Resolve and Endeavour in the Golden Ocean: James Cook’s management of his voyages in the Pacific
Justin Reay FSA FRHistS
Every voyage of discovery has to be planned and managed if disaster is to be avoided. James Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific were well planned from the outset and well managed throughout.
It is a mark of how the emphasis has changed in maritime history that Cook’s reputation today rests not so much upon his excellence as a sailing master, or even as a superb navigator and chart-maker, or even upon the important discoveries made during his trans-global expeditions. Today historians comment as much on the fact that he had well-disciplined, professional crews who were all, by and large, willing members of their ships’ companies throughout all the vicissitudes and difficulties they encountered, and that Cook lost very few men to accident or sickness.
At the Oxford Naval Symposium conference ‘The Triumph of the Navigators’ in 2008 we heard from shipwright historian John Diestler about the skills needed by the great sailing masters, and James Cook had these in abundance. In her paper the Francis Drake expert Susan Jackson, comparing the voyages of Magellan and Drake, touched upon the terrible dangers encountered by sailors far from home during the early modern period, and James Cook and his men, sailing two centuries later, faced such dangers and trials too. We heard Professor Richard Harding talk about the dreadful and often fatal health problems amongst the squadron led by that admirable naval commander George Anson, just 30 years before Cook’s first voyage. Peter Warwick of the 1805 Club and Captain Norm Jolin of the Royal Canadian Navy thrilled us with their vivid retelling of the tragedy and heroism of maritime exploration in high altitudes well into living memory. James Cook met such terrors not once but three times, and most of his men survived to tell the tale and to extol his virtues.
It can be seen that there are four main factors under the direct control of the vessel’s commander affecting the effectiveness of sailors during maritime exploration. They are:
- Discipline and morale
- Technical ability
- External dangers including dealing with extreme sea conditions and attack by an enemy
- Health and well-being
In this essay we shall look at just one of those factors, that for which today Cook is most often noted, the health of his crews. First though, let us look at the context of the three voyages Cook undertook between 1768 and 1780.
Cook’s Voyages in the Pacific
Cook’s first voyage was sponsored by the Royal Society and was to take scientists to the South Pacific to observe the Transit of Venus across the face of the Sun in 1769. This had an important scientific purpose and would help solve the perennial problem of accurate positioning out of sight of land, so the Admiralty were keen to be involved, despatching Lieutenant James Cook as commander of the bark Endeavour on this mission. Cook was strongly supported by Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society, and by the First Lord of the Admiralty, John Montagu, the Earl Sandwich.
John Hamilton Mortimer’s group portrait of 1771 shows Cook and his sponsors in a somewhat fanciful tropical setting with Dr Daniel Solander and Dr John Hawkesworth, the two natural scientists who accompanied Banks and Cook on this voyage; Sandwich did not go on the voyage, although newly-discovered islands would be named for him. The voyage would take the company on board the little Endeavour into distant seas where they could expect few sources of fresh food and little time for rest.
Although Cook had demonstrated his superb abilities as a cartographer and navigator in charting the St Lawrence River for Wolf’s attack on Quebec in 1758, no charts of a similar quality existed for the Pacific Ocean, which would be the main arena of Cook’s expedition’s activities. In planning the voyage Cook had to rely on incomplete, large-scale charts produced after George Anson’s circumnavigation, published in 1740.
Charts published by Lieutenant Henry Roberts in 1780 after Cook’s death and tracking his three Pacific voyages, show a marked development in information, even in a large scale. This important development arose from Cook’s expertise in charting unknown waters, and that of his junior officer William Bligh; Matthew Flinders would follow in the same tradition. At the Symposium this year Phillip Clayton-Gore, archivist of the U K Hydrographic office, showed us some of the excellent charts produced by sailing masters, Royal Navy officers and hydrographers during and after Cook’s Pacific voyages, many of them so complete, accurate and well drawn that they are still today the basis for charts of some waters.
Cook’s second voyage was intended to prove or disprove the existence of a great land-mass in high southern latitudes, comparable to that of the northern Eurasian continent and what is today Canada. This so-called “Terra Australis Incognita” was thought to exist in the Southern Ocean well south of the temperate latitudes. For this, Cook had only maps produced from imagination rather than exact hydrography and cartography, such as the elegant but almost completely useless chart by Hendrik Hondius, published in 1700. Cook would take his two ships, Resolution and Adventure, and their men into perilous waters where they would undergo extremes of climate and deprivation.
Cook’s third voyage took two vessels, Resolution and Discovery, into hazardous climes in the northern hemisphere, again introducing dangers to health.
