The Life of Captain James Cook
XXVI — End of a Voyage
End of a Voyage
On no one did the inconceivable fall more heavily than on the sick man Clerke. If he had been crushed, or if he had been swept into an excess of excitement, in either case it could have been understood; but the wasting away of his body did not disturb the quality of his mind. He briefly entertained, and discarded, the idea of summary vengeance. His level-headedness made even King, unbalanced for a day or two and ready for extreme measures, think that he was unable to reach any decision at all: in reality his perceptiveness was matched by his tact and his firmness, and made him the master of a situation which could quite easily have gone from disaster to disaster. His men would have turned the bay into a shambles; the Hawaiians might have put the ships into such a state of siege as to cancel the rest of the voyage. Vengeance on a grand scale would certainly have been both difficult and inept. It was not possible to maintain a complete control. In some sporadic skirmishing round the heiau and the spring the men of a watering party showed how savage sailors could be—were guilty, in the words of a King who had regained his balance, of'many reprehensible things'; the people, at once appalled and exultant at what they had done, did not omit to provide temptation. A few guns were fired; there was no assault on canoes. On both sides, as the days passed, the temperature was lowered. It may have helped, in the ships, that the immediate rage for revenge was mingled with a rage against Williamson over his conduct at the crisis. He faced a storm of accusation, as the person who could have saved Cook's life and did not. Clerke felt compelled to make some sort of specific enquiry. He could not be convinced of any real degree of turpitude, whatever he thought of the man's power of judgment, and the matter dropped. Phillips, who hated Williamson as much as anyone did, was clear that nothing he could have done would have had that sort of utility. The first conclusion Clerke came to we may regard as a determining thought in all his policy of these last days at Kealakekua Bay: 'Upon the whole I firmly believe page 674 matters would not have been carried to the extremities they were had not Capt Cook attempted to chastise a man in the midst of this multitude'—relying, in the last resort, on the fire of the marines to disperse it.1 How, then, could he give a free hand to retaliatory violence? But if Cook had been to blame, the whole transaction had not been simple, he was to reflect as in due course he departed from the islands and summed up his impressions: he 'must leave it to superior Judgments to settle the secret springs and original causes of action, with once more observing that the unhappy catastrophe which befell us I do think appears by no means the effect of premeditated intention, but of an unfortunate string of circumstances tending to the same unlucky point, one action irritating another till they terminated in the fatal manner as has been represented.'2
1 Journals III, 538–9.
2 Journals III, 593–4.
Clerke made it clear that he wanted these last remains. There was still delay. Meanwhile, as Cook's successor in leadership, he re-arranged the command on orthodox lines. Gore went to the Discovery as her captain; King became first lieutenant, and Williamson (by virtue of seniority) second lieutenant of the Resolution; while Harvey, the banished midshipman of Huahine fame, was brought back to her as third. He had outlived Cook's resentment, and Clerke could reflect that the promotion was something already designed. Then there was the episode of the watering party, its stoning by natives still belligerent, the brutal retaliation, the firing of a village and the belongings of priests who had been promised immunity. Outrageous as this was, it brought submission, the green boughs and white flags of peace, a revived trade in provisions; perhaps helped on the resolve to surrender sacred trophies. On the 19th, the day that work on the mast was finished, Kalei'opu'u sent a present as earnest of his desire for peace. First, said Clerke, the remains of Captain Cook. Next morning the mast was stepped, not without difficulty; and at noon a procession came down the hill opposite the ship, with hogs, fruit and roots, bearing flags, beating drums, uttering loud cries; the chief in the lead handed over a bundle 'very decently wrap'd up', and covered with a cloak of black and white feathers. Good, said Clerke, who was prepared to be hospitable; but what about the marines? They, alas, it was explained, had been distributed among various chiefs in different parts of the island, to collect them would be impossible; it was different with Cook, the property of the king. Clerke thought best to drop the subject. The bundle was opened in the cabin of the Resolution. It contained, page 676 according to Hawaiian custom, the scalp, all the long bones, thighs, legs, arms, and the skull; the jawbone of the latter was missing, as were the feet, and the hands were separate. All had been scraped clean except the hands, which had been preserved with salt stuffed into a number of gashes. There was a means of identification: the right hand bore the well known great scar between the thumb and forefinger, the legacy of the exploding powder-horn on the Newfoundland coast. The backbone and ribs had been consumed with the flesh in the fire.1 The following morning the chief came again, bringing the jawbone and the feet, together with Cook's shoes and the bent and battered barrels of his musket. The remains were put into a coffin, and late in the afternoon of this day, 21 February, amid all the marks of naval grief, flags at half mast, crossed yards, and half-minute guns, they were sunk in the waters of the bay.
