Captain Cook’s Merchant Ships. Stephen Baines. 2015

Captain Cook’s Merchant Ships. Stephen Baines. 2015

Baines, Stephen. 
Captain Cook’s Merchant Ships: Freelove, Three Brothers, Mary, Friendship, Endeavour, Adventure, Resolution and Discovery
The History Press. 
ISBN 978-0-7509-6214-8.
288 pages.

This book is generally well-written and packs in a huge amount of detail, however its scope is much wider than the title suggests.  


Only when you read the information on the back cover does this become apparent, as it states that it provides “a comprehensive and readable account of the long eighteenth century”.  Even then this is not the whole story as the first two chapters take us even further back to the 16th and 17th centuries with a general run-down of British history.  The effect is of “gilding the lily’ without really adding much to the basic premise of the book.  The first particulars of Cook’s first ship, Freelove, do not appear until chapter 10, almost half way through the book.


Given that the author studied theology at Cambridge, it isn’t surprising that religion takes centre stage for a considerable part of the book, especially with regard to Quakerism.  It had a direct impact on Whitby and its maritime development, Quaker families being heavily involved with shipping and trade in the town as we know.  Baines also reminds us of the dichotomy of the Quakers being pacifist but prepared to make money from the transport of men and materiel to and from war, and even, from time to time, arming their ships.  It caused problems within the Quaker communities, and Baines points out that the Quaker burial records show that even John Walker, for whom Cook worked, was noted as “not in membership” (i.e. outside the brethren) at the time of his death. 


In the story of Whitby itself, the book draws on the work done by Rosalin Barker and CCS member Derek Morris to give a good and comprehensive overview of the business and familial links of the Quaker families both within the town and down on the River Thames.  The joint ownership of the vessels is examined, and we are given details of the transfer of shares.  I wonder whether there was any legislation at that time governing the number of shares allowed per vessel?  How were those shares noted?  We know that registration of vessels and ownership was ordered as far back as Charles II’s Navigation Acts of 1660, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that shares in British ships were quantified as “sixty-fourths”.


The latter part of the book contains the “meat” as far as Cook’s ships are concerned, tracing where they went, what they carried, and giving the most recent information as to their whereabouts, which is very useful.  I would have liked to have heard more about the trade which developed with the old Hanseatic League ports beyond the carrying of coal.  The Hansa developed the cargo carrying Cogs in the 13-14th century (the first known ships to have stern mounted rudders) that led to the Dutch Fluyts and Snaus of the late 16th century, upon which the design of the Whitby ships were based.  The Whitby Cats carried the same cargoes from the same ports serviced first by the Hansa and then the Dutch.  There is scope for further work in this direction.


The operating details of the ships and the crew’s living conditions are incomplete.  A plan of one of the ships would have been useful.  We know what Endeavour’s internals looked like after conversion from the Earl of Pembroke, but what were they before?  The only clue we get in respect of the crew conditions is the clumsy phrase “at sea he would sleep ‘before the mast’ with the other seamen in the wettest and smelliest part of the vessel.”  Coal was a dirty cargo and the crew, involved in loading and unloading as they undoubtedly were, would have difficulty keeping themselves and the ship clean.  Was this accomplished by the daily, almost religious, swabbing of the decks as enforced by the Royal Navy, or did they live with the dirt?  I’ve always wanted to know how the ships were cleaned out to take on cargoes other than coal.  However, good information regarding building stalls and other constructions in the holds of the ships to transport horses or men makes up for that, in part.


If those details are incomplete though, some of the individual sailors do jump off the page, as in the story of John Walker’s Freelove trying to unload coal in the Port of London in May 1768.  The port was crowded and Freelove’s master and mate, James Taylor and Richard Ellerton, couldn’t find coal-heavers, and so put their crew to the job.  Continuing the job the next day, a gang of men came aboard. A fight ensued that left one sailor, John Beattie, so badly wounded that he died some ten days later.  This “breakdown of industrial relations”, as one might call it, resulted in two of the gang being hanged at Tyburn.  A good instance of the “deep antagonism between the sailors and the largely Irish (and Catholic) coal-heavers.”  I was likewise taken with the mention of Luke Collingwood, who had sailed with James Cook in Friendship and Three Brothers in 1747-8.  In due course he became master of the infamous Zong slave ship, throwing slaves overboard on a voyage from Africa to Jamaica in 1781, and being brought to court for a fraudulent insurance claim that created a national scandal.  It was indeed a major triumph for the abolitionist movement.


