Home > James Cook in the Navy: July 1756 to June 1757

James Cook in the Navy: July 1756 to June 1757


James Cook enlisted in the Royal Navy in June 1755 and was assigned to HMS Eagle. One year later, Cook was still attached to Eagle but was in London where he had taken the Triton, a prize captured by Eagle. He had been entrusted to deliver it so that it could be assessed by the High Court of Admiralty for prize value and for retention as a Royal Navy vessel. Having secured the Triton at the Stone Wharf by the Tower of London, Cook wrote:

Tuesday 29 June. Sent all the people away to Plymouth in order to return to their own ships.
Wednesday 30 June. Set out myself to follow after the people.

His log gives no details of how Cook travelled back from London to Plymouth but according to the log, he was back on board Eagle at Hamoaze on 8 July, after successfully carrying out his mission.

Meanwhile, Eagle had been found to be in poor condition. The ship needed an overhaul after patrolling at sea and this had also taken its toll on the crew. Hugh Palliser, Eagle's captain, wrote to John Clevland, the Admiralty Secretary, on 15 June 1756. It stated that:

his Surgeon is dead and both the Surgeon's Mates are ill and asks for replacements. Mr Head was appointed who is already at Portsmouth and will appoint some Surgeon's Mates after the next examination of Mates at Surgeons Hall next Thursday (ADM 354/153/33).

Cook rejoined a ship busy refitting and restocking in readiness for returning to sea. His log for July details the tasks and routines undertaken; working on the rigging, cleaning and painting the ship, taking on food, water and crew. On 20 July, a new contingent of 30 marines was received on board. Five days later, Eagle made sail and moved from the Hamoaze down into Plymouth Sound where she anchored off Drake's Island. The crew were paid two months advance wages on the 27th. At the end of the month 36 more seamen came on board and Cook was involved with finding berths for them all. It is probably significant that these men were brought to Eagle close to the day of sailing and when the ship was in deeper water in the Sound, to prevent desertions.

On 4 August, Eagle sailed and left Plymouth Sound heading east up the English Channel. Two days later, the ship joined Rear Admiral Henry Harrison's squadron at Spithead. The Royal Navy had a lack of experienced Admirals at the time and Harrison was typical in that he was close to 70 years of age. His squadron was charged with escorting a fleet of merchant ships into the Atlantic to prevent their capture by French ships. Accordingly, eight men of war and 24 merchantmen left Spithead on 7 August.

The fleet sailed without incident down the English Channel, though on 12 August a signal was made for the men of war to sail line abreast with two miles separation between each ship. Having safely escorted the merchant ships, Harrison's squadron joined Admiral Boscawen's fleet once again blockading the French port of Brest. That they were on a war footing is shown by a line of battle for men of war issued by Boscawen and copied in his log by Cook.

Line of Battle (dated 20 August 1756)

Eagle to lead upon the starboard tack and the Harwich upon the larboard.
Name of Ship Captain Men Guns Admiral
Eagle Hugh Palliser 400 60 Boscawen
Royal Sovereign William Boys 850 100 Boscawen
Royal George John Campbell
(with Vice Admiral Boscawen on board)
850 100 Boscawen
Devonshire John Moore 520 64 Boscawen
Vanguard John Byron 520 70 Boscawen
Invincible Matthew Buckle 720 74 Boscawen
Essex Robert Harland 520 64 Boscawen
Chichester William Saltern Willett 520 64 Harrison
Monmouth Alexander Innes
(with Rear Admiral Harrison on board)
490 60 Harrison
Newark John Barker 620 60 Harrison
Harwich Joshua Rowley 350 50 Harrison
The frigates Lyme, Kennington and Firebrand were in attendance.

Eagle remained at sea for the next three months. Cook recorded the ship's position at noon each day and the accompanying map shows how the ship plied backwards and forwards in the Western Approaches to the English Channel and the northern Bay of Biscay. Apart from two sorties south towards the Spanish coast, the ship remained approximately 100 kilometres west of the Brittany peninsula. The work was long and boring with Eagle not being involved in any engagements. Cook's log details the sightings of sails and how various frigates were dispatched to investigate, only to find often that the sail in question was another member of their fleet. Eagle fared better structurally during this patrol than it had done the previous year and there is no mention of emergency repairs having to be carried out. Conditions, though, were poor and, approaching the time Eagle returned to port, the log contains several instances of seamen and marines dying.

