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James Cook in the Navy: July to September 1757


In late July 1757, James Cook joined HMS Solebay at Leith, the port for Edinburgh. Cook travelled north to join the vessel as master, his first appointment in that rank. He had passed his master's examination on 29 June at the Water Lane premises of Trinity House. Their minute book records:

Mr James Cook being examined by Captain Joseph Carteret and Captain Nathaniel Kerfoot and found qualify to take charge as Master of any of His Majesty's ships of the six rate from the Downs through the Channel to the Westward to Lisbon was certified accordingly.

Neither of Cook's examiners, Carteret nor Kerfoot were Royal Navy officers, which probably should be no surprise. The master's examination involved testing a man's ability to sail a ship and many naval officers of the period left such tasks to their senior warrant officers. Captains and masters of merchant ships had no such luxury and would have much better first hand knowledge of what was required. Joseph Carteret was an Elder Brother of Trinity House, who died in 1765 and was buried at St. Paul's, Shadwell (the same church where Cook's first children was baptised, about the same time).

After being informed that he had been successful, Cook was appointed to Solebay on 30 June 1767. However, he did not join the ship until a month later on 30 July. Part of the delay may have been to allow him to retrieve possessions from the Eagle and sign off from that ship. Also he would have needed equipment and some new uniform appropriate to his new rank and duties. It is probable that Cook was then granted a short period of leave so that he could visit his family on the way north to Scotland.

Solebay was the third vessel to carry that name, which commemorated the Battle of Solebay that had taken place on 28 May 1672, marking the opening of the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-74). Sole Bay is located on the Suffolk coast between Aldeburgh and Southwold. Cook's Solebay was a 6th rate, built in the Plymouth Dockyard in 1742 and was 442 tons, 106 ft long, 3012 ft wide and carried 24 guns. It had been captured by the French in 1744 and recaptured from them in 1746.

Solebay was being used for general coastal duties and reconnaissance, including the prevention of smuggling. However, it was only twelve years since the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion in which the French had played a considerable role, supporting Prince Charles Stuart, the Young Pretender. Many Scots still had sympathies with the French and Solebay would have been charged with preventing contact between those groups. In addition there were French ships operating in British waters.

While the waters around Britain were nominally safe through the superior strength and presence of the Royal Navy, they were not entirely safe as a few French naval ships and privateers did operate in the North and Irish Seas, attacking vulnerable ships. The most successful of the French sailors was François Thurot, born in 1727, at Nuits in Burgundy. Thurot sailed in the Maréchal de Belle-Isle and had been given free rein to inflict as much damage as possible on British shipping. About the same time as Cook was being appointed to Solebay, Thurot was placed in command of a squadron consisting of two frigates and two corvettes, which sailed from St Malo on the 12 July. During the next few months, Thurot captured numerous prizes but the squadron suffered so much from bad weather that he was forced to put into Gothenburg in Sweden to refit.

Thurot left Sweden early in 1758 and cruised off the eastern and northern coasts of Scotland, where he captured even more ships. On 26 May 1758, near the mouth of the Firth of Forth, Thurot attacked four vessels that he thought were merchant ships only to find they included two British frigates, one of which was Solebay, whose captain was seriously wounded in the action. Thurot survived but his ships were badly damaged and in need of more repairs so he sailed for Norway. The Royal Navy began an active campaign to capture or kill François Thurot, who was eventually killed during a naval battle off the Isle of Man in February 1760. He was buried in Wigtownshire in southwest Scotland.

When Cook joined Solebay, the ship was under the command of Captain Robert Craig. Little is known about Craig. Nothing is known about his birth and early life. He joined the Royal Navy and, on 27 February 1741, became a lieutenant. Near the end of the War of Austrian Succession, Craig was promoted to commander on 23 June 1748 and three months later, on 21 September, was given command of the sloop Vulture. This command lasted until 16 June 1749.

When the next war, the Seven Years War, was underway Craig was promoted to post captain on 4 January 1757 and was given command of Solebay a month later on 1 February. He had, therefore, been on the ship only a few months when Cook arrived at Leith. Craig remained in command after Cook's departure and it was Craig who was wounded in the throat by a musket-ball during the engagement with the Maréchal de Belle-Isle in May 1758. This accident possibly caused his retirement from the service and may have led to his eventual death. No further actions are known for him after he relinquished command of Solebay on 25 January 1759. His name still appeared on the Navy List for 1766. It is believed that he died in 1769 somewhere in England.

A few days after Cook assumed his position as master, Solebay left Leith on 2 August on patrol. The ship made her way up the east coast calling at Stonehaven (Stoneham) and Peterhead (Buchan Ness) before heading to the small islet of Copinsay on the eastern edge of Orkney. She continued further north via Fair Isle to be at Lerwick in Shetland on 9 August. This was the northern limit of the patrol and Solebay next called at Stromness on mainland Orkney on 19 August. Cook's log finishes on 7 September by which time he was back in Leith. The Navy sold Solebay in 1763.

I get a sense that Cook's appointment to Solebay was only ever going to be a temporary one, allowing him an opportunity to demonstrate his capabilities in a practical way while the ship he was intended for was completed. That ship, called HMS Pembroke, was launched at Plymouth in early June 1757 and was still being fitted out when Cook was passing his master's examination. Cook's old master on the Eagle, Thomas Bisset, had overseen the preparations on the Pembroke but on 18 October Cook received his next warrant requiring him to join the Pembroke at Portsmouth, which he did on 27 October 1757.

The time Cook spent on Solebay in 1757 was the only time he was in Scotland even though his father came from near Kelso in southeastern Scotland. Seventeen years later he named an island in the Pacific, New Caledonia, because it reminded him of Scotland (Caledonia being an ancient name for part of Scotland). He had just named another group of Pacific islands the New Hebrides but there is no evidence that Cook ever visited the Hebrides off the northwest Scottish coast.

John Robson

HMS Solebay. Captain's log 8 November 1755 - 26 May 1758 ADM 51/908.
HMS Solebay. Master's log 31 July 1757 - 27 December 1760 ADM 52/1033.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 3, volume 30, number 3 (2007).

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