Captain James Cook set sail on three voyages to the South Seas. His first Pacific voyage (1768-1771) was aboard the Endeavour and began on May 27, 1768. It had three aims; go to Tahiti to record the transit of Venus (when Venus passes between the earth and sun – June 3, 1769;) record natural history, led by 25-year-old Joseph Banks; and search for the Great South Land.
Cook’s second Pacific voyage (1772-1775) aboard Resolution and Adventure aimed to establish whether there was an inhabited southern continent, and make astronomical observations.
Cook’s third and final voyage (1776-1779) of discovery was an attempt to locate a North-West Passage, an ice-free sea route which linked the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Cook commanded the Resolution while Charles Clerke commanded Discovery. (State Library, New South Wales)
“Every Fighting Service has, and must have, two main categories – ‘Officers’ and ‘Men.’ The Royal Navy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was no exception. The distinction existed: was indeed more than ordinarily marked. It was not only a naval distinction, but a sharp social one too.”
“‘Officers’ as contemporary society used that word, came from one walk of life, ‘Men’ from another: and, as it was not easy in Society to pass from a lower stratum to a higher, so in the Navy, it was not easy for a ‘Man’ to become an Officer. But it was possible.” (Captain Cook Society)
“Cook had chosen his subordinates well or had been lucky. The officers of the third voyage were a remarkably intelligent group of men.” (Captain Cook Society)
“All the great remaining voyages of the eighteenth century drew on Cook’s officers. Bligh, Portlock, Vancouver, Colnett, Riou, and Hergest all got their commands and served with great distinction. These men then passed on their skills to a second generation of men such as Flinders and Broughton.” (Mackay, Captain Cook Society)
James Colnett was born in 1753 at Plymouth, England; the Colnett family was originally from the Stepney district of East London.
His father, James Colnett senior, was in the Royal Navy and this took him and the family to Plymouth and Portsmouth. His father died in 1760. James Jr’s mother, Sarah, was left to bring up the four children alone.
The younger James began his naval career on June 28, 1770 as an able seaman on the Hazard, a small sloop. On September 4, 1771, he became a midshipman on HMS Scorpion under James Cook and transferred to the Resolution when Cook was readying for his second Pacific voyage.
Colnett served as midshipman throughout Cook’s second voyage from 1772 until 1775. Colnett was the first European to sight New Caledonia, and Cook named Cape Colnett and Mount Colnett commemorated that sighting.
One of his midshipman colleagues, John Elliott, later described Colnett as ‘Clever and Sober’.
After Cook’s voyage, Colnett was appointed to the Juno, a 5th rank, as gunner on January 1, 1776. He was then appointed master of the Adventure during the War of American Independence before passing for lieutenant on February 4, 1779. Ten days later he was appointed third lieutenant of the Bienfaisant, a 3rd rank, remaining on that ship until 1783.
In one of his journals, he provides advice on passage around Cape Horn (south of South America), “I have doubled Cape Horn in different seasons …”
“… but were I to make another voyage to this part of the globe, and could command my time, I would most certainly prefer the beginning of winter, or even winter itself, with moon-light nights; for, in that season, the winds begin to vary to the Eastward; as I found them, and as Captain, now Admiral, Macbride, observed at the Falkland Isles.”
“Another error, which, in my opinion, the commanders of vessels bound round Cape Horn commit, is, by keeping between the Falkland Isles and the main, and through the Straits Le Maire …”
“… which not only lengthens the distance, but subjects them to an heavy, irregular sea, occasioned by the rapidity of the current and tides in that channel, which may be avoided, by passing to the Eastward.”
“At the same time, I would recommend them to keep near the coast of Staten Land, and Terra del Fuego, because the winds are more variable, in with the shore, than at a long offing. …”
“If the navigation round Cape Horn should ever become common, such, a place we must possess; and agreeable to the last convention with Spain, we are entitled to keep possession of it, and apply it to any purpose of peace or war. Great advantages might arise from such a settlement.” (Colnett)
In 1785, a London merchant, Richard Cadman Etches, had formed the King George’s Sound Company to send ships to the Northwest coast of North America to exploit the sea otter pelt trade.
Two ships, the King George and the Queen Charlotte, had already been dispatched in 1785 under the command of Nathaniel Portlock and George Dixon and it was now proposed to send another two ships.
Colnett had been in discussions with Etches and, having obtained permission from the Admiralty for extended leave of absence, he took command of the expedition and the Prince of Wales, the larger ship. Charles Duncan was appointed to command the Princess Royal consort vessel.
The ships left Britain in October 1786 and spent the summer of 1787 trading in the Queen Charlotte Islands and the adjacent mainland. The two ships then sailed in August 1788 for Hawai‘i. The traders had usually wintered at the Hawaiian islands.
It was then, in what appears is the first reference and suggestion that Pacific captains should hire Hawaiians to their crew. In his journal, Colnett suggested, “If you can procure a hardy willing fellow from Isles [Hawai‘i] to embark with you to increase your strength …”
He also provides other observations about the Hawaiian, “You will in the winter Season send what Vessels you Judge proper to the Sandwich Isles for Provisions …”
“… and in their return we imagine that some of the Natives of those Isles both men and women may be embark’d and transplanted to America and made useful in our employ. This must be done by their own consent and with every precaution with regard to their health as well as happiness.” (Colnett)
Colnett had been away for five and a half years during which time his mother had died in 1790. A codicil to her will was witnessed by Nathaniel Portlock, who had led the other Etches expedition to the Pacific.
The Pacific sperm-whaling industry began with the 1789–90 voyage of the Emelia out of England. Prompted by that voyage’s success, the Emelia’s owners commissioned James Colnett in 1793 to take the Rattler to the Pacific Ocean to discover exactly where and when sperm whales congregated and to discover suitable ports and anchorages that British whalers could use.
Colnett’s narrative of the voyage was published in 1798 together with a series of charts. Colnett’s voyage opened up the South Pacific whale fishery.
Sperm oil, used in lamps, and spermaceti (a waxy substance found in the head cavities of the sperm whale), used in candles, fueled the eighteenth-century lighting revolution, inside homes and outside on public thoroughfares.
James Colnett died on September 1, 1806, at his lodgings in Great Ormond Street, London. He was buried on September 6 in St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney. (Information here is from A Voyage to the South Atlantic and around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean, Colnett; New Histories of Pacific Whaling, Jones & Wanhalla; Captain Cook Society)
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