In early November 1756, the fleet made for Plymouth and Eagle was back in Plymouth Sound on the 11th, moving up to the Hamoaze the next day. The sick were quickly sent ashore and the rest of the crew began stripping the ship. On the 22nd, Eagle was secured alongside a sheer hulk before, on 24 November, she went into the dock for inspection of her hull. Out of the dock the next day, the crew began the tasks of rigging and restocking the ship.

The ship was ready by mid-December when a pilot was taken on to guide them down to Hamoaze. However, conditions were not right and Eagle stayed put. Prize money was paid out on the 17th while outstanding wages were paid on the 28th. The pilot rejoined the ship on 29 December and they proceeded down to Plymouth Sound, leaving the next day as part of Vice Admiral John Knowles's squadron. Knowles was sailing on the Essex.

Cook's log for 31 December 1756 gives their position as being off Portland. It is, however, the last entry in his log apart from some doodles and sailing directions for entering the Thames. Further information about Cook's time on Eagle is taken from Hugh Palliser's captain's log and other sources.

On 4 January 1757, the ships were caught in a gale off the Isle of Wight and had to take shelter at Spithead before sailing back to Plymouth. At the end of the month on the 30th, Eagle left Plymouth once more, this time as part of Vice Admiral Temple West's fleet to patrol in the Bay of Biscay. After two and a half more months at sea, Eagle was back in Plymouth on 15 April and Captain Palliser had 14 days leave during which he went to London on unspecified business.

Palliser rejoined his ship, which, accompanied by HMS Medway, sailed from Plymouth on 25 May to join Admiral Boscawen's fleet. The Medway was a 4th rate of 60 guns built at Deptford in February 1755. She was 1,204 tons burthen; 149½ ft by 43 ft. In command was Charles Proby, who was made commander in 1745 and was appointed post-captain on 17 September 1746. As such he had seniority by two months over Palliser, who was made captain on 25 November 1746.

On 30 May, the two ships encountered and captured the Duc D'Aquitaine, a ship belonging to La Compagnie des Indes (the French East Indies Company). According to Captain Hugh Palliser, the action took place at 48ºN and 2º west of the Lizard. At 1am a sail was seen to northwest and the two Navy ships gave chase. Eagle cleared for action but the Medway, in the lead, failed to do so. The Medway was forced, therefore, to bring to, which allowed Eagle to take the lead and make the attack. Their target was a French East Indiaman of 1,200 (French) tons, carrying 20 guns. She was a new ship having been launched at Lorient on 22 July 1754. The Duc D'Aquitaine had sailed from Lorient, the base for La Compagnie des Indes on the Brittany coast, on 24 February 1755 bound for Pondicherry, a French port in southern India.

The Duc D'Aquitaine, carrying 259 men, was originally captained by Théophile-Guillaume Dujonc de Boisquesnay but he died during an early part of the voyage. She made her way to the Île de France (Mauritius) and left that island on the 26 July 1756 under the command of Charles Aulnet De Vaultenet. The ship discharged most of its cargo at Lisbon, Portugal. After leaving Lisbon under a third captain, Jean-Baptiste de Lesquelen, the ship met Eagle and Medway (see map at end of article).

Palliser describes the action in his log (Adm 51/292/III):

At ¼ before 4 came alongside the [chase] and engaged at about two ships lengths from her. The fire was very brisk on both sides for near an hour. She then struck to us. She proved to be the Duc D'Aquitaine last from Lisbon, mounting 50 guns, all 18 pounders, 493 men. We had 7 men killed in the action and 32 wounded. Our sails & rigging [were] cut almost to pieces. Soon after she struck her main and mizzen masts went by the board. Employed the boats fetching the prisoners and carrying men on board the prize. Employed knotting and splicing the rigging. Our cutter was lost alongside the prize by the going away of her main mast.

The foremast of the prize also went. Five men on Eagle died later of their wounds and 80 men were wounded. The French lost 50 men and had 30 men wounded. All three ships headed for Plymouth. Eagle was herself badly damaged leaving the Medway to tow the prize.

