Captain Cook's War and Peace: the Royal Navy years, 1755-1768. Robson, John. 2009

Captain Cook's War and Peace: the Royal Navy years, 1755-1768. Robson, John. 2009

Robson, John. 
Captain Cook's War and Peace: the Royal Navy years, 1755-1768.
Seaforth Publishing, UK. ISBN 978-1-84832-033-8.
Also published by the University of New South Wales Press, Australia and USNI Press, USA.

The 250th anniversary of the fall of Quebec in 1759 and Britain's acquisition of Canada provides a timely moment for the publication of John Robson's latest book on Cook's career from joining the Royal Navy to his selection to lead the voyage of Endeavour. Robson poses the question, not why Cook was chosen to lead Endeavour, but rather, why would the Admiralty have chosen anyone else, and who else could they have chosen?

When Cook joined the Navy in 1755, Britain was in the opening stages of the Seven Years War (1756-62). The experienced seaman from Yorkshire was a welcome recruit. He entered the Navy as an able seaman in HMS Eagle, but in just a month was promoted to master's mate, and was soon on duty patrolling the Western Approaches. He seems to have made the transition without difficulty to handling much larger ships than he would have met before. Robson traces his service in HMS Eagle, his examination to become master, and appointment to HMS Solebay on duty in Scottish waters. This was a brief posting, and in October 1757 Cook was posted to HMS Pembroke, under Captain Simcoe and crossed the Atlantic for the first time. Robson recounts Cook's experience at the siege of Louisbourg and the fortunate meeting with Samuel Holland. Holland was an important military engineer and surveyor who was well known to General Wolfe and appears to have been with Wolfe when he was killed. Robson prints the entire text of Holland's letter in which he recounts his contacts with both Simcoe and Cook.

A group of six chapters then covers Cook's Peace, his growing proficiency in surveying, his appointment as Surveyor of Newfoundland, and the yearly routine of spending the summer and autumn in Newfoundland and winter with his growing family back in London, turning his charts into finished works for presentation to the Admiralty. In these years Cook became a highly professional surveyor and cartographer, acquired enough astronomical expertise to observe a solar eclipse and to use lunar tables for calculating longitude, and had five year's experience of managing an expedition and his own small ship.

The final chapters describe the extraordinarily busy months in 1768 when, rather than returning to Canada as he had been expecting, Cook was selected to lead the Endeavour voyage. His combination of skills and experience led the Admiralty to decide that he was by far the best candidate for the job.

The book is based on a huge amount of work in the archives and brings together much information from diverse sources. There is a real sense of the day-to-day business of being on patrol, the routines of issuing orders and instructions, the maintenance of the ship and crew in as fit a state as possible, the to-and-fro of survey work along difficult coastlines, with many quotations from the logs of Cook and others, and correspondence with the Admiralty. Accidents, gales, sickness, fogs and running aground were frequent hazards. Robson emphasises the vital role played by the Navy in the Canadian campaign. The joint operation to capture Quebec was carried through with an extraordinary level of co-operation from the Navy, "the constant assistance and support, the perfect harmony and correspondence which has prevailed throughout all our operations" as the senior Army commander put it in his dispatch to London. Wolfe was fortunate in the naval commanders and experienced men who served alongside him.

The text is interspersed with short sections which deal with particular individuals or questions, such as sorting out the three different James Cooks who served in the Navy at this time. This allows Robson to introduce a number of well and lesser-known figures and argue for their importance: for example, Thomas Bisset, Cook's first master in the Eagle, trained Cook in the work of a master and may have influenced his appointment to the Pembroke. The book is well illustrated with Robson's own maps, a number of Cook's charts and contemporary paintings. The paintings by Ashley Bowen, a New England sailor who joined the Pembroke, were quite new to me. The short sections mean that there is inevitably some repetition, but they bring material together in a convenient manner as well as providing information on hitherto shadowy figures. There is much fascinating detail, and Robson gives due weight to the patrons who helped Cook, that he was fortunate in coming into close contact with a succession of influential men - Colvill, Palliser, Stephens.

Robson concludes by arguing that the development of Cook's surveying, cartographic, navigation and astronomical skills, together with his seamanship and leadership, made him the inevitable choice for the Endeavour voyage. While he does not discuss possible alternatives in much detail, there is much for be said for this view, and Cook's peacetime activities were undoubtedly vital to his advancement. It is however worth returning to "Cook's War" for two reasons. First, a man who had seen action and been part of prolonged naval and military operations, was someone whom the Admiralty would see as tried and tested, and therefore a thoroughly reliable officer. Second, it reminds us of the bigger picture of the great power struggles of the 18th century between France and England, and their intense rivalry and competition. Britain's naval power and financial muscle, underpinned by international trade, were the reasons why Britain was able to oppose French domination of Europe. Indeed many in France could not comprehend why Britain did not yield supremacy to the state which saw itself as vastly more powerful and sophisticated: as the French foreign minister, the Duc de Choiseul said, "I am completely astounded that England, which is a very tiny bit of Europe, is dominant" (1767), and was determined that this should not continue. This sets the background to the decades of maritime exploration that followed the Seven Years War. At the same time there was much mutual attraction and emulation, with exchanges of information, visits and correspondence between many who found themselves in opposing camps. Cook's later career would see this too, as French voyagers both preceded him and followed in his footsteps, and his published works were received with the greatest respect in France. Cook's peace and his war are equally relevant in this respect to understanding his place in wider history.

Note: The Admiralty Library, formerly housed in the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, Taunton was transferred to the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth in 2005, and charts referred to as of the Admiralty Library are therefore now in Portsmouth.

Reviewer: Sophie Forgan

John Robson is to be congratulated on this masterpiece, not only is it well written, the depth of research and amount of information is astounding. John not only takes us though Cook's life in the Royal Navy from 1755 to 1768, but also provides monographs of the people and events that influenced his life.

Many of us are aware of Cook's meeting with Samuel Holland, but few of us were aware of the active involvement of Captain John Simcoe, who encouraged Cook to improve his talents. At Simcoe's invitation they all met in HMS Pembroke and formed a friendship. What I never realised, was that to the east of Lake Huron, the Holland River enters Lake Simcoe at Cook Bay! The naming appears to be from surveys carried out in the area in 1783.1 Perhaps he had only just heard about Cook's death and decided to acknowledge their former friendship.

To return to the book; John's explanation of the historical events provides us with a better understanding of why Cook was patrolling the French Coast and later surveyed St. Pierre & Miquelon and Newfoundland.

The book is liberally sprinkled with maps, which helps considerably with the story. Those who have delved into Captain Cook's World,2 another of John's books will not be disappointed with the quality of the maps.

However, some of the places mentioned are not indicated on the maps and I had to resort to one of my atlases with a reasonably large scale map of Newfoundland to find many of them. John says that some of the place names had changed. My atlas shows the original names, so they must have been changed within the last sixty years.

I was surprised to discover that Michael Lane had only one season with Cook. He must have been a good teacher as Lane completed the survey of Newfoundland to the same high standard.

This book greatly assists in the understanding of the development Cook's career and talents. He was fortunate to serve under captains who both appreciated his work and had connections with the Lords of the Admiralty. So, when their Lordship's chose Cook to lead the expedition, they entrusted the task to one of their most able seamen.

It has to be essential reading for every Cook enthusiast.

Richard. A. Hindle


  1. Dictionary of Canadian Biography online.
  2. Robson, John. Captain Cook's World: Maps of the Life and Voyages of James Cook R. N. Random House. 2000.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 9, volume 32, number 4 (2009).

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