1 Such trophies were normally distributed among great chiefs, and accordingly with Cook's remains there was a little problem in collecting them again. King learnt that the head or skull had gone to 'kahoo-opcou' (? Kekuhaupio, a warrior of immense distinction); the hair to 'Maia-maia' (Kamehameha, the future king); 'and the legs, thighs and arms to Terreeoboo.'—Voyage to the Pacific, III, 78. The missionary William Ellis, later collecting what information he could, was told that some bones were still retained, considered sacred, kept in a heiau dedicated to Lono on the other side of the island, and carried in annual religious procession—until, with the 'abolition of idolatry' in 1819, they disappeared, probably hidden in some secret cave. Almost everything else that could be called a relic of Cook's visit was venerated, he adds.—Narrative of a Tour through Hawaii (London, 1827), 117–18.
2 King, Journals III, 561; Trevenen, ibid., n.; Samwell, ibid., 1217. On the general question of Cook's godhead, and the sceptical case put by Sir Peter Buck, cf. the note on p. cxliv of that volume—which includes also relevant remarks by Ellis (Narrative) and Colnett.
The winds were not good, and progress was rather slow and painful, as close in as possible to the westward coasts of Kahoolawe, Maui with its great extinct crater, Lanai, the mountain mass of Molokai, and between that island and Oahu, tracing another eastern shore, well populated, green, fertile, most beautiful. Rounding its north-eastern point, Clerke anchored for a few hours in a promising bay; landing, he was received with prostration and pigs, but found only a brackish supply of water. Obviously he must make for Kauai, where he hoped also for yams, good keepers at sea; and having got rid of all his women on Oahu, lest they should talk too much of Hawaiian misfortune, he was at the old anchorage in Waimea Bay on 1 March, prepared for a stay of some days. He at once sent a watering party on shore. Whether or not the news of Cook's death had arrived, and lowered the prestige of the visitors, the people were at first truculent, and on that day in defence a man was shot dead. It could not be called a cruel or gratuitous act, like that of Williamson the year before—the careful King was in command, there was little further conflict, and watering was completed without trouble. Trade went on apace; Kauai, thought Clerke, was 'the most extraordinary Hog Island we ever met with', and there was fruit; but the season, as luck would have it, was bad for yams. As there was plenty of salt, a large amount of pork was cured for future needs. The everlasting problem of the Resolution's leaky sides was again evident, and all the carpenters were employed on them. Chiefs, even a 'queen' came on board the ships; a great deal was learnt about the tangled politics of the island, which possessed some extraordinary personalities and a lively civil war—in which Cook's goats had perished; great inducements were held out to likely persons to stay and lend their aid in the struggle; but the idea of desertion, which had seemed so fair at Tahiti or Raiatea, had become not at all attractive, and there was no trouble on that score. After a week the ships crossed to Niihau, to try again for yams. Here also the supply was disappointing, and another week was productive of little beyond boisterous weather. On 15 March they departed south-west on a brief unavailing search for the elusive turtle island 'Modoopapappa', which remained an page 678 object of curiosity from the earlier visit, and then steered west. They were without joy. It was a mission of conscience rather than hope. The gloom of Kealakekua Bay sailed with them. There was further gloom for Clerke—and it was shared by most of his officers—in the reflection that he was leaving behind in the Sandwich Islands not merely his friend but, visibly and horribly alive, a disease compared to the ravages of which musket-balls were gifts of love. Samwell might try to convince himself, and the world, that it was there before Cook discovered the group. Clerke, like Cook, was without illusions, and did not encourage them in others; and the Hawaiians were not such fools that they could not put cause and effect together. Clerke had at one stage been too sanguine. 'Captain Cook did take such preventive methods as I hop'd and flatter'd myself would prove effectual,' he writes, 'but our Seamen are in these matters so infernal and dissolute a Crew that for the gratification of the present passion that affects them they would entail universal destruction upon the whole of the Human Species.'1
1 Journals III, 576. Clerke attributes the severity of the visitation in Hawaii, in contrast to the Friendly and Society islands, to the quantity of salt the Hawaiians made use of in their customary diet. —'It certainly is a most unfortunate and ever to be lamented incident, here's a most miserable curse entail'd upon these poor Creatures which never can end but with the general dissolution of Nature.
