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The Death Of Clerke


Patches of snow clung to the Siberian hills as the mariners set their faces southeast for home. The plan was to make the best of their way to St. Peter and St. Paul for repairs and refreshment, and then to proceed on their year-long passage back to England. Through rifts in the fog they could pick out landmarks Cook had described and which would remain familiar in their own vivid memories of the Arctic. From time to time the massif of East Cape (now Cape Dezhneva) marking the eastern tip of Asia could be seen ahead, growing more prominent each time the fog lifted. As they plied abreast the coast, they could see that, indeed, no cape extended northward, as Müller had said, but that the coast flowed without interruption southeast into its termination. When they saw the American coast on July 20, they hauled over for a last look, then tacked southwest, Cape Dezhneva rising 2,431 feet above them, to pass through the Bering Strait during the night-long twilight.

Early the next morning the ships crossed the mouth of St. Lawrence Bay (now Lavrentija) opening to starboard, but they were too far out for anyone to see the shore where Cook had befriended the Chukchi people. By that time Clerke was gaunt and ashen, and far too weak to write. But still he remained in full command of the voyage. Everyone except himself had long since given up hope of his life, wrote Burney, and even when he was reduced almost to a skeleton, he "never wholly despaired of recovery."33

About one hundred miles south of Bering Strait the ships raised St. Lawrence Island, which would remain a geographic enigma of the third voyage. Here we have a curious episode associated with that massive island. When a separate chunk of land appeared in the mists farther east the mariners sailed over for a look, as though they could not think of anything better to do with themselves. With nothing further to hold them in the Arctic and their commander on the brink of death, they stood well off course to determine whether they saw one island or two. Various other bits of fog-shrouded land appeared. For three days they lingered off the north coast, but they never skirted close enough to settle the question of whether the landfalls were connected. Burney seems to have come at the truth when he conjectured that the various cliffs were joined by low land, "which makes it most probable that the whole is but one island." He was right, of course, but as the ships continued southwest after this fourth visit in the neighborhood, St. Lawrence Island was still not marked out accurately on the chart.34

Thick fogs alternated with cold rain as the ships kept the wind off the Siberian coast. On August 10 Clerke summoned King to his cabin to dictate a letter of farewell to his "ever honoured friend" Joseph Banks. Clerke's thoughts remained clear and unflinching. The "disorder" (probably tuberculosis) he had contracted at the King's bench prison, his letter states, had left him not a day of good health since taking his leave of Banks on New Burlington Street. "I hope my friends will have no occasion to blush in owning themselves such, for I have most perfectly & justly done my duty to my country." Clerke must have realized that Banks was among the few friends he had on land, for his friends were of the sea, and they were near at hand. The document conveys a sense of a life fulfilled and of pathos without regret, for he was accepting what life demanded. He was bequeathing to Banks the best of his curiosities, he continued, and would Banks extend his compliments to the botanist Dr. Solander? Banks would also receive the very commendable bird paintings done by surgeon's mate William Ellis, "this worthy young man who deserves your notice." Would Banks also look after Greg Bantham and Alexander Dewar, the faithful ships' clerks, who by the death of Cook and shortly by his own would be "I fear destitute of friends." If Clerke recollected anything else it would be passed on by "my dear & affectionate friend" King, who also deserves a "share in your friendship," along with surgeon John Law, he added. "I must bid you a final adieu; may you enjoy many happy years in this world, & in the end attain that fame your indefatigable industry so richly deserves. These are most sincerely the warmest & sincerest wishes of your devoted affectionate & departing Servant."35 Banks, friend of the third voyage, would be assuming his role as the guardian of the Cook legacy.

Wreathes of cold fog curled outside the stern windows. On August 15 Clerke turned over the command of Resolution to King, and the next day he was no longer able to get out of bed. "Never was a decay, so melancholy & gradual."

