Sailing with Cook: Inside the Private Journal of James Burney RN.  Suzanne Rickard. 2015

Sailing with Cook: Inside the Private Journal of James Burney RN. Suzanne Rickard. 2015

Rickard, Suzanne.  

Sailing with Cook: Inside the Private Journal of James Burney RN

National Library of Australia.  


ISBN 978-0-642-277777-0. 

256 pages.


James Burney sailed with Cook around the world twice, having had many adventures before that, and became a great writer afterwards.



This book’s main purpose is to look at Burney’s first voyage round the world using the private journal he wrote to entertain his family, a slim volume of only 35 sheets, folded in half, and hand-sewn to make a spine.  Rickard admirably expands Burney’s writing, adding context and background information that makes the book feel more like a biography.  It is lavishly illustrated throughout—I counted 175 images.


Of the 13 chapters in the book, three are about his time before sailing with Cook, and two cover his life afterwards.  The first chapter introduces us to James, his family and friends.  He was born in London in 1750, but his family moved to King’s Lynn for the benefit of his father’s health.  Charles Burney became a successful historian of music, and moved the family back to London in 1760, where his fame and influence grew.  The chapter ends in 1772, having briefly touched upon the boyhood of Jem (as he was called by his family), and his time at sea.  I was disappointed that there was so little information about the ships in which he had sailed, until I turned to chapter two, and found it was all covered there. 


Chapter two is headed “early naval training and career”, and begins with an excellent explanation of why going to sea was so desirable for boys who had “splendid connections but no qualifications”, and why “becoming a captain’s servant was an honourable and logical path into the senior service”.  Rickard says for every 100 men in a ship, a captain could take four captain’s servants.  They were regarded as gentlemen undertaking no menial work but learning navigation and seamanship.


Burney sailed in Princess Amelia in 1760, taking part in skirmishes and battles with the French, with whom Britain was at war.  He moved to Magnanime in 1762, Niger in 1763, and joined  Aquilon as a midshipman in 1766.  During this time Burney sailed twice into the Mediterranean Sea.  Rickard goes on to explain why Burney left the Navy, and sailed in the East India Company ship Greenwich to Bombay, returning in May 1771.  In September, his father made sure James was with him at a dinner with his “firm friend”, the Earl of Sandwich, who had also invited Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander and James Cook, all recently returned in Endeavour.  In February 1772, Charles Burney entertained Cook at his house in Queen Square, London.  Rickard tells us Jem’s “seafaring experience was talked about, an informal interview of sorts took place”, and Jem joined Cook’s new ship. 


In chapter three, Rickard explains how and why two ships were chosen for Cook’s Second Voyage, and describes some of the officers and other men who were to sail in them. 


I then skipped to chapter 12 to find out what happened after the voyage, as Rickard had whetted my appetite to know more about Burney’s life before I read his private journal. 


Although Burney left with Cook in Resolution in 1772, he returned with Tobias Furneaux in Adventure in 1774.  Back in London, Burney acted as interpreter for the Polynesian Omai, accompanying him to “many high places” and to see people, such as King George III, the Earl of Sandwich, Banks and Solander.  In December, Burney joined Cerebus, a frigate, as Second Lieutenant, sailing in April to Boston, America.  He saw action in the American War of Independence and was promoted to First Lieutenant.  In 1776 he joined Discovery for Cook’s Third Voyage.  Burney commanded the ship as she sailed to Plymouth, where Charles Clerke joined as her Captain.  After a brief description of the voyage and Cook’s death, Rickard explains how Burney commanded the ship again, this time from Stromness to Deptford in 1780.  In late 1781, he captained the frigate Latona, sailing on patrol between Scotland and Norway.  The following year he became captain of Bristol, and sailed to India, where he took part in fighting the French, and then the Indian forces of Sultan Tipoo Sahib.  Burney returned to London in 1785, due to poor health.


In the final chapter of the book Rickard points out that “Burney had been at sea almost continuously for 25 years”, during which he had occasionally questioned “the wisdom of superiors when he felt this warranted”, leading to an “enforced retirement” from the Navy.  Now on half-pay, he married Sarah Payne in 1785, and began a career as a writer.  His first work was about reducing the country’s national debt, a topic that is with us in 2016! 


Burney was engaged by William Bligh to help him produce an account of the Bounty voyage.  Through Burney’s friendship with Banks he had access to a vast library, and took full advantage of it.  His major work, published in five volumes between 1803 and 1817, was A Chronological History of the Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean, describing the European voyages of discovery between 1492 and 1764.  Burney also wrote a History of the Buccaneers of America, published in 1817, and A Chronological History of the North-Eastern Voyages of Discovery; and of the early Eastern navigations of the Russians, published in 1819. 


