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Some Factors Governing Cook


Anthropological researches into Cook’s career have tended recently to cast a less favourable light on him, emphasising the effects he had on indigenous people of the Pacific and highlighting their views of Cook as an intruder into their pristine(?) conditions. If the "clash of cultures" question is discounted, it is revealing to simply examine Cook as a governor of men. In the first instance I examine factors that influenced his rise to a captaincy in the eighteenth century Royal Navy, together with an examination of changes in his health in the course of his three voyages. In later articles I will look at aspects of his relationships with his crews and supernumeraries. The New Zealand bias of my research will be obvious to the discerning reader.

Above and behind Cook was the massive weight of the British Crown, the Board of Admiralty and other subordinate naval boards. In the eighteenth century, the Royal Navy, "was an organization of a complexity, efficiency and size unmatched in its age."l The head of the Admiralty, the First Sea Lord, was no minor figure like the Secretary at War, on the boundary between politics and public service, but a magnate with a seat in Cabinet.2 When Cook was appointed to command the Endeavour, Admiral Sir Edward Hawke was First Sea Lord. On 12 January 1771, John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, "became master of the Admiralty and the Navy as no civilian First Lord had ever been before, or was to become again."3 In 1768, Cook’s great patron, Sir Hugh Palliser, was head of the Navy Board. His title at that time was Comptroller, "next in consequence tho’ not in rank in the sea line to the First Lord of the Admiralty."4 He became a commodore in 1771 and by 1778, was a vice-admiral and third in command of the Channel Fleet. He was chosen by the First Sea Lord for his outstanding ability, and success as an administrator.5

Factors Influencing Cook’s Rise To a Captaincy

It is not too much to say that it was entirely owing to Sir Hugh Palliser’s discrimination that Cook was furnished with such splendid opportunities of exercising the phenomenal talents which afterwards made him so famous.6

Sir Lewis Namier has noted:

On the whole, in naval appointments [in the eighteenth century] political interest was no more than a contributing element, important but not decisive; the Government, the Admiralty, and individual commanders stood to lose too much by wrong appointments and probably political interest, like noble birth helped more at the start and in the lower grades than in reaching the top rungs of the ladder.7

This was certainly true in Cook’s case. In 1757, Mr William Osbaldeston, Member of Parliament for Scarborough, wrote to Captain (as he then was) Palliser:

Intimating that several of his neighbours had solicited him to write in favour of a person named Cook, on board his ship [HMS Eagle]; they had been informed that the captain had taken notice of him, and they were desirous of ascertaining in what manner his promotion would be forwarded. Captain Palliser in reply, and in justice to the ability which he had ascertained the young seaman to be possessed of, acquainted Mr Osbaldeston that a master’s appointment might be procured which would raise Cook to a situation he was qualified to fill with credit.

This quotation is from R.M. Hunt’s, The Life of Sir Hugh Palliser Bart. Admiral of the White and Governor of Greenwich Hospital, published in 1844.8 Earlier, in 1788, Andrew Kippis gave a version of the correspondence in which Mr Osbaldeston suggested that Cook should be commissioned. 9 The Osbaldestons were the "Lords of the Hunmanby Manors" near Filey, which is on the Yorkshire coast just south of Scarborough. The Hunmanby Local History Group has advised:

Locally there has always been a suggestion (no proof) that he [Cook] was involved with smuggling on this part of the coast and consequently [was] "shunted" into the Royal Navy as a reward - thus being "above suspicion".10

The Group has also drawn attention to Graham Smith’s, Smuggling in Yorkshire 1700-1850, wherein the author reveals that circa 1780, two Scarborough excise-officers uncovered:

brandy, geneva [gin] and tea from an outhouse near Lebbertson, a mile or so north of Filey which were thought to have been landed by "a certain Osbarton from York City who has for some time employed this place to store his goods" ... Unlike much of the smuggling trade to the north of the country which was kept firmly in the hands of the locals, a feature of the trade around Filey, Flamborough and Bridlington was the greater involvement of persons living a fair distance inland in York, Leeds and Thirsk.11

The Hunmanby Local History Group adds:

Accepting the mis-spelling [of Osbarton for Osbaldeston] we do know that the Hunmanby Osbaldestons had a dwelling in York! Considering the vast amounts of money that they paid for land etc, it could quite easily have come from smuggling! Your account of the Osbaldeston influence to acquire Cook his master’s appointment could - if the smuggling link was established - be, to say the least, interesting!12

The historical data associating the Osbaldeston family with smuggling is strong. They must have been aware of, and most probably connived in, the smuggling that went on across the coast north and south of Scarborough and in particular, across the Hunmanby Gap, "a well known landing place in smuggling days". 13

However, as the Hunmanby Local History Group has pointed out, there is no proof of Cook’s involvement in smuggling. The suggestion that he was, must, in the words of Scottish jurisprudence, remain, "unproven".