Avacha Bay was the only harbour on the east coast of Kamchatka. Petropavlovsk, like a few other villages in the southern part of the country, was supposed to be a fortified post; but when King and Webber, despatched as linguists, reached it by stumbling painfully over the ice, they found that its armament and its scurvy-ridden exiguous military force, as the Kamchatkan winter drew to a close, could stimulate nothing but sad laughter. The sergeant in charge was most obliging, and concealed the alarm he felt at the appearance of two armed ships, large by his standards, before the few log houses and native huts of his command in that dreary snow-covered wilderness. The country had, indeed, been largely depopulated by smallpox, and what supplies were to be obtained must obviously be sent for and bestowed by higher authority. The only place of account was Bolsheretsk on the other side of the peninsula, the seat of government and of trade, and the sergeant was willing enough to pass on to the governor, Major Behm, the letters which Ismailov had given Cook at Unalaska. When two persons came in reply to this to inspect the situation it was clear that Ismailov had badly misrepresented the ships, and Clerke decided to send King, Webber and Gore (the last eager to go for the novelty, though useless on an embassy as he spoke nothing but English) on the river and sledge journey overland to interview Behm. They were absent a fortnight, while the ice cleared and the early herbage appeared above ground, and the carpenters set once more to work on the rotting heart-breaking Resolution. Cook's regimen in diet was in full force, nettle-tops and wild onions were collected, fish was obtained in vast quantities, under the surgeons' directions even the Russian garrison was page 680 restored to health. Among the mutual good offices ranked high those of the priest of Paratunka, a village some miles away, who supplied Clerke with the comforts of bread, milk and fresh butter. King's journey was interesting; Major Behm, at the end of it, once he understood its cause, was sympathetic and generous, refusing to consider payment in any form for the cattle and flour and tobacco Clerke wanted, and sure—alas for his future!—that his Government would nourish the same generous sentiments. He was a highly intelligent man, interested in discovery. It was perhaps a stroke of luck that King's arrival coincided with the news from a northern outpost of the favourable effect on Russian-Chukchi relations of Cook's visit to the Bay of St Lawrence; for he had been taken for a Russian, of an amiability earlier unknown, and the Chukchi were now themselves inclined to be friendly, even to pay tribute. Behm's qualities cancelled out the less engaging ones of his subordinate, shortly to be his successor, a Captain Shmalev, who could see no scientific purpose in the voyage; and when King came back Behm insisted on accompanying him, both to wait upon Clerke and to ensure that the orders he had himself given were carried out. So much a friend did he prove that, as he was about to return to St Petersburg on relinquishing his command, Clerke decided to entrust to him Cook's journal, a long letter and the journal in which he continued Cook's, some important charts, and reports from King and Bayly, lest the ships should even now encounter disaster—and considering their state, that possibility could not be ignored. Behm was glad to undertake the trust; and in this way, seven months later, after a trans-Asian journey, was the crushing news to fall upon the Admiralty.
The governor was amazed at the healthy appearance of the seamen, three years out from home, in so much better order than their ships were. Yet one more man had died, Alexander McIntosh, a respected carpenter's mate of the Resolution, of a long-lasting 'flux'—the only man to perish of sickness, it was thought, who was not doomed from the start of the voyage. As June began the vessels had been made seaworthy once more, though ropes and cables would stand little strain. Ropes could be spliced, or some substitute found: the Time Keeper presented a more difficult problem. It had been religiously guarded and wound by Cook and King, and no one could imagine why it should have stopped. Among the Resolution's people was Benjamin Lyon, a seaman who had served his apprenticeship to a watchmaker, and had kept his hand in by odd work on the voyage. Clerke called him into consultation: he found page 681 a little dirt in one of the wheels and got the thing going, not quite accurately. After three weeks it stopped again, was cleaned a little more, re-started and satisfactorily regulated, 'when at last we flattered ourselves with having once more a valuable machine in our possession'—only to stop a third time with a broken pendulum spring; and although Lyon made a new spring its utility on that voyage in the finding of longitude was over. It had still honourable work before it.1
1 King gave a full account of the difficulties in a letter to the secretary of the Board of Longitude from Petropavlovsk, 10 June 1779, a copy of which is in the Banks Papers in the Mitchell Library Ms A 78.1, printed in Journals III, 1541–2. He hoped for the best, but Bayly (Astronomical Observations, 69) says it was rendered 'in a manner useless during the remaining part of the voyage'. After repair by Kendall it went with Captain Phillip in the First Fleet to Australia, returned to England in the Supply in 1792, and seems to have served with Jarvis/St Vincent till 1802. See Derek Howse, 'Captain Cook's Marine Timekeepers', in Antiquarian Horology, 1969, 190–9.
