Home > James Cook in the Navy: The Capture of the Triton, May 1756

James Cook in the Navy: The Capture of the Triton, May 1756


On 17 May 1756, Britain declared war on France, which soon reciprocated. The two countries had already been on a war footing for about a year with action taking place in North America. James Cook was serving at the time in the Royal Navy on HMS Eagle and, in May 1756, the ship was undertaking a patrol through the Bay of Biscay. A few weeks earlier, Cook had safely returned the Cruizer, his first command (albeit a short one of a couple of weeks) to port in Plymouth. Cook and his crew were then taken on board HMS St. Albans, captained by William Gordon, and, on 30 April, left Plymouth to rejoin their ship, the Eagle.

The St. Albans was part of a squadron with the Elizabeth, Romney, Bedford, Swiftsure and Colchester, all of which gave chase to vessels as the squadron sailed towards the French coast. They were 6 leagues1 to the northeast of the island of Ushant2 by the morning of 1 May. The high rate of mortality at sea can be judged as Cook records the death of three seamen, Thomas Hayman, Richard Smith and James Atkinson over the next few days.

Cook's ship, the Eagle, commanded by Captain Hugh Palliser, was already at sea patrolling off the western tip of Brittany near Brest as part of the fleet of Admiral Edward Boscawen. On 2 May, the St. Albans joined the fleet off Pointe du Raz, one of the western tips of Brittany. At some point during the next day, Cook transferred to the Eagle, though he does not record the move in his log other than by changing the name of the ship at the top of his remarks column.

The Eagle spent a few days plying back and forth before Boscawen's fleet was joined by that of Admirals Edward Hawke and Francis Holburne on 6 May. After meeting with officers, Hawke sailed off with seven ships the next day leaving Boscawen with 19 ships. On the 9th, the Eagle, together with the St. Albans and the Romney, parted company with the fleet and sailed south to patrol in the Bay of Biscay towards the Spanish coast. Cook's route during May is shown on the map.


Click the image below for a larger version

Various small ships were sighted with some being chased and a few being stopped and captured as prizes. On the 12th, after a French ship bound for Martinique was taken, the Eagle received prisoners on board and sent three of its crew on board the prize to sail it back to Britain. Small problems existed on board as an entry for 12 May indicates:

12 May. 6am Cleared the gun deck. Punished two men for theft.

By 13 May, they had sailed so far south that Spain could be seen and Cook records

13 May. 9pm Middle of the high land of Asturias3 distance 9 or 10 leagues.

The Eagle now began working north again but encountered a few days of light airs and the three ships, still in company, made little progress. However, on the 19th, the Romney chased and captured a French ship sailing from Saint-Domingue4.

The next day three more ships were seen and the British dispersed in pursuit. The Eagle chased and captured a ship that also proved to have sailed from Saint-Domingue. This ship was the Triton and Cook's log records:

4pm Brought to the chase, which proved a ship from Santo Domingo, lead [laden] with sugar and coffee. Employed transporting the prisoners on board. 6pm I went on board to take command of the Triton prize. 8pm Moderate and fair. In company with the Eagle and other prize.

It may be regarded as surprising that Cook, a junior warrant officer, should be chosen to sail the prize back to Britain. However, the Eagle was only a 4th rate probably carrying three lieutenants and Captain Palliser possibly could not afford to use any of them for such a task. Another prize crew had already been dispatched a few days earlier and Palliser, being aware by now of Cook's background in the North Sea and his ability, would not have hesitated to use him.

Cook and the Triton sailed north at first with the Eagle but parted company on the 23rd. They experienced a few days of stormy weather and very rough seas forcing Cook to sail northwest before he could turn on 26 May and head for Britain. Lands End and the Lizard were sighted on the 29th and the Triton stopped in Cawsand Bay to collect a pilot. Cook anchored the Triton in the Catewater by Plymouth on 31 May.

Cook had the crew begin unbending the sails and repairing the rigging. However, in the uncertain period before war was officially declared, prizes were taken to London so that their contents could be assessed by the "Commissioners for the Sale of Prizes taken before the Declaration of War". Cook therefore began preparing to return to sea in order to sail the Triton to the Thames.

Wednesday 2 June Received on board a fortnight's provisions for six men.