An alternative thesis is that Cook joined the Royal Navy to avoid the extremely unpleasant conditions of his previous employment. Colliers returning from London carried barrels full of urine as ballast. Stale urine was used for a supply of ammonia in the alum industry on the north-east coast around Ravenscar, and was carried in barrels to the factory sites. Colliers returning from London would have been smelly, dusty and dirty from their cargoes of coal and urine. These were disincentives to sailing in North Sea gales, icy seas and enemy warships and privateers threatening the colliers who had no means of defense or the ability to out sail the foe. Collier voyages would have become tedious after a while, and an ocean voyage to sunnier climes might have seemed a good alternative, suggests Olive M. Dickinson.14

Who the "several neighbours" were, who persuaded William Osbaldeston to write to Palliser, remains unspecified to this day. John Walker, ship-master of Whitby and Thomas Skottowe, landowner of Ayton, an employer of Cook’s father, are likely to have been among the "persuaders". That Cook recognized the debt he owed to John Walker, is shown in the warm correspondence that he maintained with him, correspondence that has been well documented. (See Cook’s Journals for examples.)

Cook’s early and subsequent career has been described in numerous biographies and will not be repeated here. However, a part of one letter bears repetition in the context of this work, as it shows the good opinion that Cook’s naval superiors had of him as early as 1762. On 30 December of that year, Lord Colville, commander-in-chief of the North American Station included in a letter to the Admiralty:

Mr Cook late Master of the Northumberland acquaints me that he has laid before their Lordships all his draughts and observations relating to the River St Laurence, part of the coast of Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland... I beg to inform their Lordships, that from my experience of Mr Cook’s genius and capacity, I think him well fitted for the work he has undertaken, and for greater undertakings of the same kind.15

This oft-quoted extract is, as R.A. Skelton has observed:

a link in the chain of circumstances which led James Cook, Master R.N., in succession to the survey of Newfoundland (1763-67) and to command of the ship selected in 1768 to convey the Royal Society observers to Tahiti and explore the Pacific Ocean.16

In gauging his career, Cook’s friendship with Augustus John Hervey, Third Earl of Bristol, should also be borne in mind. His "Honourable friend Capt Harvey" 17 was a post-captain at the age of twenty-three and was in the House of Commons from 1757 to 1775, until he succeeded to his peerage. He was a Lord of the Admiralty from 1771 to 1775, a Rear-Admiral in 1775 and a Vice-Admiral in 1778. As David Erskine has remarked, "Patronage was the prevailing system: Hervey’s turn came when he was a junior Lord of the Admiralty from 1771 to 1775, no doubt he furthered the career of a few friends". 18 That Cook recognized the debt he owed to his friends was shown when he wrote:

I have neither Natural nor acquired abilities, for writing; I have been, I may say, constantly at Sea from my Youth, and have draged [dragged] myself (with the assistance of a few good friends) [emphasis added], through all the Stations belonging to a Seaman, from Prentice boy to a Commander:-After such candid confession I shall hope to be excused for all the blunders that will appear in this Journal.19

Conceptions of Cook have undergone considerable revision in recent years: "I want to emphasise that it has not been my intention to discredit the achievements of Cook. My intention has been to suggest that they be placed in a new perspective," declared Bernard Smith in 1978.20 Howard T. Fry has highlighted the contributions that Anson, Byron, Carteret, Maskelyne, Dalrymple, the Royal Society and others have made to Cook’s discoveries and accomplishments.21 Michael E. Hoare researched, In the Steps of Beaglehole22 and brought to light the input of the two Forsters to Cook’s second voyage and to science in general. The roll-call of historians giving new insights into Cook’s exploits includes also, Robin Fisher, David Mackay, Glyndrw Williams, Christon Archer, Terence Armstrong and Rudiger Joppien to cite just some of the well-known twentieth century contributors to the corpus of knowledge on Cook.

