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The Writes of Passage – Journals of James Burney


On a short visit to London in May 2016, walking from Covent Garden to the British Library, I took a detour through Queen Square in Bloomsbury.  I wanted to locate the site of the house where Dr Charles Burney (1726-1814), the eminent musicologist and father of James Burney (1750-1821), had once lived with his family in this elegant square.  I knew that in February 1772, an historical meeting had taken place at No. 42, as it was part of my book about James Burney, published last year.1


It was here that the young James Burney and Captain James Cook had met for the second time.  Before dining, they spent time in Dr Burney’s library looking at a copy of Bougainville’s Voyage Autour du Monde.  Cook was most interested in a chart it contained as he had crossed tracks with the French navigator twice.  He traced their respective routes on Dr Burney’s copy.  Charles Burney had arranged this dinner hoping to advance his son’s naval career.  The previous meeting had taken place six months earlier, soon after Cook’s return from his First Voyage of exploration to the South Seas.


In September 1771, Charles Burney and his eldest son James had been invited by the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, to meet Daniel Solander, Joseph Banks and James Cook.  The meeting took place at Hinchingbrooke House, the earl’s country home in Huntingdonshire, now part of Cambridgeshire.  Dr Burney was a close friend of the opera-loving First Lord, but the purpose of this serious gathering was not to discuss music.


Dr Burney had made clear to the First Lord that he wanted to secure a naval commission for James, who had just turned twenty-one, and had recently returned from a voyage to Bombay with the East India Company. At Hinchingbrooke, a respectful conversation took place between the men called James. Burney’s desire to sail on the voyage was made plain, and his qualifications were discussed under the patronage of the First Lord.


Burney served in Resolution for five months, and then transferred to Adventure.  He kept a private journal intended purely for his family’s amusement, and to be seen only by them.  He went again with Cook on his Third Voyage, sailing in Discovery and Resolution from 1776 to 1780.  He decided to keep another journal.  


Given Burney’s desire to amuse those who accessed his journals, he would surely have been amused to know that 237 years later, I had travelled from Sydney to London to the British Library’s Western Heritage Collections to read a copy of this journal that he had hastily transcribed, and is now held there.2  To achieve my mission involved a deliberate detour from an opera trip to Paris, Berlin and Prague, taking the long way round to London. The musicians in the Burney family would have approved. 


Before leaving Sydney, I had carefully read Burney’s holograph journal of the third voyage of exploration recorded within four slim volumes.  This treasure, acquired in the early 1920s, is held in the Manuscripts Collection at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney.  A transcription and digital copy has been made.3 


My “compare and contrast” task in London was to examine the copy he had hurriedly made on rice paper when the expedition reached the Macao Roads in December 1779.  Cook had died in February.  Captain Charles Clerke, who then became the expedition’s commander, had died on 22 August.  The surviving officers and men learned from newspapers obtained from the English Factory at Macao that Great Britain was again at war.  Burney wrote an explanation for making his copy.  “On the arrival of the Resolution and Discovery to Macao Roads, we learnt that Great Britain was at war with France, and with the North American States, which gave us some apprehension of being captured in our passage homeward, and in such event that we should lose our journals...  I made a copy of my journal on China paper in so small a compass as to be easily concealable, that if bereft of the other journals there might be one saved for the Admiralty”.  


Describing the China Rice Paper copy is not difficult, although reading it is another matter.  A magnifying glass is an essential tool for this unique manuscript.  The fifty sheets are now held compressed between eight heavy glass sheets, edge-bound with green leather, arranged to follow Burney’s page numbering, organised in a horizontal and vertical lay-out.  At first glance, the array is puzzling but the page numbers are clear.  One is impressed with the curator’s clever arrangement.  Burney was able to fold the sheets into a portable
3½ × 3½ inch package.


Burney squeezed three and a half years’ of his observations by writing in minute calligraphy on sheets of strong rice paper obtained while the ships were being victualled and repaired before sailing on to England.  His writing concludes in late August 1779.  After that time, he ceased his journalising.


Petrified in time, the ink on paper is as clear as if written yesterday.  A facsimile is available, but lacks the freshness of the original.  I was very privileged to view Burney’s journal.  Even the reference librarian on duty that day had never seen this exotic format.  


Burney would have been pleased to know that his “China Rice Paper” copy is treasured and preserved protecting every precious word he diligently transcribed.  My detour was certainly worth the effort.


Suzanne Rickard



1.Rickard, Suzanne, Sailing with Cook: Inside the Private Journal of James Burney RN.  National Library of Australia.  2015.  Reviewed on page 44. 

2.BL Add MS 8955.


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 14, volume 39, number 3 (2016).


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