Scurvy – prevalence and treatment on Cook’s Pacific voyages
All three voyages took place at a time when the main concern of a sailor seemed to be what contemporary commentators and physicians termed “the scourge of scurvy”.
Scurvy is the disorder in which a deficiency of scorbutic acid in the human body causes loss of teeth and hair, suppurating ulcers of the lower limbs and feet, bloody opening of old wounds, psychological depression, hallucinations, blindness and, eventually, death. In 1744 the return of the sole remaining ship, the Centurion, from Anson’s otherwise triumphant circumnavigation attracted renewed attention towards the health of the Navy’s sailors. Of 1900 men in his squadron, almost 1400 had died, most of them from disease, many from the effects of scurvy.
Recent historians have lain much emphasis on the prevalence and effects of this unpleasant disorder and I have seen an estimate that 1 million men of the Royal Navy died of scurvy in the 18th century alone. As Dr NAM Rodger ironically points out, this would mean that every man jack who served between 1700 and 1800 died of the disorder – not once, but twice!
The truth is that by the time of Cook’s first circumnavigation, starting in 1768, scurvy was well understood, even if the optimum treatment for it was not. Most commanders had their own theories and pet solutions. Most surgeons of the time concerned with this issue advocated fresh meat – which is mildly anti-scorbutic while it is fresh – and plenty of vegetables and fruit. Nelson liked to feed his men raw onions or onion soup, which have some anti-scorbutic value, and the order book from his command in the Mediterranean between 1803 and 1805 frequently shows frigates being instructed to go to Palermo or to Rosas to collect many tonnes of onions for the fleet.
Citrus fruits such as lemons and oranges had been known to the English navy as effective antidotes to an outbreak of scurvy since at least 1593, during John Hawkins’ voyage to the Caribbean, and by the 1760s the juice of limes or lemons was being advocated by physicians such as James Lind as a preventive measure. Some individual captains experimented with healthier diets and even fleet commanders could be persuaded by forward-thinking naval physicians to try various solutions including citrus juice. But this was not taken up as a serious solution by the Admiralty until 1794, when Gilbert Blane conducted an experiment on board the Suffolk during a five-month voyage to India in which lemon juice was issued to all on board. The citric acid – two-thirds of an ounce mixed into the daily ration of grog, wine or water – offered just the necessary daily intake of 10 milligrams of vitamin C and there was no outbreak of scurvy.
The following year the Admiralty ordered the general issue of lemon juice to the whole fleet, and lime juice on the American Station where it was more easily obtained, giving rise to the Yankee epithet of “limey” for a British sailor.
But this did not abolish scurvy in the Navy, as citrus fruit juice was then considered to be just a cure, and was only dispensed by the ship’s surgeon to his patients exhibiting symptoms of the disorder. Only after 1800 were the preventive qualities of citrus fruit juice officially accepted by the Admiralty, leading to its general issue, either alone or mixed with the rum or wine ration. Blane was rewarded by the Navy Board for his promotion of citrus juice as a preventive, and published a well-received monograph about it in which he extolled the contribution of James Lind and himself to the discovery of the anti-scorbutic benefits of citrus fruit, and ultimately the acceptance of lemon or lime juice into the daily ration of Royal Navy men at sea.
This provoked a brief but vitriolic debate in the letters columns of London newspapers about just who should be credited with saving the British Jack Tar from the ancient scourge of scurvy. The debate was initiated by Dr John Harness, formerly Fleet Physician in the Mediterranean in the 1790s, who had certainly been instrumental in introducing the juice from locally-procured lemons as a regular item in the otherwise traditional sailors’ fare of boiled beef, peas, onions and porridge. Harness came to know Horatio Nelson well, having certified the debilitating wound to Nelson’s right eye after the land assault at Calvi, and invoked the dead hero’s name in his fight to be added to the list of those credited with finally eradicating scurvy from the Royal Navy, and thus receive an additional pension on retirement. [an essay about Dr John Harness will be posted on this site shortly]
Cook himself, voyaging a generation before Blane and Harness, followed the prevalent ideas of Dr David McBride, and the example of the Dutch navy and VOC fleet victuallers, and advocated sauerkraut. According to his Journal entry of 13 April 1769, his men at first refused to eat it, until Cook ordered his officers to be served it at dinner after which, of course, Jack wanted what the officers were having! This, as we heard from Peter Villiers at the 2008 Oxford Naval Symposium Reception Lecture at Blackwell’s Bookshop, was also the ploy Cook adopted – one which he said never failed – to encourage his men to accept another suggested anti-scorbutic, the insipid beer-substitute known as wort.
