The formal public announcement of the death of Captain Cook appeared in the London Gazette on 11 January 1780. At the next meeting of the Council of the Royal Society, presided over by Sir Joseph Banks, it was resolved:
That it is the opinion of the Council that the very signal services performed by the late Capt. Cook, a worthy member of this Society, in the many & extensive Discoveries he has made in different parts of the Globe merit some public act on the part of the Society as a mark of the high sense they entertain of the importance of those services and to testify their Zeal for perpetuating the memory of so valuable and eminent a man.
Council minutes, 20 January 1780
The Council met a week later on 27 January. By then, thoughts had crystallised on how to commemorate Captain Cook, and it was resolved to commission a commemorative medal. The cost of striking such a medal was too expensive for the Society to fund, so it was agreed that members of the Society would be invited to make voluntary contributions to cover the expense.
Some thought appears to have been given to the costing of the proposed medal as three weeks later the Council approved the following details:
That a subscription be opened to the Members of the Society for raising a fund towards assisting the Corporation in defraying the expence of the Medal that is intended to be Struck in Honour of Capt. Cook. That all such Members as shall subscribe the sum of Twenty Guineas shall be entitled to one Gold Medal And those who shall subscribe one Guinea shall receive either one Silver or two Bronze Medals; And that the same return shall be made for every additional subscription, tolies quoties.
That besides the Medal thus subscribed for, every Member of the Society shall be entitled to one Bronze Medal.
Council minutes, 17 February 1780
The Council did not invite designs for the new medal, but several members were sufficiently enthusiastic about the project to submit their own detailed proposals. These members included Nevil Maskelyne (the Astronomer Royal) and a Dr Forster. It is not clear from the minutes whether the Council considered these submissions from their members, but several months later it is recorded that:
Mr Pingo attended with a design for Capt. Cook’s intended Medal and was desired to meet the President and Secretary in order to compare it with some antiques.
Council minutes, 1 June 1780
At its next meeting on 15 June 1780, the Council authorised Mr Pingo to prepare a die for the Captain Cook Medal. Lewis Pingo at that time was a chief engraver to the Royal Mint, but he was commissioned by the Royal Society in a private capacity as he was in partnership with his brother John, in the design and production of medals.
Lewis Pingo’s design for the Cook commemorative medal is defined as follows:
Obverse: Bust of Cook facing left dressed in wig and coat.
Legend: IAC COOK OCEANI INVESTIGATOR ACERRIMUS (The Most Intrepid Investigator of the Seas).
Below: REG SOC LOND SOCIO SVO.
Under the truncation of the bust the designer’s mark L.P.F. (L. Pingo fecit)
Reverse: A draped female figure (Britannia) standing, her shield leans against a pillar, whilst she holds her spear with her left hand. She leans her left arm against a low pillar which is ornamented with the beaks of ships. Her right hand holds an antique rudder which is resting upon a globe.
Legend: NIL INTENTATUM NOSTRI LIQVERE (Our Men Have Left Nothing Unattempted)
Exergue: AVSPICIIS GEORGII III
It was over three years before Captain Cook’s Medal next appeared in the minutes of the Royal Society.
The President acquainted the Council that the dye for the Medal ordered to be struck in honor of Capt. Cook was finished & produced an impression in lead taken from the same. He was requested to direct that the striking of the Medals be proceeded upon immediately, beginning with the Gold ones, then those subscribed for, and lastly those to be given to the Members.
Council minutes, 20 November 1783
In early January 1784, the Council increased its order for gold medals from Mr Pingo:
Resolved –That the President order five Gold Medals to be struck, to be presented, one to his Majesty, one to the Queen, one to the Prince of Wales, one to the French King & one to the Empress of Russia.
Council minutes, 14 January 1784
Royal protocol required that the King and Queen receive their medals first. The Pingos’ invoice shows that the first Captain Cook medals struck from the new die were the five gold medals, which were delivered to the Royal Society on 20 January 1784. By the end of February the President was able to report to the Council that all the complimentary medals had been received with satisfaction by their royal recipients. Only then did the Council authorise that all of the medals ordered by the subscribers be struck. Messrs Pingo duly obliged as their invoices show the following deliveries of medals:
16 March 9 x Gold Medals supplied
8 May 100 x Silver Medals supplied
9 June 161 x Silver Medals supplied
There appears to have been some problem of communication between the Royal Society and the Pingo Brothers as in May 1784 the minutes record:
Notice was given that all of the Medals of Captn. Cook are struck and it was resolved that the Clerk begins to deliver them out to the Members and Subscribers on Tuesday next at twelve of Clock.
Council minutes, 20 May 1784
From the above production figures it can be seen that the information given to the Council was a little premature as by the end of May, Messrs Pingo had not completed all of the silver medals, let alone commenced striking the bronze medals. Once the members of the Royal Society had been advised that they could collect their medals an unsatisfactory outcome was entirely predictable. The following month the Council attempted to redress the situation:
Ordered that the Clerk acquaints Mr. Pingo that complaints have been made of the delay in the Delivery of Capt. Cook’s Medals & that the Council earnestly requests that he will use all possible diligence in striking the remainder of them.
Council minutes, 17 June 1784
At this stage in the production of the medals it was possible to accurately predict whether the income from subscribers would cover the cost of striking the medals.
The initial estimates suggested that there would be a generous surplus of income. As a result, the Council decided to commission five more gold medals.
It appearing that the subscription for Captain Cook’s Medal is likely to produce more than the Expence of Striking it, it was proposed & agreed to that the surplus be applied in striking an additional number for Presents; and that Mrs Cook, Lord Sandwich, Dr. Franklin, Dr Cook the Provost of Kings & Mr Planta be each presented with a Gold Medal.
Council minutes, 17 June 1784
These last 5 gold medals were delivered on 7 August and immediately afterwards the Pingo bothers began their last production run and struck 500 bronze medals, sufficient for every member of the Royal Society. They made their last delivery of 100 bronze medals on 2 October 1784.
According to Pingos’ invoices they had supplied the Royal Society with a total of:
19 gold medals
291 silver medals
574 bronze medals
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 28, volume 31, number 3 (2008).