Tag Archives: Royal Navy

Captain James Cook 1728-1779

Jane Austen was born in 1775, four years before Captain James Cook was killed in Kealakekua Bay in the Hawaiian Islands, so he might seem somewhat early for this blog. Yet Cook was one of the pioneering explorers and scientist who created the world Jane lived in, a world of scientific discovery and dynamic maritime trade with London at its centre. (The portrait below is c1775, by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland)

Plus I seem to be bumping into Captain Cook everywhere I go on holiday!

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At the age of eighteen, after a prosaic start in life on a Yorkshire farm and as a shopkeeper’s assistant, Cook was apprenticed to John Walker, master mariner, at Whitby. The red house in the photo is where Cook lived, occupying the attic with the other apprentices.apprentice-house

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is where I met him most recently, landing by Zodiac from a small ship and seeing the lovely little port somewhat as Cook had seen it. A half-scale replica of his little ship, The Endeavour, is tied up in the harbour (picture below, right). Even at twice the size it is hard to imagine circling the globe in her.

In 1755 Cook, by then a mate on a merchant ship, joined the Royal Navy as a volunteer and proceeded to demonstrate what a farmer’s son, with a village school education, talent and ambition could achieve in the navy. By 1763, at the age of thirty five he was appointed Surveyor of Newfoundland and in 1768, Lieutenant Cook, in command of the Whitby collier Endeavour, was tasked with sailing to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus in 1769.

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Observations of the planet Venus passing in front of the sun from various positions on the globe would, the astronomer Edmond Halley predicted, enable the distance of the earth from the sun. (Too complicated to go into here, but there’s a useful explanation on this site).

The Admiralty needed a navigator with exceptional accuracy and rigour and had chosen well: Cook made the observation successfully, then went on to complete the circumnavigation of New Zealand, landing in the bay he called Ship Cove. He revisited the Cove again on his voyage. He went on to survey the east coast of Australia, landing at Botany Bay. (Below: Ship Cove by John Webber, 1778 and the modern memorial in the cove)

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Cook returned home in 1770 and was then sent on his second great voyage in 1772 which involved sailing around the world from west to east, making Cook the first man to have circumnavigated the globe in both directions. He explored far into the south towards what we now know is Antarctica, seeking for the great southern landmass that was believed to exist. His was the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle and he returned with evidence that the southern continent, of which Australia was supposed to be part, did not exist.

He landed in New Zealand again and we were lucky enough to visit Pickersgill Harbour, a tiny, wild patch in the South Island’s fjord area that Cook had used for observations. It still looked just as the artist had depicted, even to the fallen trees that Cook made such good use of – ideal for the shallow-drafted Endeavour. (Below: on-site information board and Pickergill Harbour today)

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On his way home Cook explored Easter Island, the Tongan Islands, aNew Caledonia and the New Hebrides, returning in 1775.

On his third voyage , beginning 1776, he landed in Tasmania, revisited New Zealand and landed in Tahiti and Tonga. In 1778 he was the first westerner to see the Hawaiian islands but carried on to attempt to pass through the Bering Strait. Stopped by ice he returned to winter in Hawaii, but on 14th February 1779 he was killed, along with four marines, when a dispute with the islanders exploded into violence.

It was a tragic incident, not least because Cook had been rigorous in setting out rules for his crew to ensure their interactions with the local people was peaceful and fair wherever he landed. It seems that Hawaiian society was very different from the southern Pacific peoples he had become used to and a series of tragic misjudgements and misunderstandings led to the fight.

His body was disembowelled, baked and the bones carefully cleaned and removed, all in accordance with local customs showing respect for dead chiefs and important elders. The crew managed to reclaim some of the remains which were buried at sea.

Cook was only fifty one at the time of his death and one wonders what discoveries he would have made if he only had a few more years to explore.

 

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Receiving the News – the Telegraph System

In my blog posts about the weeks leading up to the battle of Waterloo I mentioned how long it took for the news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba to reach Paris. This was particularly surprising because the French had a magnificent telegraph system – defeated on this occasion, just when it was needed most, by poor visibility. The first visual telegraph system was the invention of Claude Chappe, a French engineer, working with his brothers. The French government seized on the invention and installed a network of 556 stations covering the entire country. Stelegraph codestations were updated and added to and the system continued in use until the 1850s when electric telegraphy took over. A Chappe telegraph and the posible positions are shown on the left.
During the French wars the Allies were handicapped by poor communications while the French had this excellent system – provided visibility was good. The brothers invented a simple and robust system with two arms, each with a short upright at the end. This could be controlled by counterweights by one man. A message of 36 letters could reach Lille from Paris in about half an hour. Codes were also developed, so messages, including numbers, could be sent in plain, or code. in addition there was a 3-armed system  used from 1803 onwards at coastal locations to warn of invasion. The Emperor was so convinced of the benefits of the telegraph that he took portable versions with him on campaign.
The British government was quick to see that without a telegraph system they were at a distinct disadvantage. The Admiralty’s Shutter Telegraph was created in 1795 to a design by Lord John Murray and had six rotating shutters which were used to indicate a complicated code. It required a rectangular framework tower with six, five feet high, octagonal shutters on horizontal axes that flipped between horizontal and vertical positions to signal. One was set up on top of the Admiralty building in Whitehall – more or less where the modern telecommunications masts can be seen today doing much the same job.
With a staggering disregard for security it was possible to visit the telegraph station, provided one tipped the operator. Presumably only reputable persons were permitted to enter the Admiralty in the first place, but it is still hard to believe that this was not a security loophole. The newspapers kept an eye on telegraphSt Alabans activity and could deduce when something major was about to happen by the volume of traffic and where it was going, even if they could not decipher it
The first line ran from the Admiralty to the dockyards at Sheerness and on to Deal. It had 15 stations along the route and a message took an astonishing sixty seconds. The second went south from London to the naval base at Portsmouth and then on to Plymouth and was opened in May 1806. The third to Yarmouth on the east coast opened in 1808. The image on the left shows the telegraph array on top of the church on St Albans, Hertfordshire.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The intermediate stations were  wooden huts and with a staggering lack of foresight they were all abandoned in 1814 when peace was declared and had to be recommissioned hastily in March 1815 when the news of Bonaparte’s escape from Elba reached London.
When peace came the enterprising Chappe brothers promoted their system for commercial use and some of their stone towers can still be found – there is one in Saverne, for example, and one at Baccon on the Loire, just west of Orleans which I visited a few years ago. (Photo, left, shows it with its restored telegraph arms).
Later in 1815 the Admiralty secured funding for a new system using arms rather than shutters and used the system – weather permitSONY DSCting, until 1847. The brick tower on the right is the semaphore tower at Chatley Heath on the line to Portsmouth. It is now in the care of the National Trust.

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