The Victualling Board adopted wort as their anti-scorbutic of choice in the 1750s. Wort is the raw material of beer and whisky, malted barley fermented in water, known to the distillery trade as mash. In this early stage of fermentation it is, in effect a very weak beer. It is mildly effective as an anti-scorbutic when fresh and Cook frequently alludes to its distribution in his official remarks book, or Captain’s Journal, of his first voyage.
On Cook’s first voyage the Endeavour carried several gallons of wort, which offered 0.1 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 grammes of liquid. In addition the bark carried several tonnes of sauerkraut, giving up 10 to 15 milligrams, one helping of which giving all that was needed each day to keep scurvy at bay – and more than 100 times more effective than the Admiralty’s official treatment.
The Endeavour also carried barrels of a sweetened syrup of oranges and lemons containing a potential 40 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 grammes – in the syrup form 20% less vitamin C per 100 grammes than obtained from fresh orange juice, but still an average 400 times more effective than wort. Sauerkraut and the fruit juice syrup could be useful anti-scorbutics, the sauerkraut being effective when freshly made and still retaining some value after weeks in barrel, and the citrus fruit syrup retaining its effectiveness over a long time if it was not over-boiled in the making and was then stored in clean barrels. But after Cook’s voyage only the results of the distribution of wort were published by the Admiralty, enhancing its reputation, at the cost of its men’s health and operational efficiency.
In 1762 James Lind had recommended growing “salad” – watercress – which the eminent naval surgeon the late Vice Admiral Sir James Watt, in his otherwise useful and informative article cited below, suggests offers a staggering 662 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 grammes. In fact, according to a recent report by the United States Department of Agriculture, watercress gives just 43 mgs per 100 gramme serving,[iii] a little less than lemon juice and much less than a fresh orange.[iv] But one helping of fresh watercress for each man every third day would have wiped out scurvy in the Royal Navy within a few weeks.
Lind suggested that watercress might be grown on wet blankets, a practice used in 1775 by the British army in North America and on a few naval vessels commanded by enlightened officers or persuasive and knowledgable surgeons. Lind also continued to advocate citrus fruit juice. But as most other physicians still thought that the curative effect of citrus juice was due to the acidic content, the Victualling Board thought a reasonable substitute was cheaper acids such as vinegar.
The use on board ships of vinegar, both the fermented malt vinegar and that produced from sour wine or cider, had a significant effect on health generally, but not on scurvy. The British and Dutch in particular used vinegar to sweeten the messes below decks and this had the unforeseen but fortuitous effect of reducing the incidence of typhus, a disease carried by lice in dirty clothing.
Other diseases at sea
Typhus, not then named as such, was a seriously debilitating disease which in the 1760s had swept through a squadron of French navy ships, halving the number of men who could operate the vessels. Naval and merchant marines of northern European states tended to follow a more rigorous daily cleansing programme of both vessels and men than those of southern countries, and the symptoms of typhus rarely appear in the daily, weekly or monthly reports or annual returns of British naval surgeons.
However, as this table for Cook’s first voyage shows (fig 1), other disorders or diseases were prevalent. It is notable that malaria and dysentery are much more common in these figures than scurvy.
First Voyage 1768-71 – The Endeavour (commanded by James Cook)
Recorded non-fatal Sickness
|Venereal disease||1 (plus 1 on return to England)|
|Total non-fatal sickness||10|
|Excess of Alcohol||3|
|Malaria or dysentery||31|
Fig 1: Incidence of Morbidity and Mortality during James Cook’s Voyages in the Pacific [v]
Other major diseases in Cook’s ships
In these figures, produced from the sparse records of Cook’s voyages by Sir James Watt some years ago, dysentery seems to be a common disorder. It was commonly known at the time as a “flux”, and in Cook’s Journal of his first Pacific voyage the word is mentioned over 60 times, against just 20 for scurvy.
Dysentery, a serious infection of the digestive system, is a symptom arising from a number of causes. Typically resulting from contaminated water, sailors suffering from this presented with two distinct symptoms, one of which was known as the bloody flux. This was a common symptom of Yellow Fever, the disease common in the tropics which sailors called Yellow Jack.
The medical terminology of this period is notoriously unreliable. Dr Vaughan Dutton presented a fascinating paper at the 2007 Oxford Naval Symposium, on sickness amongst the Royal Navy’s anti-slavery patrols, in which he indicated that his initial doctoral research was complicated by the difficulties of an ill-defined nosology (classification of diseases) of the period, in which a specific disease was frequently identified by different names, some of them obviously sailors’ nicknames rather than medical terms, and other distinctly different diseases were identified by the same name.
