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James Cook's Clock - Part 2: Translated article, part 1


A year ago I wrote requesting help to check the translation of an article sent to me by Leonid Pasenjuk, a Russian author see Cook’s Log, page 1516, vol. 21, no. 2 (1998).

My thanks to non-member Alix O’Grady who responded so magnificently. Below is the result of her work. She adds that Behm retired and lived in poverty in Livonia, the Russian government never having recompensed him for his expenses. He made a petition to Joseph Banks for a British pension.

Ian Boreham


James Cook’s Clock1 By L. Pasenyuk - Part 1

At the end of summer 1964, which is the favourable season in Kamchatka, I travelled on foot from Esso to Kozyrevsk.2 This is neither a short hike nor a very long one of about 100 kilometres. The landscape was sunny, dotted with fireweed, and the air was perfumed by the hot resin of the larches. In my rucksack I had my sleeping bag, camera, James Oldridge’s novel "The Hunter", and a bit of food - in short, I was travelling light. And being in high spirits, I let my thoughts wander far and wide. Now and then, when finding a raspberry patch, I turned aside to regale myself on the berries. There was, of course, some risk of coming across a bear, but God was kind to me - anyway, it is only rarely that clumsy bruin will venture out to a road by day, even though he has a weakness for raspberries.

[Pasenyuk recounts the trend of his thoughts during the hike, especially an argument he was having with one Sergei Antonov, who had criticised his story "The eve of the typhoon". Later he began musing about some off-beat stories he planned to write in the future. He continues:]

It occurred to me, there and then, that some 15 years ago, I had thought for a long time about the title for my possible book. It was simply a matter of waiting for the right time and the sudden inspiration. Why, of course! The book’s title would have to be "James Cook’s Clock".

For the moment let us put aside all present-day concerns, and shake off the dust of oblivion from an historical episode that has never been completely untangled. I refer to James Cook’s clock.

I first learned about it in "Historical Accounts of the More Important Events in Kamchatka", by the pen of A. Sgibnev. We know that in the spring of 1779, the two vessels of James Cook’s third expedition around the world, the Resolution and the Discovery, appeared in the harbour of Petropavlovsk. Cook himself was no longer alive for, not long before this, he was killed by the native inhabitants of the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. His place was taken by Charles Clerke, who was a very sick man. The vessels had come in the hope of replenishing their stocks with fresh products, especially meat and flour. Moreover, the Englishmen had a letter of introduction from the navigator Gerasim Izmailov, whom they had encountered with Cook was still alive, at Unalaska in the Aleutian chain. Specifically, Izmailov advised the government Department of Bolsheretsk that, in case they would be needed, he had appraised the foreigners from "the London Island" of the precautions to be taken when entering Petropavlovsk harbour: ..."I advised them that, upon arrival, they should first send a yawl carrying this letter, the vessel itself should follow later. For if the vessel were to arrive without advance notice, it would be met with cannon fire."

No cannon were fired; nevertheless the unexpected guests were received with caution. Once they had convinced their hosts of the peaceful objectives of the expedition were they accorded the full extent of Russian cordiality and hospitality. The Englishmen were received and entertained by the official in charge (Nachalnik) of Kamchatka, First-Major Magnus Behm, and his successor Captain Vasily Shmalev. (Behm had intended to leave Kamchatka at that very time, but in view of the uniqueness of the occasion and the grave complications that might arise - for it was an international matter! – he decided to postpone his departure.)

The vessels remained for a month and a half (to July 12), then left to explore Bering Strait; but finding it blocked by ice, they had to sail back on their return course. Moreover, the expedition had been promised cattle, which had to be brought to Petropavlovsk harbour from Nizhnekamchatsk, which was not anywhere nearby - but meant a long drive.3 Among these cattle (as Behm carefully emphasized) were two milch cows - "to provide milk for the commander-in-chief because of his poor health." However, Captain Clerke was not destined to taste Kamchatka milk - he died as his vessel approached the harbour. (By his own request he was buried on the shore of Avacha Bay; although, in order to be precise, he had indicated the village of Paratunka;4 but objection was raised by the local priest who, although by nature a kindly and obliging individual, could not be convinced by the strangers that "Luther and Calvin were respectable persons".)

First-Major Behm subsequently departed, and the Englishmen now had to deal with Captain Shmalev. Later he reported to the Governor in Irkutsk: "Behm and I received these guests in a manner suitable to their status, showing them due proprieties, supporting them at our own expense, and provided them with as much as local conditions permitted; including tea and sugar in ample quantity from our stock, that were surplus to our needs, for which they were exceedingly grateful." This is corroborated by the diary of D. Samuel, assistant surgeon of the expedition: "We obtained here a considerable quantity of provisions. They gave us 20 head of cattle and 230 puds [3680 kg] of flour. For all this Major Behm would not set a price and would not allow Captain Clerke to give him a receipt which our government would honour in payment."

Accordingly, they took not a penny from the Englishmen, although flour on Kamchatka incredibly expensive, being in shortage with the Kamchadals themselves. Neither did they begrudge the Englishmen the tobacco, tea or sugar; yet in Kamchatka such products were all worth their weight in gold.

A. Sgibnev writes: "Because of his assistance to the Expedition, Behm later received from the English government a large silver vase, and Shmalev a table clock that had belonged to Cook." About the latter, it would seem, there would be nothing more to be said here, except that Sgibnev has a footnote to the effect that details concerning the items could be found in an article by Gospodin Gromov published in 1853 in the journal "Severnaya Pchela" [Northern Bee].