Clerke at age thirty-six could look back on a happy and productive life, blessed beyond the dreams of his childhood in Essex. He began his career on the famous Byron voyage, and he and Gore were on their fourth circumnavigation, the only two sailors at that time who could make that claim. Above all, Charles had been with Cook from the beginning, first as a rambunctious master's mate aboard Endeavour, then advancing under the watchful eye of his revered mentor and father-figure. Like his shipmates of the quarterdeck, he obtained a supremely good education under Cook. Charles mastered the new techniques of determining longitude. During those splendid Resolution years of the second voyage he learned ice navigation, which stood him in good stead for his big moment when Cook chose him to command Discovery. On each ship he polished the arts and skills of accurate observations. And from Cook he learned to write. His essays on birds, which gave him the most pleasure, and on the behavior of islanders are among the best of anyone's. Joined to his generous disposition was a jovial outlook which eased the burdens of shipboard life and acted the foil to the rather austere and sober personality of Cook. But his convivial nature belied the steel of his mind. In the New Hebrides he had faced down an angry Reinhold Forster with the threat to have him shot, and he could reflect that if he had not assumed the financial obligations of his errant brother in London he would not have been thrown into debtor's prison to catch his fatal illness.

Charles had grown up under Cook, from his carefree days on the first voyage, to his expanding horizons on the second, to the finest hour of his maturity following that bitter morning at Kealakekua Bay, when he had preserved the third voyage by the sheer force of his character.

August 22-29

Of a sudden the weather cleared. The fog banks were exchanged for sunny days and fair seas. The summer coast of Kamchatka was in view through the stern windows, about fifty miles north of the harbor

lighthouse, and the volcano Zhupanovskaya could be seen rising in the distance, its snow-clad slopes glistening against the blue of the sky. Charles had brought his shipmates safe out of the ice, and he was content. August 22 dawned serene and bright, and between eight and nine o'clock in the morning the Sun was pouring a cheering warmth into his cabin. The next day as the ships began to look into Avacha Bay, their colors at half-mast, the sailors were startled by the transfiguration of the countryside from winter to summer. The snow was gone, the nearer slopes shimmered with poplars and willows, and in the distance the birch forests and stands of alders were in full foliage. The hills were luxuriant with the promise of renewal, and an agreeable fragrance wafted over the decks.36

Sergeant Surgutski and his garrison were already drawn up on shore in welcome when the ships dropped anchor at St. Peter and St. Paul on August 25, and Surgutski was holding a box of fresh berries for Clerke. When instead he came aboard to pay his respects, having seen the flags at half-mast, he was informed that Clerke had expressed the desire to be buried at the church in Paratunka. The officers either misunderstood his reply, or they understood only too perfectly, for they took to writing that the Russians would not grant permission because the English were not Christians; that is, not members of the Russian Orthodox Church. But Surgutski would take up the matter with the priest Vereshagen, and he would also send word of their arrival to the deputy governor Vasilyevich Schmalov, who had taken Behm's place at Bolsheretsk. Meanwhile, several promotions and transfers between the ships accompanied the change in command. Replacing Clerke on Resolution was Gore of Discovery, the stolid and dependable Gore who would lead the voyage home, and King moved over to assume Clerke's place aboard Discovery.37

Vereshagen allayed the misapprehension among the officers concerning the funeral. Apparently he agreed to the burial at the church in Paratunka, but as a new church would be built at St. Peter and St. Paul he invited Gore to choose between the two locations. Accordingly Gore chose the nearer as conforming to Clerke's wishes, and the priest showed Gore and King a grave site as near as he could guess to the center of where the new church would stand, on a hill overlooking the harbor and the way to the sea. Nearby was the grave of the French scientist Louis Delisle de la Croyère, who had sailed with Bering. A gang of hands was sent to clear a swath through the grass.