In his important essay Admiral Watt manfully tried to sort out the various disorders amongst Cook’s crews and his task was made more difficult by the loss of the various official returns by Cook’s surgeons at some point during the 18th century. However, we can ascertain from these bare statistics that Cook seemed to have learned much from his first voyage in respect of keeping his men healthy.
Even on the first voyage – where more than three quarters of all men who were recorded as being sick died of their illness – the proportion of the total crew dying from sickness is less than 10% of the Endeavour’s company, compared to perhaps 60% or so of Anson’s squadron just 30 years before.
On Cook’s second and third voyages very few men are recorded as being sick at all, and a significantly lower proportion die of sickness. The second voyage shows a marked improvement, with just 10% of all men reporting sick dying from their disorder – less than 1% of the total crew members on the Resolution.
This downward epidemiological trend is not continued into the third voyage, but the numbers concerned are still very low and statistical variables – and also our lack today of the vessel’s official records – should be borne in mind. Even so, the incidence of all types of sickness is remarkably low for ships of the period on long voyages. So what did Cook do to achieve these good results? Actually, he did very little different from the common practice of British ship commanders of the period. He just did it better, and more often.
The food ration given to his men adhered to that determined by the Admiralty and administered by the Victualling Board supplying provisions to his vessels at the outset of each voyage. This ration had not changed in respect of specific food types and amounts for many years, although there were variables due to occasional shortages of wheat, and also of course due to the season. However, what made Cook different from many other naval commanders was his independence from central control. He did not have to sit outside an enemy port on blockade in all weathers, or cruise up and down the same length of home waters for weeks on end, or – as most naval vessels in the age of sail had to for most of their service – sit at anchor in a home roadstead suffering from irregular supply and surrounded by the rancid jetsam of discarded food and human waste.
The very purpose of Cook’s voyages meant that his vessels were pushing on all the time, only staying in one place for a week or two where there was an abundance of fresh food to be bought or bartered for. Sometimes his men were able to forage for fresh food, including meat as this painting by an artist who was with him on his second voyage shows.
All this, in my view, is a major contribution to the health of his men. As Nelson and Collingwood found in the Mediterranean forty years later, keeping hundreds of men and dozens of warships constantly moving at sea might be tiring but it keeps the men in the peak of condition, providing good victuals can be obtained.
The constant fresh air flowing through a clean ship at sea in temperate climes kept typhus at bay, and keeping off the land, except for wooding and watering, reduced the incidence of malaria and yellow fever. Keeping to the open seas instead of lying-to in an attractive tropical bay reduced the incidence of venereal disease, a major contribution to the debilitation of sailors in all fleets at all times.
But it is also true that James Cook had experienced the hard life as a lower deck man and knew the privations of the ordinary sailor first-hand. I believe that he thought of his men when he planned his voyages, and that their welfare was one of the most important things in his management of his expeditions. He knew that a healthy crew meant an effective ship and a successful result to his voyage.
Cook was no superman, he was not unique, he was not a saint. But at the outset he resolved to bring his men back to England triumphant, and by his good planning and management, his men were inspired and enabled to endure their many dangers and much adversity, and most came home safe and well.
© J M J Reay 2008
This article is a revised and updated version of a paper given by the author at ‘The Triumph of the Navigators’ conference during the BNRA Oxford Naval Symposium at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford, in May 2008.
 Surgeon Vice-Admiral Sir James Watt, former Medical Director-General of the Royal Navy, erstwhile Dean of Naval Medicine, Institute of Naval Medicine, Haslar, ‘Medical Aspects and Consequences of Cook’s Voyages’, in Captain James Cook and His Times, Seattle 1979
 United States Department of Agriculture Nutritional Database, SR20 report 2008
 USDA SR20 ibid
 A fresh orange offers a 59.1 mgs of vitamin C per 100gms, much the highest offering of any fruit or vegetable (USDA SR20). Nelson unwittingly added to the health of his fleet in the Mediterranean, 1803-05, by purchasing 30,000 fresh oranges for his men to “keep them refreshed on hot days” (see Nelson to Richard Ford, agent-victualler to the fleet, 27 February 1804, quoted in Reay, “Edward Gayner, Nelson’s Merchant-Spy in the Mediterranean”, Trafalgar Chronicle November 2008); Nelson’s favourite anti-scorbutic, onions, offers a meagre 7mgs per gramme
[v] Adapted from Watt, ibid
[vi] The author is delighted to acknowledge the contribution made by Dr Dutton to his understanding of the medical terminology of the navy in this period, arising from their discussions during Dr Dutton’s doctoral research at Oxford