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The Governor and the Navigator: Connecting Sir Hugh Palliser and Captain James Cook


Fri 3 Jul 20

One of the objectives of the ORNC volunteers involved in the Lives of Pensioners Research Project was to identify and explore connections between the people whose wills we transcribed and characters who lived in and around the Greenwich Hospital at the time.

That’s how I came to investigate the relationship between Sir Hugh Palliser — Governor of Greenwich Hospital from 20 September 1780 until his death on 19 May 1796 — and Captain James Cook — much lauded explorer, navigator, cartographer and erstwhile health fanatic who lost not a single crew member to scurvy on his second round-the-globe voyage.

Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Humble beginnings

Both Hugh Palliser (1723–96) and James Cook (1728­–79) were born Yorkshiremen. Both, too, can be said to have come from modest backgrounds. But while Palliser’s father was a landowner and captain in the British Army, Cook’s was a mere farmhand.

Orphaned by the age of two, young Hugh was just twelve when he joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman under the care of his maternal uncle, Captain Nicholas Robinson of HMS Aldborough, then on coastal patrol in the English Channel and North Sea. By eighteen, he had passed his lieutenant exams, even though regulations at the time cited 21 as the minimum age for a commission. His first command was in 1746. He was 23.

By comparison, James Cook was a late starter.

The Sandersons soon knew that the sharp-minded James would not be satisfied with life as a shop boy, sleeping beneath the counter of their grocery and haberdashery in the fishing village of Staithes. So, they introduced their young charge to some friends and fellow Quakers, Henry and John Walker of Whitby, ship owners and colliers. Eighteen months into his indenture, they released the seventeen-year-old James to take up a three-year merchant navy apprenticeship enabling him to indulge his love of mathematics and develop his passion for navigation. James Cook was one of 1256 apprentices registered in Whitby that year.

The Walker home at Whitby, where Cook lived during his years in the Merchant Navy, is now a museum dedicated to him.

Cook then spent a decade in coastal and short voyage sailing, advancing through the ranks of the merchant navy, until, in 1755, John Walker offered him command of the Friendship. Instead of taking-up the promotion from Mate to Captain — a rank which would have prevented his being pressed into service as war between Britain and France loomed — the already 27-year-old James volunteered to join the Royal Navy. He entered as an able seaman, starting beneath midshipmen who had barely any experience of sailing, and at the lowly salary of £1, 4s per month.

And so they meet

Just one month after James Cook sailed from Spithead on HMS Eagle man-of-war, however, his skills had been recognised and he was promoted to Masters Mate. Three months further on, in October 1755, his fortunes changed forever when Captain Hugh Palliser took over command of the ship. Cook had met a lifelong friend, mentor and patron. Under his command, Cook’s knowledge and experience grew immensely. He even saw battle for the first time.

… he [Palliser] found James Cook already distinguished as an able and meritorious seaman, exact and adroit in the performance of his duty, and bearing marks of more intelligence than the duties of a fore-mast man called into exercise.

All the officers concurred in testifying to his merits, and Captain Palliser gave him as much countenance and encouragement as the necessarily aristocratic discipline of the navy permits a commander to bestow upon a common man.

From Biographia Borealis: Or, Lives of Distinguished Northerners, by Hartley Coleridge,1833.

Captain James Cook
© Wellcome Collection

On 29 June 1757, James Cook passed the examination to qualify as a Master — and according to JC Beaglehole, the most diligent of Cook’s biographers, ‘the value of a good master was beyond computation in gold or rubies’,  him being ‘the man who never ceased to retain control, as a professional thing, of the ship’s navigation… [and] for masts, yards, sails and rigging, for stores, for general management.'(The Life of Captain James Cook, 1974).

In Canada

Over the next few years, Cook and Palliser continued to correspond as Cook charted the River and Gulf of St Lawrence, expanding his studies to include:

The Description and use of spherical geometry…For first, the Mariner cannot conduct a ship thro’ the unbeaten paths of the ocean with the help of it; but being well skilled in astronomy, he may… determine… the true longitude found at sea.

From the introduction to A Compleat System of Astronomy, Charles Leadbetter, 1728.

Both men saw service in and around Quebec, playing their roles in the Seven Years War. Indeed, the accuracy of Cook’s maps played a significant role in ending French domination of Canada.  In December 1762, Admiral Colville, Commodore and Commander of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels in North America, wrote to the Secretary of Admiralty :  ‘from my Experience of Mr. Cook’s Genius and Capacity, I think him well qualified for the work he has performed and for greater undertakings of the same kind.’

Brass sextant used by Captain James Cook
© Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales, Australia

And so Master James Cook was occupied making ‘draughts of Coasts and Harbours’ in Newfoundland and Labrador when his great friend Hugh Palliser was appointed Governor and Commander in Chief of the region (1764–1768). On 14 April 1764, under his orders, Cook became Marine Surveyor of Newfoundland and Labrador. Their relationship strengthened, until in 1767, Governor Palliser, who was a firm believer that the fisheries of Newfoundland were an ideal breeding ground for future members of the Royal Navy, wrote to the Secretary of the Admiralty of Cook’s maps and charts: ‘publication of the same, I am of opinion, will be a great encouragement to new adventurers in the fisheries upon these coasts, be pleased to move their Lordships to permit Mr. Cook to publish the same’. His recommendation was readily accepted.

Cook’s Endeavour

As Comptroller of the Navy (1770­–75), Palliser was instrumental in Cook’s selection for his famed voyages of discovery to the Pacific Ocean to observe the transit of Venus and search for the great land mass believed to exist on the bottom half of the globe, the journey that led to British colonisation in the southern hemisphere. Writing in 1844, his friend Robert M Hunt asserted:

The task of procuring a vessel adapted for the undertaking was consigned to Palliser, who, after an examination of several merchantmen in the River Thames, selected one of about 400 tons burden, which was named the Endeavour.

