigation and seamanship, eventually sharing in tHose duties with the Master. As ships became larger and more important, the Captain rose in stature accordingly, leaving his army counterpart behind. In 1748 it was established that a Captain of the navy was equivalent to a Lieutenant-Colonel of the army and after three years service as a Captain, was equal to a Colonel.

An officer promoted to Captain, was said to have "made post", hence the term Post-Captain, which was used to describe the naval rank of Captain rather than the courtesy title of Captain afforded any rank in command of a vessel.


After reaching the position of Post-Captain with three years seniority, they were eligible for further promotion by seniority through the three grades each of Rear- Admiral, Vice-Admiral and Admiral. Admirals were "Flag Officers", i.e. those with a right to their own flag, the grades of each being described by the colours of the flags of the fleet's three squadrons; from blue (the most junior) through white to red. Hence the ranks "Rear-Admiral of the Blue", "Admiral of the White" etc.

Any vessel under direct Admiralty orders, would sail under the red ensign and that is the reason Cook flew this colour ensign on all three of his voyages. (this was another question asked)

The position of Commodore, intermediate between Captain and Rear-Admiral was not a rank in Cook's days, but a temporary appointment to permit a senior Post-Captain to command a squadron, without having to attain the rank of Rear-Admiral. The use of the term Commodore in the Royal navy dates to the mid seventeenth century. Dutch in origin, it was, not surprisingly, first used in the time of William III. In 1748, it was established that Captains serving as Commodore were equal to Brigadier-Generals.


One category of mariner not described so far, but appearing quite often in Cook's journals, was the Midshipman. In medieval navies, Midshipmen were ratings, whose duties were centered around "midship"; hence the title. This position evolved to become the apprenticeship leading to a commission. Though officially only a Petty officer, that is, one appointed by the captain of a ship, rather than by Warrant of the Navy Board, a Midshipman was understood to be a "gentleman" and was given many of the privileges of commissioned officers. Midshipmen were given uniforms in 1748, before any other non-commissioned officer.

Young men could not be rated Midshipmen until they had served at least two years at sea. This time was often spent as a "Captain's Servant". While serving as a Midshipman, the aspirant officer learned navigation and seamanship and had such duties as supervising sections of gun crews, acting as officer's messengers and taking charge of prizes. (Who doesn't recall those exact duties of Midshipman Hornblower!) After at least six years of service and a minimum, age of nineteen, a Midshipman could take his examinations for Lieutenant. While waiting to take these examinations, or for their first commission, it became customary for senior Midshipmen to take appointments as Master's Mates.

The Admiralty

The Government's decisions on naval strategy and policy were made by Cabinet and carried out by the Admiralty. It was headed by the seven Lords Commissioners making up the Admiralty Board, whose senior member was the First Lord. He was usually a politician, or occasionally an Admiral and a member of the cabinet.

The Admiralty was a Government department. The navy was the largest, most complex and most expensive of the businesses of the Crown. The Ad,miralty office was in Whitehall, London. The First Lord lived there in a suite of apartments and it had a staff of around sixty, headed by the First and Second Secretaries, who had great authority, not only in carrying out the Board's instructions, but also initiating action. James Cook was certainly sensitive to their powers and on his first voyage deferred to them by naming land and sea features after the two Secretaries of the time, Stephens and Jackson as well as the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Edward Hawke.

The Admiralty commissioned the navy's ships with the money voted to it each year by Parliament. It decided the basic specification when ordering each one or each class before design work started. The Board usually expressed its wishes in terms of dimensions, tonnage or the numbers and calibers of the guns on each deck. The Surveyors of the navy in the Navy Board Office then designed the ships, and plans were supplied showing ship's lines in 1 :48 scale. The draughts showed the details of the decks, masts, hatchways, gunports, and so on, and the sweeps or curves used in determining the shape of the hull, but for other fittings, decorations and armament were not usually shown, since these were the choice of the dockyard or laid down in the Establishments. Once approved, copies were sent to the dockyards or merchant builders.

