Home > James Cook's Clock - Part 3: Translated article, part 2

James Cook's Clock - Part 3: Translated article, part 2


What interests me especially in historical accounts and investigations are their numerous inconsistencies! When one simply cannot make things jibe. There are not enough facts and details; one lacks that single word, casually uttered by someone long ago, that could clear up the matter. Consequently history is a field for speculation, for conjecture, and in the end for additional investigation. But therein lies its special charm.

And in our story too there is no lack of inconsistencies.

For example, Sgibnev maintains that the clock that belonged to Cook was given to Captain Shmalev by the English authorities at the same time as the silver vase was given to First-Major Behm. But here is Gromov saying that this table clock was given to Shmalev on the occasion of the second visit of the English ships, while they were still in Petropavlovsk harbour. And can we really believe that the English government would send to Russia as a gift such an awkward object, when it would be possible to select something both elegant and sturdy, like that silver vase?

Moreover Ya. M. Svet, who is very knowledgeable about ocean voyages and about Cook's life in particular, in the prefatory comments to "The third voyage of Captain James Cook" refers only to the vase: "The British Admiralty in 1781 presented M. Behm with a silver vase having a dedicatory inscription in Latin ..." *   It appears, however, that Potemkin did not even give the vase to Behm, saying that henceforth it would be the property of the Russian nation, and that the place for it was in a museum. But about Cook's clock Svet says not a word.

This means that Shmalev was given the clock in Kamchatka. That is, if he really was given one at all. Behm, for example, resolutely refused to accept anything from the English: in 1799 he even turned down an offer of a pension from the English government, although he was then living in poverty at his home in the Baltic region. He accepted from Clerke only a collection of ethnographic materials obtained on the Pacific islands, which he carried to St. Petersburg at his own expense, where it was kept intact for transmission to the Empress. For two centuries now it has adorned the expositions of the former "Kunstkamera" of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which subsequently became the

Peter I Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. Behm did ask for powder and lead (but not as a gift), of which the Kamchadal hunters were in dire need. But gifts of a private nature, keepsakes so to speak, were quite a different matter. What kind of "keepsakes" could they have been? Perhaps they included even a table clock?

At any rate Samuel reports that already at the time of their first visit in the harbour, Clerke presented Behm's son with a SILVER timepiece, presumably a pocket watch.

Several weeks later, "in appreciation of his services," Clerke gave a TIMEPIECE to Behm's servant Johann Port (Pot), who during those days had untiringly performed the duty of interpreter ("and a variety of other things were given to him by the officers"). Here again is a timepiece, but of what sort exactly? It could have been a table clock. Perhaps the one we are talking about...

As for Captain Vasily Shmalev, Captain Gore, the new leader of the expedition, later presented him with several things, namely a GOLD TIMEPIECE, a rifle, a set of knives in a case, and "a quantity of rum."

Notice, however, that this is a GOLD TIMEPIECE, not a TABLE [timepiece] ?.. To tell the truth, this was more appropriate considering Shmalev's position as Nachalnik of Kamchatka, and his services extended to the foreign expedition. But about a table clock, like the one described here, the English diaries say not a word.

And yet we might imagine that the Englishmen simply did not attach any importance to this gift, hence did not mention it. Assuming that it was not the timepiece given to Port. But Port, accompanying Behm as a servant, was simply not in a position to take it away with him, so [perhaps] he left it with or sold it to Shmalev. Then the story got about that the wonderful clock in Shmalev's home had been presented to him personally by the Englishmen.

The above train of events seems logical enough, but it too is not in accord with subsequent developments. The fact is that Shmalev did not get along well with Church officials on the peninsula. For example, when in 1791 the priest Vereshchagin was preparing to set out on another voyage to the Kuril Islands "to proclaim the word of God", Shmalev, who was then harbourmaster, would not let him leave. He wrote to the official in charge of the region, at Okhotsk: "It is an onerous burden for the Kamchadals to support these Gospel-spreading expeditions, and consequently it is not pleasing to God himself, who has all mankind in his loving care. These clerical people all go out to those islands simply in order to line their own pockets."7 And when the Kamchatka archpriest Nikiforov tried to reason with Shmalev, in a fit of anger he tore a tuft out of Nikiforov's beard.