The Life of Sir Hugh Palliser, Bart: Admiral of the White, and Governor of Greenwich Hospital.

The Endeavour sets sail
© Wellcome Collection

James Cook honoured his mentor by bestowing the name Cape Palliser on Mātakitaki-a-Kupe, the Southern-most point of New Zealand’s North Island, naming Palliser’s Isles in French Polynesia and Port Palliser in the Kerguelen (Desolation) Islands. He also called his third-born son Hugh.

Cook and the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich

When Resolution returned to Portsmouth on 30 July 1775, it had sailed ‘Farthest South’ than ever before recorded. Cook had proved to his Northern Hemisphere compatriots that ‘unless near the pole and out of reach of navigation’, there was no Terra Australis Incognita, no single land mass at the bottom of the world to balance the northern hemisphere.

Ten days after his return, Cook was promoted to Post Captain, and offered the role of Fourth Captain at the Royal Hospital at Greenwich. This entitled him to be pensioned at £230 per annum, with free living quarters, fire, light and 1s 2d per diem ‘table money’.

Cook’s three voyages

Among other duties, captains of the Hospital were required “…to keep lists of the Pensioners, and of their disposition; and frequently to visit all the wards, and see that good order and discipline be kept therein… They are, in their turns, to take care that decency and good order be preserved among the Pensioners at their meal-times in the dining hall.”

Cook’s response to the appointment was polite, but conditional. He would accept the role only so long as nothing more interesting and exciting came his way. In a letter to the Admiralty on 12 August 1775 he wrote:

The Death of Captain Clements one of the Captains in the Royal Hospital at Greenwich, making a Vacancy there, I humbly offer my self to my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty as a Candidate for it, presuming if I am fortunate enough to merit their Lordships Approbation, they will allow me to quit it when either the call of my Country for more active Service, or that my endeavours in any shape can be essential to the publick…

And on 19 August 1775, just one week later, James expressed his sentiments to John Walker, the man who had fostered his love of the sea:

… I must however tell you that the Resolution was found to answer, on all occasions even beyond my expectation and is so little injured by the Voyage that she will soon be sent out again, but I shall not command her, my fate drives me from one extream to a nother a few Months ago the whole Southern hemisphere was hardly big enough for me and now I am going to be confined within limits of Greenwich Hospital, which are far too small for an active mind like mine, I must however confess it is a fine retreat and a pretty income, but whether I can bring my self to like ease and retirement, time will shew.

Famously, time did show, for soon after this, at a grand dinner hosted by Lord Sandwich and attended by Hugh Palliser when the discussion turned to who might lead an expedition to seek a passage to the East via the north seas, Cook volunteered. He received his commission on 12 February 1776, and sailed out of Plymouth Sound on 12 July, never to return.

Palliser erected a monument to his friend, visible from the front windows of his home at the Vache, his estate near Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire. It carries the words:

To the memory of Captain James Cook, the ablest and most renowned Navigator this or any country hath produced.  He raised himself solely by his merit from a very obscure birth to the rank of a Post Captain in the Royal Navy, and was unfortunately killed by the Savages of the island Owhyee on the 14th of February 1779.

Palliser and the Royal Hospital at Greenwich

Also in 1779, by then having attained the lofty rank of Lieutenant General of Marines and a Member of Parliament, Palliser resigned all of his offices pending a court-martial for insubordination. He hoped to be returned to active Naval service and applied as such to his patron Lord Sandwich. However, Palliser’s dispute with his one-time friend Admiral Keppel over actions in an attack on the French fleet at Ushant (27 July 1778) was both highly public and acrimonious. Each accused the other of incompetence. Both were court martialled and acquitted, but Keppel had more powerful and numerous followers. Palliser’s reputation was so damaged that he was never restored to active service. Instead, at the death of Admiral Sir Charles Hardy in May 1780, he was appointed Governor of the Hospital.

Like Cook, Palliser would have preferred to be at sea. His attitude to the post at Greenwich is clear in this rather poignant letter sent on Sir George Rodney’s return from victories in the American Revolutionary War. On 26 September 1781, Palliser wrote:

Amongest (sic) the Numerous Congratulations of your friends on occasion of your safe return to England, please to accept those of a very old acquaintance, which I trust will not be the less acceptable for his being driven from the service into retirement and being no longer of any consequence to his friends.

Nevertheless, Palliser remained an effective Governor of the Hospital until his death, and in those sixteen years, he must surely have developed some affinity for it. To one of the several codicils in his 45-page will, he added:

N:B: It is my request to the Directors of Greenwich Hospital that they will accept of my Pictures of the late Lord Anson, Sir Charles Saunders and Sir Edward Hughes and that they may be placed in the Hospital in memory of the eminent Services performed by those Officers to their country. together with my two Pictures of the attacks at Quebec done by Serres, Senior

These paintings, plus others Palliser commissioned while at the Hospital — including a portrait of Lord Sandwich standing in Hospital grounds –  are now in the possession of the National Maritime Museum.

And finally

For what it’s worth, I should confess that I am an Australian. The connection between the Old Royal Naval College and Captain Cook makes my southern-hemisphere-loving heart sing. It’s impossible for me not to feel both overwhelmed and proud at the close connection between the two places that make me feel most valued and at home.

By Wendy M Anderson, Volunteer, Lives of Pensioners Project, Old Royal Naval College