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Henry Roberts (1757-1796)

 

Henry Roberts sailed on the last two of Captain Cook’s voyages.  He was baptised in Shoreham, Sussex, on 17 March, 1757, the oldest son of Henry and Susannah Roberts.  He had five brothers and two sisters. 

 

Henry Roberts sailed on the Second Voyage in Resolution as an AB.  He was greatly occupied drawing charts and coastal views.  John Elliott, also an AB in Resolution, described Roberts in his memoirs as “a very clever young man”.  Roberts sailed on the Third Voyage in Resolution as a master’s mate.  Again he drew charts.  He kept logs during both voyages, but only two parts of Roberts’s logs have survived, both from the Third Voyage.1  Beaglehole described them as “the log-journal of an intelligent man”.

 

Roberts was also a budding artist.  A watercolour he produced of Resolution is held in the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, and is often reproduced.  Following the Third Voyage, he was given the task of preparing the charts of the voyage for the official published account.  He worked slowly on this project from 1781 until 1784.  A letter from Roberts, dated 15 May, 1784, describes his role.

Soon after our departure from England, I was intrusted by Captain Cook to complete a map of the world as a general chart, from the best materials he was in possession of for that purpose; and before his death this business was in a great measure accomplished; That is, the grand outline of the whole was arranged, leaving only those parts vacant or unfinished, which he expected to fall in with and explore.  But on our return home, when the fruits of our voyage were ordered by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to be published, the care of the general chart being consigned to me, I was directed to prepare it from the latest and best authorities; and also to introduce Captain Cook’s three successive tracks, that all his discoveries, and the different routes he had taken might appear together, by this means to give a general idea of the whole.  This task having been performed by me, it is necessary, for the information of the Reader, to state the heads of the several authorities which I have followed in such parts of the chart as differ from what was drawn up immediately under the inspection of Captain Cook and when the Public are made acquainted, that many materials, necessary to complete and elucidate the work, were not, at the time, on board the Resolution, or in his possession, the reason will appear very obvious, why these alterations and additions were introduced contrary to the original drawing.

 

The production of the world chart and others was a long process marked by arguments between Roberts and James King (who had been entrusted with preparing the text with Canon John Douglas) on one side, and Joseph Banks and Alexander Dalrymple on the other.  Roberts did not help matters by being extremely slow, thereby irritating James King.  That Roberts had been selected for this task angered William Bligh, Resolution’s master, who claimed that he should have had the task, given that he had surveyed and drawn most of the original charts from the voyage.

 

In October 1780, Roberts was made lieutenant.  He served as second lieutenant in HMS Dragon.  In 1785, while he was serving in the revenue cutter Speedwell, they captured a smuggling cutter, and escorted it into Rye in Sussex.  The Times reported the incident.

Extract of a letter from Shoreham, Jan. 20. “On the 17th instant the Speedwell revenue cutter, Capt. Henry Roberts, in junction with another revenue vessel, took a large smuggling cutter, laden with a rich cargo of tea, bales of cambric, linen, gauze, laces, spirits, and other contraband goods, which are carried to the Custom-house, Rye”.2  

 

Henry Roberts married Harriet Stow on 30 November, 1782, at St. Gregory by St. Paul’s in London.  Together they had five children.  Roberts lived at Cupola House, now St. Mary’s House, Shoreham, which he may have rented from 1783 to 1789.  In April 1789, when the Duke of Clarence, later William IV, visited the town, Roberts was in charge of the guns firing the salute.

 

In 1790, Roberts was given the command of a major expedition to the northwest coast of North America, but, before he could sail, the expedition was postponed.  Command was subsequently given to George Vancouver.  Vancouver wrote of the selection of Roberts as Commander,

Captain Henry Roberts, of known and tried abilities, who had served under Captain Cook during his two last voyages, and whose attention to the scientific part of his profession had afforded that great navigator frequent opportunities of naming him with much respect, was called upon to take charge of, and to command, the proposed expedition.

 

Roberts was made a commander in January 1790, and a captain in August 1794.  In 1796 he was captain of HMS Undaunted, and in February took the ship to the West Indies.  He died there of yellow fever on 25 August, 1796; his ship was wrecked two days later!  Roberts’s death was noted in The Times.

It gives us sincere concern to announce the death of Captain Roberts of the Undaunted frigate, of 40 guns, an officer of very distinguished merit in His Majesty’s service. He had a short time before been obliged to quit his ship on account of ill health.  The Undaunted frigate was lost about the same time as Captain Roberts died.3 

 

A portrait of Roberts by Thomas Gainsborough hangs in Floors Castle, near Kelso in Scotland.4  The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, has another portrait.  

 

The Roberts’s home, at 18 Church Street in Shoreham, bears a plaque in commemoration.5  While on the expedition to explore the northwest coast of North America, George Vancouver named Point Roberts, in the Gulf of Georgia, after his friend, Henry.

 

Daniel Roberts, the son of Henry and Harriet, joined the Royal Navy, but is better known for his friendship in Italy with the poets Byron and Shelley.6  

 

Lieutenant’s passing certificate for Henry Roberts

 

9 October, 1780; more than 23 years old; more than 8 years’ service.

 

Ship Starting date Quality Y M W D
Mary Yacht   Cap serv 0 10 3 2
Resolution   Mid 3 3 1 1
Resolution   AB 0 1 0 3
Resolution   Master’s mate 4 7 1 0
    Total 8 9 1 6

 

Journal dispensed with from Discovery [sic] by order of 16 October 1780. 

Certificates from Captains Cook and Gore.

Middleton, Lebras, North

 

John Robson

 

Stamps depicted

Cook Islands.  23 July, 1979.  30c.  Bicentenary of the death of Captain Cook.

Norfolk Island.  8 October, 1974.  10c.  Bicentenary of the discovery of Norfolk Island.

 

References

  1. Robert’s logs are held in the Dixson Collection of the State Library of New South Wales.  They cover periods from 1 December, 1776, to 3 October, 1778 (MS Q.151), and from 4 October, 1778, to 30 November, 1779 (MS Q.151). 
  2. The Times, page 2, 27 Jan, 1785. 
  3. The Times, 14 December, 1796. 
  4. Cook’s Log, page 16, vol. 31, no. 4 (2008). 
  5. Cook’s Log, page 1771, vol. 23, no. 4 (2000)
  6. Cook’s Log, page 15, vol. 31, no. 4 (2008). 

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 6, volume 39, number 1 (2016).

 

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