Rickard tells us “by day, Burney wrote diligently at his desk or went to various libraries and worked with friends and colleagues”, and “by evening, Burney and his wife competed at the game of whist, conquering the world as a pair in London drawing rooms and salons”.  In 1821, he published An Essay by way of lecture, on the Game of Whist.  It appeared in the same year that he was promoted to rear-admiral, and Rickard explains how this late promotion from the Admiralty came about.  Burney died from apoplexy in November 1821.



Having read about Burney’s publishing achievements, I was reminded that in chapter one Rickard had told us that he had written letters home whilst a boy at sea (though none of them survive), beginning a lifetime of penmanship.  So, I turned to Burney private journal wondering what his writing would be like, as he was 22 years old when he began it.  Rickard describes Burney’s writing as “confident and legible, with very few flourishes, although his spelling is inconsistent.  Capital letters spring up here and there, and his punctuation is slightly erratic.  He used more dashes than full stops, although this form was not unusual for the times”.  The journal is “sprinkled with a characteristic abbreviation of memorandum” suggesting to Rickard, “snatched moments when, having completed his desk work and writing of the official daily log, he had time to write his own journal and reflect on events”.


Burney wrote an official account of the voyage that was handed in to the Admiralty, along with all of the other journals, at the end of the voyage.  But he also kept a private journal, which wasn’t handed in but given to his family  It stayed with them until 1921, when it was obtained by a London book-seller, and, through him, made its way to John Fergusson, a specialist collector in Sydney.  JC Beaglehole was able to see it when editing Cook’s journal of the Second Voyage.  After Ferguson’s death in 1969 his collection of Australiana was purchased by the National Library of Australia, where it remains.  The text of Burney’s journal was published as a scholarly work in 1975, though with only eight illustrations and with very little interpretation.1 


Rickard does not reproduce the private journal, but quotes from it from time to time as she describes Burney’s part in the voyage.  Ten pages of the journal are shown in the book, with some enlargements, so that several passages can be easily read.  The journal begins on 22 June 1772.  On 23 July, he wrote “I am perswaded what I now write will never fall under the inspection of any who would wish to find fault, but will be read by those only who are predetrmind to be pleasd”.


Burney joined Resolution as an able seaman, but passed his lieutenant’s certificate before leaving London.  In October 1772, Resolution and Adventure arrived at the Cape of Good Hope.  Here, in November, Joseph Shank, first lieutenant of Adventure resigned, having been ill for several months.  Arthur Kempe, the ship’s second lieutenant, was promoted in his place, and Cook moved Burney from Resolution to Adventure promoting him to become her second lieutenant.  Rickard says “he had acquainted himself with accounts of earlier explorations in his father’s library and was well enough equipped to converse with Furneaux on the subject”. 


Being familiar with the story of Cook’s Second Voyage, I wondered how much of interest I’d find in Burney’s private journal.  When the ships separated in the Antarctic in February 1773, he was in Adventure, so we learn a great deal more about their passage to New Zealand than we do with the more familiar story of Resolution’s own passage.  Burney explained Furneaux’s reasoning for taking a route different to the one expected of Cook, thus increasing the chances of them finding land, a point often missed by biographers of Cook.  In March 1773, Burney arrived at Tasmania, which Cook didn’t see until his Third Voyage. 


Burney wrote, “this is Van diemens Land first discovered by Abel Tasman in 1642—it lays South of New Holland if not joining”.  This remark is illuminating in showing Burney’s knowledge of previous voyages and whether Tasmania was joined to Australia or not.  As they sailed along the coast Burney wondered whether, in Rickard’s summary of his writing, “they were seeing what Tasman saw?  Were they pinpointing their own position accurately?”  Rickard tells us they made mistakes in comparing their positions with Tasman’s chart, and “this error caused confusion for other navigators, including Captain Cook, for years to come”. 


Rickard writes that, off what is now known as Bruny Island, a small cutter was launched “to try to make an initial landing, but the wind got up and they were unsuccessful.  The cutter had to return”.  Turning the page, one sees an enlargement of part of his journal, in which he describes another, successful attempt.  The handwriting is easy to read, though the transcript below it helps.  One of the joys of this book is the beautiful colour reproduction of Burney’s chart, and of a drawing of some birds seen there by Peter Fannin, master of Adventure.  At the back of the book is a list of all of the illustrations, including links to web sites where many of them can be seen.  Most of the illustrations are from the collections of the National Library of Australia, showing the breadth and richness of their holdings.


Furneaux sailed for New Zealand, arriving at Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound, on 7 April.  Burney “was sent this Evening in the Small Cutter to look round the Cove for a Watering place & to see if there were any marks of the Resolution having been here—found several very convenient Watering places with Excellent Water, & one where we judge Captain Cook Waterd in the Endeavour—the Names of Several of his people being cut in the trees, but no signs of the Resolution”.  Cook didn’t arrive for about six weeks, so Burney’s account of what he and his men did whilst waiting is very valuable as it is so often skipped over in modern books about Cook’s Second Voyage.  Rickard is clearly impressed with Burney’s ability to observe and record what he saw, at one point writing, “Burney used his spare time to make astute ethnographic notes in his journal on the Māori people”.  She gives examples from his writing, often overlooked as people concentrate on what was written by Cook and JR Forster about the people and places. 