But what of James Cook himself?  Given the sum total of all that has been written about our hero it must be difficult to find something new to say, but Baines takes an interesting position on two elements of his story.  One is the path that Cook followed from school to Staithes and Whitby.  He confirms the connection between William Sanderson, Staithes shopkeeper and Cook’s first employer, and John Walker of Whitby with detail that I hadn’t heard before.  The second is that he states that Cook asked for a post at Greenwich Hospital.  He is presumably referring to Cook’s letter of 12 August, 1775.  But Beaglehole has, I think, the correct interpretation of what happened—Cook’s formal letter to Stephens, the Admiralty secretary, was simply that, a letter of form after the offer had been made to him, putting into writing what had been verbally agreed.  It contained the proviso that, “If I am fortunate enough to merit their Lordships approbation, they will allow me to quit it [if I can get back to active service]” His well-known letter to John Walker that followed shows his true feelings, “and I am now going to be confined within the limits of Greenwich Hospital, which are far too small for an active mind like mine”.1 


Wisely, Baines gives only an outline of Cook’s voyages as these have been adequately covered by many others. 


There is a minor error in a note on page 160 regarding the “tumblehome” of a ship. It is stated as the “Narrowing of the sides of the ship from the main deck downwards”.  In fact it is the opposite: the sides slope outwards towards the waterline.  This shape gave more cargo space low down in the hull, thus lowering the centre of gravity of a vessel.


Let me give just one example of what I consider the extraneous detail given in this book.  I must admit to being rather bemused that Baines gives four pages to a discussion of the Lisbon earthquake of 1750.  As a disaster it was indeed a huge event but, though it happened during Cook’s lifetime, it can’t really be said to have had any major effect on him, or on Whitby and its ships.  He quotes one Whitby sailor who was in Portsmouth harbour at the time as stating, “when on a sudden the ship began to bounce so that all the crew were alarmed”, but I don’t think any of the Whitby ships were at all incommoded or damaged.  Bearing in mind that the huge devastation caused by the event in Lisbon triggered one of the first Europe-wide disaster relief efforts I’m surprised that Whitby doesn’t appear to figure in this, unlike ports such as Bristol and Portsmouth, which both sent ships with supplies to Portugal in great charitable donations.  


The story of Lisbon seems to have been given in order that it can be linked to the Enlightenment, though all the principles bound within that movement (which included empiricism, reason, the questioning of religion and liberty) had been established many years before the Earthquake by the philosophers that Baines mentions (Leibnitz, Descartes and, Hume).  It was Enlightenment thinking that led to Cook’s Pacific voyages, not the Lisbon earthquake.  


I am all for good background information, including an appreciation of what was happening elsewhere in the world at the time, but this story and others go too far.


Details of the Bounty voyage are included but, as she came from Hull, and there is no obvious connection with the story of Cook’s ships, one wonders why she is there. 


There are numerous black and white illustrations, and genealogical charts, some more relevant than others.  In his preface, Baines states “There are a lot of genealogies in this book – for which I make no excuses”, but so many are peripheral to the story (do we really need the genealogy of the Spanish Succession?) that I think an excuse is called for. 


Overall, I do think that this book represents a noble effort.  It does give a better picture of the men who owned and sailed the Whitby ships than we have had before, plus it brings us up to date with the latest details of the search for the various vessel’s remains.  The title of the book is, however, slightly misleading, and tighter editing would have helped. 


Steve Ragnall



  1. Beaglehole, JC.  The Life of Captain James Cook.  Hakluyt Society.  1974.  Pages 444-5. 

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 39, volume 39, number 1 (2016).

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