On Sunday noon, August 29, 1779, while the ships tolled their bells and each fired twenty guns alternately, Clerke was buried with military honors. His casket was carried solemnly ashore and along the path to the burying ground, while the Kamchatkans, with the priest, and members of the Russian garrison with great respect accompanied the officers and sailors in the funeral cortege. The Church of England service was read, probably by Gore, the marines fired three volleys, and the sailors planted some poplar saplings as a final honor for their beloved shipmate and fallen commander. After the funeral service the mourners retired to a tent for a dinner prepared by the Kamchatkans and Russians.38


By the time the ships were completely repaired six weeks later, they probably were in better shape than at any time since leaving Plymouth. This was the last of the refittings during the voyage, and if we may credit the day-to-day record of Thomas Edgar, master of Discovery, it was the best of the lot. Discovery, with the most damage, received the most attention. Staved-in and decayed planks fore and aft were ripped from her hull and replaced, her rudder was unshipped, she was heeled and her bottom scrubbed. The carpenters took to the yards and spars of the upperworks. Edgar in fact gave a lively and systematic account of how an eighteenth-century square-rigger was put to rights.

On September 10 the Russian ship arrived from Okhotsk with supplies for the local inhabitants and fifty soldiers as belated reinforcements for the garrison. The hospitable Kamchatkans and Russians went out of their way to oblige. They unloaded from the ship the invaluable stores which Behm, true to his word, had sent for Clerke. Once again the English did not have to pay even one shilling. Discovery received 135 fathoms (810 feet) of 4 1/2-inch anchor cable, Resolution probably receiving as much, and both ships shared 73 pounds of twine, 100 sail needles, plus 13 tubs of tar and 6 of pitch. At once the sailors fell to the rigging--backstays, ratlines, and shrouds were overhauled and tarred. To the almost seven tons of rye meal sent over from the Russian ship, the local community added sixteen head of cattle.39

A flurry of social activities marked this visit. An ensign named Ivan Ivanovich Sind was especially welcome aboard because, said King, as the son of the Russian explorer who touched on the Alaskan coast in 1767, he belonged to "the family of discoverers."40 A Russian nobleman who played the fiddle, one Peter Ivaskin, was a transport who had been living in banishment for thirty years on Kamchatka. Gore and King went bear and duck hunting with him, but he never revealed the nature of his transgression. They gave him a musket, shirts, and a suit of clothes, all much needed. Schmalov's visit brought on an eleven-gun salute, dinners aboard ship, and a soiree in a tent where hosts and guests entertained each other with English, Kamchatkan, and Russian dances. Gore gave Schmalov a gold watch, a musket, a set of knives, and rum. On his departure he received another eleven guns. The Vereshagen family came to dinner. English and Russian Freemasons found each other. On September 22, the anniversary of George III's coronation was celebrated with twenty-one guns from each ship. On October 4, Catherine's coronation anniversary received twenty-one guns from Resolution only, but everybody in town, not only the "people of quality" but also the common sort, crowded aboard for dinner.

Gore, cautious man that he was, decided he would run the homebound passage by committee. He wrote his officers a memorandum asking their opinion as to the best course to follow, and each was to reply in writing with his signature. It therefore transpired that pieces of paper flowed--the thirty feet or so from officers' mess to Gore's cabin and solemnly by boat between the ships. The consensus was that they should take some latitudes and longitudes along the coast of the Japans, fetch Macao for supplies, avoid that pesthole Batavia (now Djakarta) at all costs, and proceed directly to Cape Town. King over on Discovery also had a pressing problem to settle. A drummer boy with a lame knee, marine Jeremiah Holloway, had voiced a wish to desert with a Kamchatka girl who had taken up housekeeping with him in a tent. King suffered him to embark, without his friend, who had thought she might like to sail away with him to England. It would be better for him to be useless aboard ship than to be a nuisance to those Russians.41

Except for the sails, Resolution and Discovery probably were in better shape than when they left the Deptford navy yard in London. This was a tribute to the skill and ingenuity of the sailors and to the lavish hospitality of the Kamchatkans and Russians. Gore acknowledged this generous treatment in his report sent overland to Sir James Harris (Lord Malmesbury), the British Ambassador in St. Petersburg: "Behm leads, Ismyloff (Schmalov) follows, and so on down to the poor, useful, inoffensive Kamntschadale."42 On October 8 the ships weighed and made sail out of Avacha Bay.

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found this website while searching for information about St. LAWRENCE Island, Alaska.......fascinating account of CLERKE ......I shall return to this website
By Lloyd Rowsell on 10/18/2013 5:25:13 AM Like:0 DisLike:0

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