Changes in Cook’s Health

Sir James Watt has established a perception of two Cooks - a healthy Cook of the first voyage and of the first part of the second - and an unwell Cook of the latter part of the second voyage and of all of the third. Cook’s first reported major illness was in December 1773, during the second ice-edge search of the Antarctic Ocean (Pacific sector), during the second voyage. This was after his second visit of 1773 to Queen Charlotte Sound - 3 to 25 November 1773 - but before his third visit there - 19 October - 10 November 1774. By 27 February 1774 Cook had:

developed serious gastrointestinal symptoms which he first concealed, treating himself by starvation until intestinal colic intervened. Purgatives merely increased the vomiting, and constipation became absolute and was associated with such violent hiccoughs that he almost died - a classic picture of acute intestinal obstruction.23

W.R. Thrower’s diagnosis was, "acute infection of the gallbladder with secondary paralytic ileus", 24 but Sir James Watt’s opinion is that:

since Cook was anything but fastidious about eating native foods, he had a heavy ascaris (roundworm) infestation of the intestine, a condition that can cause acute obstruction...25

Sir James goes on to point out that:

parasites would cause inflammation of the wall of the intestine, allowing colonization by coliform bacteria which could interfere with the absorption of the B complex of vitamins and probably other nutrients. Gross effects are relatively easy to diagnose, but early symptoms arising from moderate malabsorption of niacine and thiamine are notoriously difficult. They include prolonged ill-health, fatigue, loss of appetite, stubborn constipation, loss of weight, digestive disturbances, loss of interest and initiative, irritability, depression, loss of concentration and memory, and change of personality - all symptoms exhibited by Cook during the third voyage and faithfully recorded by eyewitnesses.26

If Cook’s health is looked at from a solely New Zealand standpoint, it can be deduced that Cook was fit and well all during the first voyage and at Dusky and Queen Charlotte Sounds, March to June 1773, and again at the latter Sound in November of that year. He was more than likely to have been ill at Queen Charlotte Sound during October-November 1774 and again, for the fortnight spent there in 1777. But there is no evidence in the historical record to confirm this supposition. Cook experienced a minor health problem on 6 May 1773 while at Dusky Sound. He described himself that day as "being confined on board by a Cold".27 George Forster’s opinion was:

The captain was taken ill of a fever and violent pains in the groin, which terminated in a rheumatic swelling of the right foot, contracted probably by wading too frequently in the water and sitting too long in the boat after it, without changing his cloaths.28

Sir James Watt’s diagnosis of Cook’s condition that day is:

Cook most probably had sustained a minor injury of the foot which had given a swelling of the glands in the groin - a very common occurrence in pre-antibiotic days - usually as a result of streptococcal infection… salt water wading would be unlikely to have had much effect upon physically fit men.29

The most noteworthy incident during Cook’s stay in Queen Charlotte Sound in 1777, was his investigation of the killing of ten of Furneaux’s men there, back in 1773. Barry Brailsford, who has researched the so-called "Grass Cove Massacre", is of the opinion that Cook concluded that it was, "an unpremeditated incident that somehow got totally out of hand and escalated into tragedy." Cook took no reprisals against the chief Kahura and his men, "adopting a ‘forget and forgive’ attitude, stemming in part from his belief that the Europeans involved may not have been altogether blameless in securing their own demise." 30 Anne Salmond, however, has made Cook’s attitude to the Grass Cove Massacre and the Resolution’s crew’s reaction to Cook’s decision, the fulcrum around which her book, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, revolves. At this stage, it is interesting to compare the inter-racial contacts that developed in Queen Charlotte Sound in 1777 and those that developed in Nootka Sound on the west coast of America in 1778.31 Conditions and the people involved were very different at the two localities. In both places, friendly relations were maintained. Remembering that Sir James Watts maintains that on the third voyage Cook was "a different man",32 it would be interesting to know more exactly, the state of Cook’s health while he was at Queen Charlotte and Nootka Sounds in 1777 and 1778 respectively. Unfortunately there is no hard evidence that would help to elucidate these questions. All that can be said, is that the friendly relations maintained in these two Sounds, stand in marked contrast to the conflicts that developed later in other parts of the Pacific, especially in Hawaii in 1779.

Reverting to events in New Zealand waters, the conclusion can be drawn that for the most part, it was a fit and well Cook who participated in New Zealand history. There was only the five weeks noted above, when serious health could have been a contributing factor in his New Zealand governance and behaviour.

