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Tobias Furneaux (1735-1781)


Tobias Furneaux was born in Swilly, outside Plymouth, on 21 August, 1735, the second son of William and Susanna (née Willcocks) Furneaux.  He entered the navy in his teens, and by 1755, was serving as a midshipman in HMS Marlborough.  Captain Robert Faulknor took Marlborough from Spithead on 1 March, 1757, with a convoy to the West Indies.  There the ship served as the flagship of Rear-Admiral Thomas Cotes.


In late 1758, Furneaux, by then a master’s mate, was seconded to an armed sloop, and took part in an action against two French sloops.  He performed with such gallantry that he was promoted to lieutenant.  Admiral Cotes wrote to John Clevland, Secretary to the Admiralty:

Lieutenant Patterson died of his wounds two days after their return to this port.  I have appointed Mr. Tobias Furneaux a Lieutenant in his room for his good behaviour after Mr. Patterson was wounded.


Furneaux returned to Britain as 4th lieutenant in HMS Edinburgh.  He received prize money after Edinburgh captured six brigs on 11 June, 1760.


In December 1760, he joined Melampe under Captain William Hotham in the English Channel, and eventually was promoted to 1st lieutenant in July 1762.  A new captain, Peter Clarke, took Melampe to Barbados in March 1763, where in May Tobias and Clarke were transferred to HMS Ferret.  They returned to Britain, and were paid off in July 1763.


Furneaux returned to live at Swilly on half pay and prize money until commissioned as 2nd lieutenant under Captain Samuel Wallis in HMS Dolphin for a voyage to the Pacific.  Tobias Furneaux and Samuel Wallis were indirectly related.  James Furneaux, Tobias’s brother, had married Elizabeth Rowe in 1751, and her sister, Mary Rowe, was married to John Wallis, the brother of Samuel Wallis, in 1748.


Wallis’s Dolphin voyage to the Pacific lasted from August 1766 until May 1768, and included the first European visit to Tahiti.  George Robertson, Dolphin’s master, described Furneaux as “a Gentele Agreeable well behaved Good man and very humain to all the Ships company”.


Illnesses to Wallis and to William Clarke, the first lieutenant, during the voyage, caused Furneaux to be in command for periods during which he acquitted himself well.


Afterwards, in June 1768, Furneaux was paid off, and recuperated at Swilly.  His next appointment, in December 1770, was as 3rd lieutenant of HMS Trident.  However, he was soon transferred to HMS Torbay, where he re-joined Captain Wallis.


In November 1771, Furneaux was selected to command HMS Adventure, the companion vessel for Cook’s second Pacific voyage.  Furneaux was promoted commander.  The expedition left Britain on 13 July 1772.  The ships sailed together via the Cape of Good Hope, but in Antarctic waters, on 8 February, 1773, they were separated during thick fog.  Furneaux took Adventure on an eastward course, and arrived on 9 March at Tasmania, then called Van Diemen’s Land.  He anchored for a few days in Adventure Bay before sailing up, and charting, the island’s east coast.  Some islands near the opening into Bass Strait were named after Furneaux.  Adventure proceeded to New Zealand, where she re-joined Cook in Resolution in April.


Adventure accompanied Cook for the first sweep of the Pacific, calling in at Tahiti and Huahine.  At Huahine, Furneaux took on board Mai (Omai), who travelled with him to Britain.  As the ships neared New Zealand in late October 1773, they were separated for the second time.  After putting in at Tolaga Bay, Furneaux eventually made it to Queen Charlotte Sound, only to find Cook had already left.  During Adventure’s stay, 11 men were killed by Māori while ashore collecting wood and water.  Furneaux decided to return immediately to Britain, and left on 18 December.


Furneaux crossed the Pacific at about latitude 50°S, rounded Cape Horn, and reached Cape Town.  Adventure was probably the first ship to circumnavigate the world from west to east.  Furneaux, himself, was probably the first person to circumnavigate the world in both directions, having gone east to west in Dolphin.  Adventure then sailed up the Atlantic to anchor at Spithead on 12 July, 1774, a year ahead of Cook.  Furneaux was a capable officer but lacked the flair and drive needed for Pacific exploration.


Furneaux was promoted captain in August 1775 and given command of HMS Syren, a 6th rate frigate, which he took to join Rear Admiral Peter Parker’s squadron off the American coast in January 1776.  He saw action at Charlestown, North Carolina, and at Newport, Rhode Island, during 1776.  Syren was lost on 6 November, 1777, off Rhode Island, and Furneaux and the ship’s company were taken prisoner.  They were released early in 1778.  Furneaux was acquitted by court martial of any misconduct.  He briefly joined HMS Isis as a volunteer, and took part in an engagement with the French ship César.


That engagement marked the end of Furneaux’s active career, and he was soon invalided with gout back to Britain, where he died, unmarried, at Swilly on 19 September, 1781, aged 46.  He was buried in the family vaults at Stoke Damerel Church.  His portrait was painted by James Northcote and several copies exist. 


John Robson

For further reading

David, Andrew C. F. “Furneaux, Tobias (1735–1781)”, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  Oxford University Press.  2004.  Online edition, January 2008. 

Furneaux, Rupert.  Tobias Furneaux, Circumnavigator.  Cassell.  1960. 

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 26, volume 39, number 2 (2016).


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