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Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and James Cook


The celebrated Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1775), dictionary compiler, essayist and conversationalist does not appear to have mentioned Cook to any great extent. Johnson's life-span almost encompassed that of Cook; Johnson dying some four years before Cook met his death in Hawaii.

He refers, however, several times to Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander. Johnson, apparently, enjoyed the company of these two men and the day after having had dinner with them he sent Banks the following letter:-

"Feb. 27 1772


Perpetua ambita bis terra praemia lactis
Haec habet altrici Capra secunda Jovis.


I return thanks to you and to Dr Solander for the pleasure which I received in yesterday's conversation. I could not recollect a motte for your Goat, but have given her one. You, Sir, may perhaps have an epick poem from some happier pen than, Sir,

Your most humble servant,

The Latin poem translates into:
In fame scarce second to the nurse of Jove,
This Goat, who twice the world had traversed round,
Deserving both her master's care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.

This incident and letter refer to the goat which had supplied the First Voyage with fresh milk.

On the 29th August 1773, Johnson and Boswell were visiting Scotland and while dining with the Rev. Alexander Grant at Inverness, Johnson mentioned the first sighting of the kangaroo in the Endeavour River area in July 1770.

He is reported to have "... volunteered an imitation of the animal. The company stared ... nothing could be more ludicrous than the appearance of a tall, heavy, grave-looking man, like Dr Johnson, standing up to mimic the shape and motions of a kangaroo. He stood erect, put out his hands like feelers, and, gathering up the tails of his huge brown coat so as to resemble the pouch of the animal, made two or three vigorous bounds across the room."

Johnson's only quoted reference to Cook was on Wednesday April 3rd 1776, not long before Cook set out on the Third Voyage. Boswell records that:-

"I gave him [Johnson] an account of a conversation which had passed between me and Captain Cook, the day before, at dinner at Sir John Pringle's; and he was much pleased with the conscientious accuracy of that celebrated circumnavigator, who set me right as to many of the exaggerated accounts given by Dr Hawkesworth of his Voyages. I told him that while I was with the Captain, I catched the enthusiasm of curiosity and adventure, and felt a strong inclination to go with him on his next voyage.


JOHNSON 'Why, Sir, a man does feel so, till he considers how very little he can learn from such voyages.'
BOSWELL 'But one is carried away with the general grand and indistinct notion of A VOYAGE ROUND THE WORLD.'
JOHNSON 'Yes, Sir, but a man is to guard himself against taking a thing in general.'

I said I was certain that a great part of what we are told by the travellers to the South Sea must be conjecture, because they had not enough of the language of those countries to understand so much as they have related. Objects falling under the observation of the senses might be clearly known; but everything intellectual, everything abstract - politicks, morals and religion, must be darkly guessed. Dr Johnson was of the same opinion.

He upon another occasion, when a friend mentioned to him several extraordinary facts, as communicated to him by the circumnavigators, slily observed, 'Sir, I never before knew how much I was respected by these gentlemen; they told me none of these things.'

He had been in company with Omai, a native of one of the South Sea Islands, after he had been some time in this country. He was struck by the elegance of his behaviour, and accounted for it thus: 'Sir, he had passed his time, while in England, only in the best company; so that all that he had acquired of our manners was genteel. As a proof of this, Sir, Lord Mulgrave and he dined one day at Streatham; they sat with their backs to the light fronting me, so that I could not see distinctly; and there was so little of the savage in Omai, that I was afraid to speak to either, lest I should mistake one for other'."


James Boswell, "The Life of Dr Johnson", Everyman Library, Dent, London, 1967.
Walter Jackson Bate, "Samuel Johnson", Chatto and Windus, London, 1978.
Michael Alexander, "Omai, Noble Savage", Collins, London, 1977.
Charles Lyte, "Sir Joseph Banks", David and Charles, Newton Abbott, 1980.

Paul Capper

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 389, volume 8, number 4 (1985).

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