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James Cook, Sailing Master in Halifax, Nova Scotia


Plan of the  Harbour of Halifax in Nova Scotia
A Plan of the Harbour of Halifax in Nova Scotia c. 1762 (detail) Sambro Outer Island to Halifax townsite

James Cook had the distinction of spending at least thirty three months in Halifax, Nova Scotia during his service on the North American station of the Royal Navy from 1758-62.1 No one, not even Cook would know how crucial this sojourn would be as preparation for his subsequent and justly famous voyages of exploration in the Pacific.

Cook arrived in Halifax as the sailing master of HMS Pembroke (60 guns) on 9 May 1758 as part of the naval force deployed to help capture French possessions in North America. Cook was instrumental in the taking of Louisbourg (1758), the conquest of Quebec (1759) and the recapture of St John's Newfoundland (1762), returning in the intervals between to Halifax. As a skilled sailing master, Cook was engaged during these campaigns in taking soundings, marking of channels and planning routes. As might be expected, he also used the opportunities these activities afforded to make land and sea based observations that became the data for some of his own subsequent charts and plans.

All this movement with British campaigns caused Cook to encounter both navy and army professionals of considerable experience and ability who encouraged him to develop new skills. Chief among these were his captain, John Simcoe of Pembroke and Samuel Holland, the noted military engineer and surveyor. Cook demonstrated the ambition and initiative to learn from his professional associates and superiors as well as to read and study technical subjects while anchored in Halifax during the lulls in the war. Thus, Cook combined his superior skills of seamanship with an understanding of surveying, map making, mathematics and astronomy, so that by the time he finally left North America in October 1762 he had become a consummate cartographer.

Although Cook's developing expertise in cartography is not recorded in any written journals or diaries, it can be discerned from the recorded observations of those he worked with and for2 and, most obviously, from the pictorial evidence provided by his extant plans and charts from this period. Samuel Holland's interesting letter of 1792 describes how during the Halifax winter of 1758-59 he, Cook and Captain John Simcoe worked tirelessly together aboard Pembroke drawing a chart of the Gulf and River St Lawrence in preparation for the impending offensive against Quebec.3 Cook's cartographic activity in Halifax itself is fortuitously preserved in two manuscript maps of the harbour and its approaches. The earlier version, an untitled draft, is held by the British Library; the more polished version, a "neat drawing", is to be found in Cook's Remark Book in the collection of the Admiralty Library, Portsmouth, England.4 This latter manuscript, titled "A PLAN of the HARBOUR of HALIFAX in NOVA SCOTIA" affords a view of Halifax harbour through Cook's eyes.

The Admiralty in England required a sailing master to keep what was known as a "remark book". In it he recorded information under seven standard headings and thereby provided details of the coasts he sailed along and the ports he visited. Cook's plan of Halifax harbour needs to be understood in relation to this textual material which it was designed to accompany.5 Essentially, this chart shows how to navigate from the first important reference point, the Sambro lighthouse to the ample anchorage adjacent to the Halifax town site. Cook's strategy was to provide a sequence of well developed sight lines and clearing marks which enabled a mariner to line up prominent landmarks and proceed with safety into the harbour. The accompanying text provided recommended compass bearings and amplified the visual information which the sight lines conveyed.

This map is plentifully marked with soundings in fathoms organized in relation to the sight lines and the ship's passage. At relevant locations on the Plan, Cook identified hazardous rocks, using separate symbols according as they are under or above water (+ for those under water, drawn rocks for those above). Shoals were prominently detailed with gradations and indicated with green brown stippling. Moreover, Cook was observant and detailed in his representation of topographic features. Streams are shown running into the sea, such as the Clear Water Brook, which was a popular place for the navy to take on water. Brush hachures in black and grey give the impression of a steep coast line and a town located on a hill.

Plan of the  Harbour of Halifax in Nova Scotia
A Plan of the Harbour of Halifax in Nova Scotia c. 1762 (detail) Herring Cove to Bedford Basin

Cook reserved his greatest praise for the harbour itself saying that it is "without doubt one of the best in America sufficiently large enough to hold all the Navy of England with safety." 6

During the period from 25 October 1760 to 10 August 1762 that Northumberland rode at anchor in Halifax harbour, Alexander, Lord Colvill, commander-in-chief of the station, was happy to promote Cook's particular talents.

First, on 19 January 1761 Colvill rewarded Cook for his "indefatigable energy in making himself master of the pilotage of the St Lawrence River [during 1759 and 1760], and for his service in conducting the squadron up and down that river, at a critical juncture, when the skill of the French pilots was of no service."7 With this high praise came a cash bonus from the Halifax Navy Yard of £50. This was a most attractive sum as Cook's pay at the time was about £6 a month and he would receive no money for his ordinary services until Northumberland was paid off.

Secondly, Colvill no doubt encouraged Cook to draw plans and charts based on the observations Cook had amassed during the Quebec offensive in1759 and his second period of service on the St. Lawrence from May to September 1760.

What has survived from Cook's manuscript charts of the St Lawrence8 are the following:
"A PLAN of the TRAVERSE from CAPE TORMENT into the South Channel of ORLEANS," 9
the related "CHART of the RIVER ST LAWRENCE from GREEN ISLAND to CAPE CARROUGE," 11 which was drawn on the same scale.

A comparison of the latter two manuscripts shows a progression in Cook's work in terms of precision, density of detail, increasingly strategic use of sight lines and a more sophisticated demarcation of topographical features.12 These developmental aspects of Cook's manuscripts strongly suggest that he was working in Halifax over a period of time, endeavouring to perfect his drawings, presumably preparing his "Plan of the River St Lawrence from Green Island to Cape Carrouge" and perhaps even starting to draw the Chart version of that survey. Being stationed in Halifax gave Cook a secure base, an opportunity to work in good light and in less cramped conditions when time could be spared from his regular duties of sailing master.