There was no hole leading to the north; there was no passage to the west; the Asian coast was thickly bordered with ice; the Discovery, having survived some frightening danger from entanglement in the ice, emerged with much of her sheathing gone and a bad leak; the attempt was on the 27th abandoned, and on 30 July the ships repassed Bering Strait. They made their passage south farther out to sea than on the way north, to the east of the Komandorski islands, Bering and Medni, before turning into the coast. On 10 August Clerke dictated to King, his 'very dear and particular friend', his last letter to another friend, 'ever honoured', Banks—the document that carries most pathos in all the records of these voyages.2 There was nothing for him to be jovial about now; he had a sense that he had faithfully done his duty, he hoped his friends would 'have no occasion to blush in owning themselves such'; he recommended to them persons in the ship of less importance. He managed to write a firm signature. Though he was too weak for greater physical effort, he continued to command the ship until 15 August, when he relinquished it to King, and on the 22nd, the day after the Kamchatkan coast was sighted, he died. He was thirty-eight.
1 Journals III, 696–7. The position for this day was later added to his entry—latitude 69°37′ N, longitude 193°7′ E.
2 Mitchell Library, Brabourne Papers, Ms A 78; Journals III, 1542–4.
1 Journals III, clxvi, 1276.
1 The greater part of the letter was a formal explanation of the reason for putting into Petropavlovsk: 5 October 1779.—Journals III, 1546.
1 On this, see Martin-Allanic, Bougainville, II, 1455, 1459; the text of Benjamin Franklin's recommendation to American privateers, 10 March 1779, printed in Journals III, 1535; and the letter of J. H. de Magellan to Banks, 23 June 1779, ibid., 1542. The American Congress was slow to follow the example of Franklin. After the war the Admiralty showed its appreciation of his gesture by presenting him with a copy of the printed Voyage, and the Royal Society sent him one of its gold Cook memorial medals.
1 Gore to Admiralty Secretary, 1 May 1780; P.R.O. Adm 1/1839, Journals III, 1556–7.
Unfortunate Pickersgill! Everything was against him, the task he was given to do, the circumstances of his appointment, his own temperament. The task was impossible. His ship was the armed brig Lyon, which had spent several seasons surveying on the Newfoundland coast under Michael Lane, who had been Cook's mate in the Grenville on that duty, and had succeeded him in it, with distinction. Lane was now superseded by Pickersgill, and appointed to serve under him—which could not have been pleasant for either of them. The Admiralty, or the Navy Board, in preparing the ship for service, was quite irresponsible: it saw no reason to strengthen her for a sea in which the stoutest whalers alone normally ventured, or even to overhaul her properly: half the crew were landsmen, none had proper clothing, the charts which could be supplied were of no service whatever. Pickersgill left Deptford in the middle of May 1776, two months before Cook, two months too late for useful work. He had a preliminary task, to protect the English whaling fleet from the Americans. After a slow passage he reached Greenland in early July, was at once amongst ice, in latitude 60°, and learnt from a stray vessel that the whalers had finished their season and left their base at Disco Island for home. It was still possible to get on to the eastern coast of Davis Strait and find a small harbour which supplied wood and water immediately, and could be of use in the following season. The highest latitude reached was 68°26′ N; whalers regularly went further; Baffin had been to 78°. Pickersgill was beaten by ice and icebergs, managed to make his way painfully to Labrador for a month's stay, to recruit his men, repair his ship, and drink hard; and reached Deptford at the end of October, five and a half months after he had left it. He retained his command until January 1777, when it was decided on Lane's allegations of his constant drunkenness to court-martial him, and he was dismissed from the navy. One sighs for Pickersgill, the romantic, the man of good intentions and less than iron will, who could take a lunar and draw a chart, had been round the world three times, had a sense of justice, and, like so many of his naval contemporaries, drowned his disappointments in the bottle.1
1 J. R. Forster had something to say in his praise, and Forster is the authority for all we know of his end: after his dismissal from the navy he got command of a privateer, fell into the Thames one night while going off to her drunk, and was drowned.—History of the Voyages and Discoveries made in the North (London, 1786), 407–8.