But hold on a minute! This is exactly the same "oldtimer" Nikiforov from whom 40 years later Prokopy Gromov tried to buy "Cook's clock"! If so, in what manner did it - the property of Shmalev - get into the hands of the priest? It could scarcely have been given to him by Shmalev himself, considering their "cordial" relationship.

Again we reach an impasse. That is, assuming that the ill-starred clock was really Shmalev's; although in Gromov's words, rumour had it that the Captain [Shmalev] had shown his gratitude [for the clock] by giving the Englishmen 700 furs! But it is possible that he was showing his appreciation for the other timepiece, the GOLD [watch]; as well as for the rifle -for at that time guns with rifled barrels were very valuable. As the saying goes, bylo za chto - he had good reason to be grateful!

And so we must return to this fact: in 1835 there was in Kamchatka a table clock of marvellous English workmanship - which appeared there only after the visit of the vessels Resolution and Discovery. Any way you look at it, this was James Cook's clock, even if it did not belong to him personally but was part of his ship's equipment. It may very well have ticked away the time and charmed the ears of the great navigator with its minuets as it hung in his cabin.

One day I came across a publication by the journalist L. Shinkarev, about a certain indefatigable collector Kurdyumov of the city of Angarsk. He collected old clocks and watches, repaired and rehabilitated them. He had many timepiece mechanisms, some of them dating from the 17th century. But my letter to this collector was the first he had heard of James Cook's clock, although his searches had extended from Angarsk to nearby Irkutsk, where the clock had been at one time. Since that time, however, much water has run under the bridge; a major fire blazed through Irkutsk in 1879, and great calamities have afflicted the whole country. It is not just this one rarity that has perished in fire and flame; many more fine things have been reduced to ashes.

A clock like Cook's would, of course, be a priceless relic for any appropriate museum. Today, in the Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic, there is displayed Amundsen's chronometer. The great explorer presented it to a certain Malkov who lived by the Gulf of Chaun, in return for his assistance during the time the vessel Maud was wintering near Ayon Island in 1919-20. About 50 years later the well-known geologist S. V. Obruchev (son of Academician V. A. Obruchev, the author of "The Land of Sannikov"), discovered it still in Malkov's possession and obtained it for the Arctic Institute.

When Amundsen was preparing the Maud for its voyage the chronometer was sent to him by the Carnegie Institute of Washington, along with other instruments for magnetic observations.

Later a letter came from the Carnegie Institute that included the words: "We are very pleased to learn that one of the chronometers after so many vicissitudes, has finally found a resting place in the display of arctic relics maintained in the Arctic Institute in Leningrad".

It is too bad that James Cook's clock will, apparently, never occupy a similar safe and honorable position.

But one must realize that, for me, it is not all that important whether or not this clock is preserved somewhere. Its story has survived, which is good (and I have been able to add a few details here). For me, the clock is important mainly as a symbol of the heroic and romantic atmosphere for a future book, and the changes that occur with the passage of time, as well as a pictorial symbol of a certain rhythm and mode of life - the rhythm and manner of life that characterizes those who make new discoveries and blaze new trails, whose life is spent in tents and ships' cabins. I believe that in every such tent, cabin or foc'sle there ticks invisibly the clock of James Cook, or of Amundsen, or Gagarin; each of them ticking off, with its distinctive tone, the impatient and inexorable march of Time.


* This inscription, which has the verbosity characteristic of its century and, to some extent, of the Latin language, can be translated more or less as follows: "To the distinguished gentleman de Behm, who on the authority of the August Empress Ekaterina II... being in control of the inclement coast of Kamchatka, extended hospitality to the British vessels and sailors... [whereby] he saved them from the misfortune into, which they had fallen during their voyage... the British government ingratitude and as a token of remembrance, with greatest friendship and good will to your country and yourself... gives and dedicates. 1781.

Translators' Footnotes

  1. 7.
    • This probably refers to the priests obtaining the valuable skins of sea otters from the local people, in return for either spiritual or material considerations. Shmalev's concern for the Kamchadals is doubtless genuine, but he might also have resented the competition with secular trading.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 1696, volume 23, number 1 (2000).

No comments

Unsolicited e-mail warning

It has come to our attention that spam mailers (senders of bulk unsolicited e-mail) have been forging their mail with this domain as the point of origin. As a matter of policy, we do not send out e-mail from our domain name. If you have received an email that appears to be from "@CaptainCookSociety.com" it was forged and sent without our consent, knowledge, or the use of our servers.