Resolution and Adventure left New Zealand on 7 June, 1773, sailing east looking for land, and then north to Tahiti, which they reached on 17 August.  Both Cook and Furneaux had been to the island before, and Rickard gives useful summaries of their previous visits.  Regrettably, she repeats the error that Cook named the Society Islands after the Royal Society, whereas he gave them that name “as they lay continuous to one a nother”.2  Burney “ventured into unadorned ethnography, as well as history”, writes Rickard of his journal entries, and spends several pages quoting his views, and commenting upon them. 


The ships sailed on to Huahine, where Burney met Omai.  He, writes Rickard, “was close to Burney in age, and shared many similar character traits”. A rapport developed between them.  Burney “took notice of Omai’s interpretation of events”.  Omai joined Adventure.  “After a relatively short time, however, Omai’s novelty began to wear thin as Burney realised that his guide was often inclined to romanticise, dramatise or exaggerate for effect.”


For a few days in October the two ships visited the Tongan islands of Eua and Tongatapu, then they sailed south for New Zealand.  As they went along the east coast the strong and fickle weather led to them being unable to keep together.  Burney wrote, “Our Ship in her best trim is not able to keep up, or carry Sail with the Resolution—at this time we fall bodily to Leeward being quite Light & so crank that we are obliged to Strike to every Squall.”  Resolution was able to sail past Cape Palliser, and went on to Queen Charlotte Sound, but Adventure had to turn round and sail back north, eventually anchoring in Tolaga Bay.  Unfavourable winds meant they had to stay there for a week, before sailing south again to rendezvous with Resolution.  Their time at Tolaga Bay is rarely mentioned in modern accounts of Cook’s Second Voyage, so it  is good to read Burney’s description of the good and bad things that happened there.


Upon their arrival at Ship Cove, “a Boat was sent to the Watering place—in our garden Stood a Large Tank of Wood on the Top of which was carved LOOK UNDERNEATH”.  Burney copied into his journal the letter they found explaining Cook had been there and left.  From the date of the letter, his departure had been only six days earlier. 


Furneaux got his men to repair their ship as best they could, find fresh provisions and wood, improve the health of the sick amongst them, and depart for home.  Relations with the local Māori once again ranged from good to bad, even with Omai interpreting.  On 12 December, Burney wrote, “Kemp, Rowe, Omy & myself in the Great Cutter—Narrow Escape”.  What he meant by that is unclear.  Arthur Kempe, first lieutenant, and Jack Rowe, master’s mate, do not say in their journals.  Nor does anyone else.  Five days later Rowe and some others were sent to Grass Cove “for Greens”, but did not return.  The next day, Burney and some men were sent in search of them.  He wrote little in his private journal, possibly feeling the details were far too gruesome for his family.  Rickard uses his report to Furneaux to explain what happened, and then quotes an enlightening letter written in 1777, by Charlotte Ann, his sister, in which she wrote that it was “a subject upon which he was very shy and always spoke of it in a whisper”.


Burney ended his private journal a few days later, on 22 December, 1773.  In telling the story of Burney’s voyage in Adventure, Rickard omits much of the mundane, and reduces some of his long descriptions to shorter, punchier ones.  I liked that as it made the story flow better, though, occasionally, I wish she had quoted more.  For example, on 10 December, 1772, Burney wrote that the icebergs, “seem to change Colour as the Weather changes—When the Sun Shines & the Sky is clear they are of a fine light blue & transparent, in bad weather they resemble Land covered with Snow the lower part appearing black”.  Rickard reduces this passage to the icebergs, “fascinated him with their changing colours depending on the weather, one minute clear and blue, another moment black and menacing”.


In the bibliography of works by Burney, and of secondary sources of interest, is included the Captain Cook Society, and our web address, which is very pleasing to see. After the list of illustrations appears an index, as you would expect, which I found very useful.  Throughout the book are twelve text boxes—pages of supporting information covering subjects such as his famous sister Fanny Burney, timekeepers, Tahiti’s system of government, war canoes, and his literary friends during his later life. 


Soon after the voyage had begun, Burney wrote in his private journal on 23 July, 1772, “my chief aim is your amusement”.  I feel sure he achieved that with his family.  He certainly did so for me, with his words brought to life in this wonderful book by Suzanne Rickard. 


Ian Boreham



  1. Hooper, Beverley (ed).  With Captain James Cook in the Antarctic and Pacific.  The private journal of James Burney, Second Lieutenant.  National Library of Australia.  1975.
  2. Cook's Log, page 1056, vol. 17, no. 3 (1994). 

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 44, volume 39, number 3 (2016).

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