The Admiralty Board was also responsible for the Marines, the Impress Service and the Fencibles, as well as for many different and often mutually hostile intelligence networks and was responsible for one other Board, the Navy Board.

Pay and conditions were good; clerks and officers tended to serve very long periods and experience and devotion were highly rewarded. In consequence, the Admiralty was very efficient by the standards of the day, although the problems of communication gave Admirals commanding overseas stations a good degree of independence.

The Admiralty Board met every day - even Christmas! Its decisions directed the movement of ships, commissioned and promoted officers and dealt with administrative matters. In times of war, the Admiralty increasingly became an operational command center.

The Navy Board

The Navy Board was located in the Somerset House complex on The Strand in London. The Board built and supplied ships, ran the dockyards, purchased or manufactured all the Navy's stores and equipment, appointed most and examined some of the Warrant Officers. It employed thousands of men. It antedated the Admiralty's foundation in 1628, often resented the Admiralty and perpetually sought effective independence.

Its ten members, appointed by the Admiralty Board and usually holding their positions for life, were "The Principal Officers and Commissioners of the Navy" They were naval officers and civilians, often master shipwrights. Each dockyard commissioner also had a seat. Their head was the Controller of the Navy, always a senior naval officer.

The Admiralty commissioned the ships and the Navy Office produced the designs. Surveyors of the Navy, their assistant surveyors and three or four draftsmen designed from experience and from copying and modifying the lines of captured or observed ships, especially French ones. Once approved by the Navy Board and the Admiralty (usually a formality) the draughts were copied manually as many times as needed for the yards. If ships were built in private yards, it was the Navy Board's responsibility to invite tenders and negotiate contracts.

The Navy Board had two subsidiary boards, the Victualling, and the Sick and Hurt, with their members also appointed by the Admiralty Boar.

The Victualling Board appointed Pursers and supplied the navy with food, drink and clothes, using its own bakeries, breweries and slaughterhouses.

The Sick and Hurt Board examined surgeons, provided their supplies ran the hospitals and looked after and exchanged prisoners.

The Ordnance Board, a separate department, independent of the Admiralty, had offices in the Tower of London and at Woolwich. It developed, tested, manufactured and supplied ordnance to both army and navy, and supplied Gunners and their equipment to the navy.

The Navy Dockyards

The dockyards were run by the Navy Board and were the largest industrial enterprise in the world. There were also around sixty private merchant yards, which built ships either to the Admiralty's design (supervised by a Royal Dockyard foreman), to their own design hoping to sell it to the Admiralty, or as a merchant ship that the Admiralty bought and converted. (as was the case for all the ships on Cook's Voyages)

The yards also maintained and repaired ships. The Master Shipwright was the most important of the six principal officers. He oversaw the shipwrights and all the skilled trades that were not the Master Attendant's trades. Each of these trades had its own master, who in turn had foremen, quartermen and labourers. The Master Attendant was a ship's Master, responsible for the ships not in commission and the navigation, pilotage, buoyage, masting and rigging of ships in commission. He commanded the warrant officers and labourers and their Superintending Masters, the Master Sailmaker and his foremen and labourers.

Edited by R. Brouwer




Justin T Broderick - History of Naval Uniforms and Insignia - http:/users.sisna.com/justinb


Russell Borghere - Organization of the Royal Navy & Naval Warrant Officers http://www.hmsRichmond.org

Andrew Lambert - Life at sea in the Royal Navy of the 18th Century - www.bbc.co.uk/history/discovery/exploration

Dudley Jarrett - British Naval Dress

Philip Haythornthwaite and William Younghusband - Nelson's Navy

National Library of Australia - http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an7351768

The National Gallery of Victoria - Melbourne

Originally published in Endeavour Lines, page 4, number 41 (2003).

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