Plan of the  Harbour of Halifax in Nova Scotia
Compass Rose and Cape Sambro to Herring Cove

Given that Colvill was such a crucial encourager and supporter of Cook's cartographic endeavours,13 it is not surprising that Cook's fair copy of "Chart of the River St Lawrence from Green Island to Cape Carrouge" was later dedicated to him.

To undertake his expert work, Cook needed to educate himself in the theoretical foundations of his practical cartographic skills. Thus he studied advanced mathematics and astronomy during his four years on the North American station. Presumably it was during the cold Halifax winters that he had the most time for such activities.

The questions arise: what texts did he study and how did he acquire them? Unfortunately for Cook, no military library existed in Halifax in the early 1760s. However the administrative officials and military officers serving on the base included some highly literate men who presumably lent books to each other. During the time Cook was in Halifax, Charles Morris was Surveyor General of Nova Scotia, Richard Bulkeley was provincial secretary and Col. Henry Bastide was periodically in charge of the works at the Citadel fortress. All these men were well educated and may have owned small private libraries. Bulkeley, who held other administrative offices, was said to have a particular interest in mathematics. Perhaps Cook secured borrowing privileges in these and other quarters on account of his connections to Lord Colvill.

In addition, there was a local, active trade in books. For example, in May 1761 James Rivington's shop near the Grand Parade, Halifax advertised the sale of "a large and curious collection of books on mathematics... and navigation" as well as "maps of Nova Scotia, Charts of Halifax and Chignecto Harbours, the Grand Chart of the River St Lawrence published by the Lords of the Admiralty.14 Further, there is a strong possibility that Cook actually ordered the texts he needed from London booksellers and had them sent directly to Halifax. He had, after all, received the unexpected windfall of £50 in early 1761.

James Cook must rate among the most distinguished students which Halifax has ever harboured. Far from being merely a colonial backwater where Cook awaited further action, Halifax, Nova Scotia proved to be the place where he received the training, practice and education that was essential preparation for his subsequent world famous career.

Sheila Johnson Kindred
Saint Mary's University
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Plan of the  Harbour of Halifax in Nova Scotia
Rocks and Shoals near MacNab's Island

Jenny Wraight, Admiralty Library; Stephen Courtney, Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth; Hugh Kindred. The images of Cook's map of Halifax harbour are reproduced courtesy of the Admiralty Library.


  1. Much of the material in the article comes from my published paper titled "James Cook: Cartographer in the Making 1758-1762" in Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society Journal, Vol. 12, 2009, 54-81.
  2. Alexander, Lord Colvill, Cook's commander-in-chief, informed the Admiralty that Cook's charts and plans drawn during 1758-62 were "made under my own Eye." He further argued that "from my Experience of Mr. Cook's Genius and Capacity, I think him well qualified for the Work he has performed, and for greater Undertakings of the same kind." See Colvill to Clevland, 30 December 1762, ADM 1/482, f. 293, TNA.
  3. See Samuel Holland to His Excellency Lieut. Gov. John Graves Simcoe, son of Captain John Simcoe, 11 January, 1792, holograph copy, Toronto Reference Library, p. 1. Gov. Simcoe was confident that Holland was a reliable source of information. In March 1792 he had noted that "Poor Holland, that good and faithful servant of the Crown, is worn out in body, tho' in full possession of his intellect." See F. J. Thorpe, "Samuel Holland" in Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online at www.biographi.ca/. The letter was published in The Life and Times of Major Samuel Holland, by Willis Chapman. Ontario Historical Society, Papers and Records. Vol. XXI (1924), pp. 18-19.
  4. For the draft map see Add. 31360, file. 9, British Library. R. A. Skelton, former head of the Map Room, British Library was confident about the authenticity of this latter map as it can be traced to the possession of Mrs. Cook and subsequent members of her family. For the neat drawing see "Composite Observations, Sailing Directions and Remarks on Foreign Ports 1760-1764, book 3, Mss 20 (hereafter Mss 20 version), Admiralty Library, H. M. Base, Portsmouth, England.
  5. There are two copies of the textual part of Cook's remark book. One version in Cook's hand is held by the National Library of Australia. Part of this text was published by the Provincial Archives of Nova Scotia in 1959. See "Captain James Cook's Description of the Sea Coast of Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland" in Report of the Board of Trustees of the Public Archives of Nova Scotia for the year 1958. Halifax, N.S. 1959, pp. 19-37. The other, a fair copy, presumed to be in Captain Nathaniel Batemen's hand, was the document submitted to the Admiralty for scrutiny in the autumn of 1762. This is the Mss 20 version held by the Admiralty Library.
  6. See note 5, version published in Halifax, p. 23.
  7. Colvill to Gerrish, 19 January 1761, Gerrish accounts, 1756-73, PRO, ADM 17/150, fol. 157.
  8. See also "A Plan of Orleans. Add.31360, f.26, British Library and "Plan of the Road of Coudre", Add. 31360, f.2, British Library
  9. See Add. 31360, f.14, British Library.
  10. See e010691696, Library Archives Canada, donation from H. R. MacMillan.
  11. See L9980/1, United Kingdom Hydrographic Office.
  12. This claim is explored in my article "James Cook: Cartographer in the Making 1758-1762", at n. 45.
  13. See note 2.
  14. Halifax Gazette, 14 May 1761.

Plan of the  Harbour of Halifax in Nova Scotia
Halifax Townsite and Navy Yard

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 36, volume 33, number 1 (2010).

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Glad to see this fine posting of local history. In our village of West Dover it is said Cook was first to map our shores.
By Russ Hazelden on 4/21/2016 1:02:04 AM Like:1 DisLike:0

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