A letter,33 that Cook wrote to the Earl of Sandwich on the eve of the departure of the Resolution from Plymouth, at the commencement of the third voyage, is illustrative of how eighteenth century patronage worked. The Earl, as First Sea Lord, had "patronised" Cook in the eighteenth century manner from his position of power. He had shown favour to Cook and his family as the letter shows. In it, Cook thanks the Earl for past favours received, and promises further effort with the aim of maintaining the Earl’s patronage. Why Cook should seek favour for the widow of Mortimer (sometimes Murdoch) Mahoney, is not altogether clear. Mahoney was the Adventure’s "dirty and indolent cook"34 who had died as a result of being stricken by scurvy. Perhaps Cook was trying a little patronage on his own account, from his subordinate position of power.

Allan S. Arlidge




  1. Rodger, N.A.M. The Admiralty Offices of State, Lavenham, Suffolk, 1979, p.56.
  2. Mackesey, Piers. The War for America 1775-1783, London, 1964, p.15.
  3. Rodger, op. cit., p.75.
  4. Middleton, Sir Charles. Cited in Mackesey, op.cit., p.16.
  5. See Broomfield, J.H. "Lord Sandwich at the Admiralty Board: Politics and the British Navy, 1771-1778", in The Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 51, 1965, p.9.
  6. Historical Records of New South Wales (HRNSW), vol. 1, pt. l, p.481.
  7. The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George 111; London, 1957, p.33.
  8. pp.62-3.
  9. Beaglehole, J.C. The Life of Captain James Cook, London, 1974, pp. 4-5. Beaglehole accepts Kippis’s version and does not mention Hunt’s or Besant’s version. Kippis claims that his version came, "from the information of Sir Hugh Palliser". Sir Walter Besant (1890) has an entirely different version, but he is such an unreliable historian, that little reliance can be placed upon it. Despite strenuous efforts of my own, plus the employment of a researcher to examine British Museum records, recovery of the original correspondence between Palliser and Mr Osbaldeston, has proved unavailing.
  10. Personal communication, 11 June 1995 from Mr Ces Mowthorpe, Chairman, Hunmanby Local History Group, Hunmanby, Yorkshire, England.
  11. Smith, Graham. Smuggling in Yorkshire 1700-1850, Newbury, Berkshire, 1994, pp.137-38.
  12. Mowthorpe, Ces. ibid.
  13. Smith, Graham. p.145. See also pp.47, 123, 135, and 142 of Smuggling in Yorkshire for references to Hunmanby. The Hunmanby Gap is a sandy beach between cliffs, which was ideal for landing smuggled goods.
  14. Dickinson, Olive M., "Why Did James Cook Quit the Merchant Navy?" in Cook’s Log, vol.26, no.2, (2003).
  15. Colville to Admiralty Secretary, 30 December 1762. The full letter is printed in HRNSW, vol. 1, pt. 1, p.299.
  16. "Cook’s contribution to marine survey" in Endeavour, vol.27, January 1968, pp.28-32.
  17. Journals II; p.196, n.2.
  18. Erskine, David. Augustus Hervey’s Journal, London, 1953, p. xxi.
  19. See Journals II, pp. cxxv-vi and HRNSW; vol. 1, pt. 1, pp. xxii-iii.
  20. "Cook’s Posthumous Reputation" in Fisher & Johnston (eds.), Captain James Cook and His Times, Canberra 1979, p.185.
  21. Fry, Howard T, "Alexander Dalrymple and Captain Cook" in Fisher & Johnston, op. cit., pp.41-58.
  22. One of the titles of Michael Hoare’s works.
  23. Watt, Sir James, "Medical Aspects and Consequences of Cook’s Voyages" in Fisher & Johnston, op. cit., p.154.
  24. ibid.
  25. ibid., pp.154-55.
  26. ibid., p.155.
  27. Journals II, p.129.
  28. Forster, George. A Voyage round the World; London, 1778, vol. 1, p.181, cited in Journals II, p.129, n. 4.
  29. Personal communication, 5 December 1987.
  30. Brailsford, Barry. "Maori Life in Queen Charlotte Sound (Totaranui): The Forster Perspective" in Enlightenment in New Zealand; 1773-1774, Michael E. Hoare (ed.), Wellington, 1979, p.20.
  31. See Journals III, pp.798-99 and 1088-94, and Robin Fisher, "Cook and the Nootka" in Fisher & Johnston, op. cit., pp.81-98.
  32. Watt, Sir James, op. cit., p.155.
  33. Montagu Papers 151 & 152, 1718-92, Reference NMM SAN/f/36/36. Negative No. D5810, National Maritime Museum, England.
  34. Watt, Sir James, op. cit., p.131.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 21, volume 27, number 2 (2004).

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