After her capture, the Duc D'Aquitaine was entered into the Royal Navy as a 3rd rate of 64 guns and 1,358 tons burthen, retaining its name. John Clevland, the Admiralty Secretary wrote a report on 5 September 1757 in which he put:

The French ship the Duc d'Acquitaine, lately taken and brought into Plymouth by the Eagle and Medway, is to be fitted for sea to serve as a ship of 64-guns and to be registered as a third rate by the name of the Duc d'Acquitaine. The agents for the captors have attended us and have agreed with them for the purchase for £12,310 (ADM 354/157/13).

Cook and the other men would eventually be pleased to receive a small share of that prize money. A 1707 statute, the Act for the better securing the Trade of this Kingdom by Cruisers and Convoys, (Anno 6? Annæ, c. 13, 1707) established the rights by which seamen could capture foreign ships during time of war. A subsequent document set down the terms and conditions by which prize money was calculated and distributed. The High Court of Admiralty evaluated all prizes and assessed claims relating to them. If the prize, as in the case of the Duc D'Aquitaine, was an enemy merchantman, the prize money came from the sale of both ship and cargo. All ships in sight of a capture shared in the prize money so Eagle and Medway shared the spoils of their fight and capture.

Once the total had been determined, the prize money was distributed according to a precise formula with allocation by eighths.

Share Beneficiaries Number of men Individual share
12.5% Admiral or commander-in-chief 1 12.50%
25.0% Captain 1 25.00%
12.5% Wardroom officers,
including the lieutenants and master
5 2.50%
12.5% Senior warrant officers 8 1.56%
12.5% Junior warrant and
petty officers and midshipmen.
50 0.25%
25.0% Seamen and marines 340 0.074%
(In this table the numbers of men in each category are estimates based on averages for 4th rate ships of the time.)

Cook, as one of the junior warrant officers, stood to gain approximately 0.25% of ?6,155 (the Medway's crew would have received the other half) or approximately ?15. Given that his annual wage as a master's mate on a fourth rate ship was only ?28-14s-0d, the prize money would have been very welcome. The Duc D'Aquitaine sank in the Bay of Bengal a few years later in January 1761.

According to Andrew Kippis, Cook's first biographer, who apparently received the information from Hugh Palliser, William Osbaldstone had written about this time on behalf of John Walker, Cook's previous employer in the North Sea coal trade. The letter from the MP for Scarborough had suggested that Cook should be considered for commissioning as an officer and had asked what they could do to assist such a move. However, a Royal Navy midshipman or master's mate (as Cook was by this time) could only sit their lieutenant's examination after completing six year's experience aboard a navy ship. Cook's time in the North Sea counted for nothing so he was four years short. And, while a very small number of men might receive preferment if they were well connected or known by a personage of high rank and/or influence, Cook was not in that position. Neither Osbaldstone nor Palliser carried sufficient status or influence to help his cause.

However, Palliser pointed out that Cook was ready and able to sit his master's examination. He could support him in this and assist Cook gaining the highest non-commissioned rank in the navy, that of master. Given that Kippis surrounds his version of this story with glaring errors, it remains uncertain how much credence may be placed on it. It is interesting to speculate if one of the reasons for Palliser's visit to London in April of that year had been to smooth the way for Cook in respect of becoming a master.

In late June 1757, Cook travelled up to London and on the 29th sat his master's examination at Trinity House in Water Lane, just west of the Tower of London. He was successful and the next day was discharged from Eagle and appointed to the Solebay. Cook had been with Eagle for just over two years and was now beginning to realise his potential. Importantly, his ability and potential had come to the attention of the ship's captain, Hugh Palliser, who would become one of Cook's benefactors and a lifelong friend.


Click the image below for a larger version

John Robson


Act for the better securing the Trade of this Kingdom by Cruisers and Convoys, in The Statutes at Large of England and Great Britain, volume the third, edited by John Rathby. London: 1811.
Cook, James. Log book on board His Majesty's Ship Eagle, kept by James Cook, Master's mate, commencing the 27th June 1755 and ending the 31st of December 1756. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. qMS-0537-0539.
Kippis, Andrew. The Life of Captain James Cook. London: G. Nicol, G.G.J. & J. Robinson, 1788.
Rodger, N.A.M. The Command of the ocean: a naval history of Britain, 1649-1815. London: Allen Lane, 2004.
---. The Wooden world: an anatomy of the Georgian navy. London: Collins, 1986.
Standing Interrogatories for Triton. National Archives (HCA32/249).


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 8, volume 30, number 2 (2007).

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