In due course I unearthed this article. It was written by the archpriest Prokopy Gromov - a man well known both in Siberia and in Kamchatka at that time. Obviously he was not averse to co-operation with secular publications. In his article he says that the clock that interests us did not belong to Cook personally, but to the maritime expedition of the celebrated [James] Cook", and that it was presented to Captain Shmalev during the second visit of the English to Petropavlovsk harbour "in memory of and in gratitude for his hospitality." After the death of Shmalev in 1799 it came into the hands of a long-time Kamchatka resident, the archpriest Nikiforov.

When Gromov, who was transferred from Irkutsk to Kamchatka in l835, called on him, Nikiforov had reached an advanced age. A large clock met the eyes of his curious visitor, "attached to the wall on a rough pedestal of larch wood." It was covered by such a thick coating of grime that it was difficult to know what it was made of. The clock was not running, and apparently had not run for a long time. On hearing about the clock's historical significance, Gromov immediately wanted to buy it. But the old man refused, for he felt that the value of this timepiece mechanism could not be expressed in monetary terms. "No", he said, "let it stand by my cot as long as I live, even if it doesn't run. When I die you can try to obtain it from my heir." Gromov did just that, and when the old man died purchased the clock from his nephew for 300 roubles.

Now begins another of the clock's odysseys. From Nizhnekamchatsk it was taken by sea to Petropavlovsk where, at that time, quite a number of foreigners resided. Some were engaged in trade, and some were artisans trying to make an easy rouble. They charged Gromov plenty for cleaning the clock of its half-century of grease "so as to reveal the difference between the wood and the bronze ornamentation." The clock ran!

And what a clock it was! It was wound up by a key and ran for eight days. "It struck the hours, and would repeat them." Its case was in the form of an obtuse tower made of mahogany, and mounted on four feet of gilded bronze. Along its corners there were bronze ornaments the shape of a human head at the top and ending in a garland below.

In addition, on the top of the case, around its margin, there were five little towers of mahogany trimmed with bronze. Through a square opening in the dial "the day of the month was shown." There were two circles with indicator arrows pointing to the words "Musical chime. No chime. Strike. No strike." (In English of course.) Above the circles was a half-circle "along whose arc a special indicator showed the phases of the moon, and below the arc the moon itself was shown among the stars, changing according to the phases indicated." Finally there was another half-circle with pieces of music lifted on it: marches, minuets, the sound of bells - six pieces in all. Whatever you preferred could be selected by an indicator, and every three hours that piece would be played. But if you wished the music to play continuously, you had only to pull a cord on the right side of the case. (A cord on the left side answered the question: "What time is it?")

There was a clock for you! It was a creation of the firm of Eardley Norton* - in London.

*Eardley Norton was a very famous clockmaker of that time. So I thought that a clock of his workmanship, similar to the one described above might be on display in one of our museums, most likely in Moscow at the Polytechnic. I decided to find it. Contrary to my expectation, the clock and watch collection in that museum was limited, and Norton was represented in it by only a single pocket watch. It too was quite complicated for the end of the 18th century, with a mechanism for repeating the sound on demand.

But although the clock would now run, the musical part of it was not completely in order and there was no one in Kamchatka who could repair it. An American merchant named Snow came to the aid of its collector; in 1843 he sent Cook's clock to the Sandwich Islands, and brought it back two years later with a bill from the master Bordmann of Honolulu. On the bill was itemized: 8 piasters for the repair work [pochinka]; and as the work took 15 days, a special daily charge was added - 68 piasters in all.5 ("Concerning this, Snow stated that the clock, from a technical and especially from an historical point of view, attracted much attention from Englishmen living in the Sandwich Islands.")

It was 1846 before Gromov left Kamchatka. "During the 35-day journey to Okhotsk the clock and its owner were transported across the sea on the ship Irtysh, through furious autumn gales", he wrote. "From Okhotsk to Yakutsk there were 30 days of winter travel: 200 versts by dog-sled, 500 versts by reindeer sled, and 300 versts in horse-drawn sleighs." At one transfer point the clock became separated from Gromov, and for another half-year to a year it travelled with a certain merchant "2500 versts on the Lena River and 250 versts by horse-drawn cart."6

Gromov published his article seven years after the events just described, and the clock continued to run well at his home in Irkutsk. It remains to be added that it was a rather bulky affair: more than half a metre high and a quarter of a metre wide. But it was like an ordinary table or wall clock, apart from its ornamentation and the intricate internal mechanism.

Translators' Footnotes

  1. Published by Dalnevostochnoe Knizhnoe Izdatelstvo, Kamchatskoe Otdelenie, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii, on pages 128-136 of the booklet "Nord Ost", 1980. Translation by W. E. Ricker and Z. Kabata, Nanaimo, British Columbia. Original title: Chasy Dzheimsa Kuka. The Russian word "chasy" (literally "hours") means "timepiece", there being no single distinctive word for clock or watch.
  2. Esso and Kozyrevsk are in central Kamchatka, close to Latitude 56° N., Longitude 16° E.
  3. Nizhnekamchatsk is a town in the valley of the Kamchatka River, not far from its mouth. If they drove (gnali) the cattle to Petropavlovsk, rather than taking them by sea, it would have to be up the valley of the Kamchatka River and over a pass between 500 and 1000 metres in elevation (the route of the modern road) - about 600 kilometres in all.
  4. Paratunka is on the river of the same name, about 12 kilometres west of the bay. The Paratunka River and its two small lakes have become well known as the site of limnological and salmon-fishery investigations from 1932 to the present.
  5. According to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary a piaster was equivalent to "a Spanish piece-of-eight, or dollar". This passage would make more sense, to modern ears at least, if the 8 piasters were for materials and the 15 days represented the labour charge.
  6. A verst is equivalent to 1.016 kilometres.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 1671, volume 22, number 4 (1999).

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