Better Conceiv’d than Describ’d: the life and times of Captain James King (1750-84), Captain Cook’s Friend and Colleague.  Steve Ragnall. 2013

Better Conceiv’d than Describ’d: the life and times of Captain James King (1750-84), Captain Cook’s Friend and Colleague. Steve Ragnall. 2013

Ragnall, Steve. 
Better Conceiv’d than Describ’d: the life and times of Captain James King (1750-84), Captain Cook’s Friend and Colleague
Matador (part of Troubador Publishing Ltd.).
ISBN 978-1780883-595. 

In 2004 CCS member Steve Ragnall wrote that “there will soon be another book on Captain James King, Cook’s second lieutenant on the Third Voyage, to complement the recent part biography by John Bolton King”.1


Better Conceiv’d than Describ’d is that book, and well worth the wait.  It is easy to read, being aimed at the general reader with 40 short chapters and five appendices.  Ragnall has a great connection with James King, as both of them are from the town of Clitheroe and attended the same school there.


Captain Cook enthusiasts know James King as the second lieutenant in Resolution on Cook’s Third Voyage, chosen to assist Cook in taking astronomical observations and looking after the chronometer, who becomes captain of Discovery after the death of Charles Clerke, and also as the editor of the official account of the that voyage, published in 1784. 


Bolton King’s book2 covered mainly King’s part in the Third Voyage, rather than his life before and after.  Ragnall greatly expands our knowledge of these times.  He uses the first two chapters to set the scene, including a description of Clitheroe in 1750 and the King family and its relatives, who influenced James King’s life.  Indeed, King first appears on a muster roll in 1762 at the age of 12 “as a midshipman under his relative, Captain William Norton”.  Why a midshipman?  How long was he in the ship, Assistance?  Ragnall considers the evidence, which is scanty, and explains the possibilities.  He then describes the life of a Middie and helps landsmen, like me, by including a sail plan and listing the six categories of rated ships.


In the first ships in which he served, King sailed to Newfoundland and back several times, culminating in him sitting his lieutenant’s examination in 1769, a year after Cook.  They were both examined by Captain Abraham North.3  King’s first commission was 5th Lieutenant of Cambridge in 1771, sailing to Jamaica and Florida and nearly sinking in a storm.  In 1773 he went to Auxerre in France to stay with his brother Thomas.  Ragnall has found a description of King at that time from which “we get the first true insight of James the man”.  After the trip he went to Oxford, where he might have stayed with his brother Walker, and might have attended some of the lectures by Thomas Hornsby, professor of Astronomy at Oxford University, influenced by his uncle Fletcher Norton,4 a member of the Board of Longitude.  Ragnall examines the evidence, and considers whether this move was by accident or design. 


After a description of the voyages of exploration of Byron, Bougainville and Cook, the next chapters cover King’s life during the Third Voyage.  There are several passages from King’s journal and his log, including a very interesting description of his scientific duties.  The Log is a “large, battered, leather bound volume” that Ragnall saw at The National Archives, Kew.  He describes the pages “divided into two halves by clear, straight lines in the same ink as the words and figures.  Each half-page represents one day of the voyage”.  Logs, such as this one “are the record of daily measurement and basic information relating to the running of the ship, an officer’s journal is where we get a more subjective view as to what was happening”.  Ragnall comments, “Research tools such as these are a joy to hold and examine.  A direct and personal link with the past, the characters come alive in the pages.”


The Third Voyage is covered from King’s point of view, so there are several justifiable gaps.  I did get confused with the coverage of the two visits to the Hawaiian Islands, as they are not dealt with chronologically.  King was “ashore at the observatory camp and taking measurement and observations” when Cook was killed, so did not see what happened.  However, as King wrote the “official” version, “it was he whose word was accepted for many years and gave credence to the accepted belief that unprincipled savages had murdered his humane Captain.”  Ragnall examines “inconsistencies within King’s own documents”, some of the other accounts, the roles of Lieutenant Molesworth Philips and Lieutenant John Williamson, King’s relationship with them, and the impact they all had on his “official” version.  


At Kamchatka it is King who is sent ashore first.  At Macao it is King who is sent to Canton.  At Stromness, it is King who is sent to London to present the logs, journals and all official documents to the Admiralty” while the ships were further delayed by bad weather.  He was presented to King George III, promoted to Post-Captain, elected Fellow of the Royal Society, and stayed with his family, now living in London.  He was also given the task of writing “the official account of the last part of the voyage from the completed logs and journals” and “assist the editing of Cook’s documents under the overall editorship of Canon John Douglas”.  To do so, King went to Woodstock to stay with his brother Thomas.  During a trip to Ireland he donated “his extensive collection of Pacific artifacts to Trinity College, Dublin”,5 for which he received their honorary degree in law. 


With the work on the book unfinished, King was appointed Captain of Crocodile, a new 24 gun frigate.6  James Trevenen and David Samwell were among several men from the Third Voyage who also joined her in 1781.  She became part of the Channel fleet and took more than one prize, all of which is vividly described.  The following year King was appointed to the larger Resistance,7 his thirteenth and last “fighting” ship.  Ragnall has summarised them all in an appendix.  King took almost 100 of Crocodile’s company to Resistance.  Although Samwell was not allowed to be one of them, William Peckover joined soon after. 


King’s task was to shepherd “31 vessels in convoy across the hostile Atlantic” to the West Indies avoiding any enemy French ships.  The usual route was to sail south to the right latitude and then sail west keeping to that latitude.  King decided to sail directly using his knowledge of how to calculate longitude accurately, to the horror of the “captains and masters of the Merchantmen”.  But it worked, sailing as little as 6 miles on a bad day and as many as 150 miles on their best.  It was later remarked by his brother Walker “that the hair of his head, which had been brown, had become very grey” during the voyage. 


After arrival, King was sent on patrol duty in the West Indies, taking prizes and meeting Captain Horatio Nelson, at age 24 being seven years younger than King but with 12 months seniority in the Navy.  With both the end of the War of Independence and the deterioration in his health, King took a berth on another ship back to England, where he completed his work on the Third Voyage account.  As his health declined with consumption he decided to go to Nice.  Trevenen accompanied him.  Ragnall explains why Nice was not then part of France, why it was chosen, the circumstances of King’s death there, and what happened when Ragnall looked for his grave. 


The book has nine black-and-white illustrations and 25 colour ones accompanying the text.  After conducting extensive research over many years, Ragnall says the major problem he encountered was “the paucity of letters written to or from James and his family”.  However, what he has found has greatly enhanced our knowledge of this fine man, and what he has produced is a fitting tribute.  A pleasure to read.  Highly recommended.


Ian Boreham


  1. Cook’s Log, page 13, vol. 27, no. 4 (2004).
  2. Bolton King, John.  James King R.N. Captain Cook Is Killed But His Third Voyage Of Discovery Goes On.  South West Maritime History Society. 2004.  See Cook’s Log, page 35, vol. 27, no. 3 (2004). 
  3. Cook’s Log, page 4, vol. 31, no. 2 (2008).  
  4. He was also speaker of the House of Commons.  See Cook’s Log, page 33, vol. 28, no. 3 (2005).  
  5. Cook’s Log, page 18, vol. 30, no. 4 (2007).  
  6. Cook’s Log, page 13, vol. 30, no. 1 (2007).  See also Cook’s Log, page 30, vol. 33, no. 2 (2010). 
  7. For a letter King wrote on 8 October 1782 see Cook’s Log, page 30, vol. 33, no. 3 (2010).

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 47, volume 36, number 1 (2013).

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