Finally, on 16 June, the Triton left Plymouth as part of a small fleet under the protection of several frigates.

Wednesday 16 June AM came to sail, the Arundel having made the signal for weighing.

Also sailing with the Triton was another prize, the St. Mark. By the 19th, the Triton was off the Isle of Wight but had trouble anchoring off Culver Cliff and lost its kedge anchor and a hawser. A pilot was taken on board near South Foreland to take the ship into the Thames and by the evening of the 22nd they had arrived at Long Reach. HMS Aldborough, a new ship that had just come out of Perry's shipyard at Blackwall in May, loaned them a replacement kedge anchor and another pilot, this time a river pilot, went on board to take the ship up to The Pool.5

Cook, a good monarchist, fired salutes as he passed Greenwich and in The Pool as 23 June was the anniversary of King George II's coronation in 1727. He moored the Triton alongside the other prize, the St. Mark, at the Stone Stairs pier next to the Tower of London and close to where the Navy Office was based off Crutched Friars. The kedge anchor was returned to the Aldborough as Cook closed the ship down.

Monday 27 June Employed putting everything below and securing the hatches.

Over the years, the Compagnie des Indes (the French East India Company) operated five ships called the Triton. Their fourth vessel with that name was 350 tons, carried 14 guns and had been built at Havana. It was bought at Saint-Malo by the Compagnie and it made its first voyage for them in 1747 from Saint-Malo to the Île De France, captained by Jean-Bernard Michelot-Du Tertre. He remained in command until its last recorded voyage when it sailed from Lorient on 14 September 1750 for Saint-Domingue6 in the Caribbean.

The Standing Interrogatories, as recorded in the High Court of the Admiralty, give the Triton prize's tonnage as between 300 and 380 tons, which tallies with the figure quoted by the Compagnie. The Triton captured by the Eagle was sailing from Saint-Domingue under a captain named Savage. It is most probable that this was same ship that Tertre had taken to Saint-Domingue. It does not appear to have been taken into service by the Navy.

Cook's log for his time on the Triton has evidence that suggests he did not write up his entries straight away every day. His entry for 14 June was originally entered in the 13th then crossed out and put in the box for the correct day, while his entries for the last three days in London all have the wrong date.

Cook makes no mention in his log but it is possible that during his time in London he visited the Bell Alehouse and friends in Wapping, which was only a few hundred yards away to the east. By the end of the month, the Triton was ready and he was able to send the rest of the crew back to Plymouth and followed them the next day.

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 from London to Plymouth but according to the log, he was back on board the Eagle at Hamoaze on 8 July, after successfully carrying out his mission.

John Robson


Ships of the Royal Navy that Cook mentions in his log during his time on the Eagle and Triton in early 1756.
Name Rate Guns Burthen
Built Where Captain
Aldborough 6th 20 440 108 x 30.5 1756 Blackwall John Donkley
Arundel 6th 24 509 112 x 32.5 1746 Chichester Thomas Hankerson
Bedford 3rd 64 1,230 151 x 40 1741 R Portsmouth James Douglas
Colchester 4th 50 978 140.5 x 40 1746 Southampton Lucius O'Brien
Eagle 4th 58 1,130 147 x 42 1745 Harwich Hugh Palliser
Elizabeth 3rd 64 1,224 150.5 x 41 1737 R Chatham John Montagu
Romney 4th 44 756 130.5 x 35 1726 R Deptford Mark Milbanke
St. Albans 4th 60 1,207 150 x 43.5 1747 Deptford William Gordon
Swiftsure 3rd 64 1,258 149 x 38.5 1742 R Deptford Matthew Buckle
Triton         1756 C Bay of Biscay  
C denotes captured     R denotes rebuilt.

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.

Standing Interrogatories for Triton. National Archives (HCA32/249).



  1. A league was equivalent to 3 nautical miles or 4.5 kilometres.
  2. French - Ouessant.
  3. Asturias is the central region on the north coast of Spain.
  4. A French colony on the island of Hispaniola until 1804 when it became independent as Haiti.
  5. The Pool was originally the stretch of the Thames by the City of London but the name later covered that part of the river below London Bridge as far as Cherry Garden Stairs in Rotherhithe.
  6. Present-day Haiti.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 11, volume 29, number 3 (2006).


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