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Who Was the "Runner" at Batavia?

Jan Mara's entry in the muster role of the VOC Schoonzigt, "Jan Mara van Elsineur" (Elsinore)

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On Tuesday 25 December 1770, Cook was too pre-occupied at Batavia to record whether he celebrated Christmas Day. He was busy preparing the repaired Endeavour for sea and its return voyage to England. But he did find the time to record in his journal the details of a squabble with Dutch Naval Officers over a seaman who had run from one of their ships and joined Endeavour.

According to the Dutch, the runner was a Danish seaman, and Cook agreed that he would deliver the man back to them if he found they were correct. When the runner was not returned to them the Dutch General sent one of his captains over to see Cook with evidence that the man was Danish as the entry in their ship's book stated that he was from Elsinore. Cook told the Dutch captain that he considered the man to be English and as such he refused to give him up.

Banks also entered the details of this incident in his journal. His account contains one detail that is missing from Cook's journal. According to Banks, Cook knew from the runner's accent which country he came from, and it was not Denmark - it was Ireland!

So who was this man who decided to jump ship on the other side of the world? The Muster Roll of the Endeavour lists 19 men who were taken on board at Batavia. They were initially taken on as Supernumeraries but, as so many of the ship's crew died during its passage across the Indian Ocean, Cook enlisted these 19 men as part of the ship's complement. Only one of these men had a country of origin against his name - John Marra, from Cork, Ireland. So it seems reasonable to assume that it was Marra who ran from the Dutch ship to join the Endeavour at Batavia; to date this has been merely an assumption.

The Dutch Naval Officers who met with Captain Cook were from the Dutch East India Company, known in Dutch as the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC. This was an international trading company with colonies around the world including extensive possessions in what is now known as Malaysia.

The records of the VOC are preserved by the Dutch National Archives, which recently has completed a project to make them accessible via the Internet. The VOC website allows visitors to search for a particular ship, or for the name of a crew member.

A search of this website for the names of all of the "Batavia 19" resulted in only one "hit", and that was for John Marra - or Jan Mara as he appears on the records of the ship Schoonzigt. He had enlisted at Rotterdam as a seaman on 10 April 1770, claiming that he was from the Danish port of Elseneur (Elsinore). This declaration was needed to get around one of the orders that had been issued by the "Bewindhebbers" (the Board of Directors) of the VOC. This order stated that ships were not allowed "to contract people from the East, or Norwegians, nor Frenchmen, Englishmen or Scotsmen". It is more than likely that Marra was recruited by a "Zielverkooper" - a naval agent who was paid for enlisting people for duty on VOC ships.

Captains of the VOC's ships may have turned a blind eye to the above order, as their ships had a constant need for new crew due to the high mortality rate on long voyages.

Take the voyage of the Schoonzigt, Captain Marten Hakker, which left Zeeland in April 1770 with a crew of 162 seamen, 20 craftsmen and 103 soldiers. Seven months later when the ship arrived at Batavia he had lost 61 seamen, 5 craftsmen and 36 soldiers, as well as 4 passengers taken on board at the Cape of Good Hope. VOC ships were not known for their healthy food, hygiene or sanitary conditions. Hence, Marra was lucky to have survived the outward-bound voyage, and it is little surprise that he took the opportunity of jumping ship at Batavia.

The VOC records show that Marra left the Schoonzigt at Batavia on 22 December 1770, and was classed as a "fugitive". This date ties in with the period that he is said to have joined Endeavour.

Cook must have been impressed with Marra's performance on the Endeavour as he took him as gunner's mate on the Resolution (1772-1775). Marra is not mentioned directly by Cook in his journal of the second voyage. However, on 31st May 1775, as the Resolution headed toward the North Atlantic Ocean, Cook could not resist making a slight detour to the island of Fernando de Noronha in order to determine its longitude. In his journal entry for 9 June 1775 Cook describes the appearance of the island, and notes its latitude and longitude. He also makes the following comment -

"One of my Seamen was on board a Dutch India ship who put in at this isle in her way out in 1770."


There can be little doubt that the seaman that Cook was referring to was John Marra.

Tjerk de Haan and Cliff Thornton


  1. See Cook's Log, page 1221, vol. 18, no. 4 (1995)
  2. VOC: Gegevens van het Nationaal Archief     http://www.voc.mindbus.nl/
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Hi Karen Bennett. I am a bit of the Irish in Antarctica buff especially the ones with a Cork connection. I knocked across you relative John Marra only recently and I have only very scant information on him. I wonder would you kindly tell me what you know especially what part of Cork did he come from. My email is supermug1@gmail.co . Thank you for any help you can give me. Eugene
By Eugene Furlong on 4/19/2017 2:46:28 PM Like:0 DisLike:1
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Marguerite, Cook's journals shed no light on Mara's education. He is thought to have been the author behind an unauthorised account of the voyage published in 1775, hence he must have had a good education to write that!
By Cliff Thornton on 2/4/2017 8:59:43 PM Like:0 DisLike:1
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Would anyone know about Mara's education?
By Marguerite Johnson on 1/30/2017 12:17:59 PM Like:0 DisLike:1
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Karen, that is fascinating to hear. Does your family have of his possessions?
By Cliff Thornton on 10/31/2015 11:29:32 AM Like:0 DisLike:1
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I am a descendant of John Marra aka Jan Mara. My great grandfather was David Marra, who passed down in the family the story of him being descended from John Marra.
By karen bennett on 10/17/2015 11:45:27 AM Like:3 DisLike:0

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