Imprest Document, a receipt for a Bill of Exchange payable to Abraham Chiron at the Cape of Good Hope.

Imprest Document, a receipt for a Bill of Exchange at the Cape of Good Hope.
Imprest Document, a receipt for a Bill of Exchange payable to Abraham Chiron at the Cape of Good Hope.

London, Victualling Office, 18 June 1777.

Manuscript in ink on official paper (watermark "GR" with a crown), written in ink on one side of a single sheet, 239 x 201 mm, small folio.

Rare document from Cook's third and last voyage

Rare document relating to the provisioning of Cook's third voyage ships at the Cape of Good Hope. Very few original documents relating to Cook's voyages survive today outside institutional ownership; the present example is browned from age but is quite clear and legible. The document marks the payment through London of £240 to the Cape Town agent Abraham Chiron; though such calculations can only be very approximate, that sum in 1776 might be equivalent to something in the region of thirty or forty thousand pounds today.

Rare document relating to the provisioning of Cook's third voyage ships at the Cape of Good Hope. Very few original documents relating to Cook's voyages survive today outside institutional ownership; the present example is browned from age but is quite clear and legible. The document marks the payment through London of £240 to the Cape Town agent Abraham Chiron; though such calculations can only be very approximate, that sum in 1776 might be equivalent to something in the region of thirty or forty thousand pounds today.

The Resolution, with Cook in command, had sailed from Plymouth on 12 July 1776. Clerke in the Discovery was delayed in London and did not follow until 1 August. On the way to Cape Town the Resolution had stopped at Tenerife to add to supplies, reaching Cape Town on 17 October at which time Cook called for the ship to be re-caulked as she had been taking water, especially through the main deck.

Cook noted for 23 October that "the caulkers had been set to work to caulk the ship; and I had concerted measures with Messrs Brandt and Chiron, for supplying both ships with such provisions as I should want. Bakers, likewise, had been ordered, immediately after our arrival, to bake such a quantity of bread as I thought would be requisite. As fast as the several articles destined for the Resolution were got ready, they were carried on board." When the Discovery arrived on 10 November she was also found to be in need of re-caulking. The two ships remained at the Cape until the end of November.

Abraham Chiron, the agent who provided supplies for Cook's ships in return for the Bill of Exchange now being collected from the Treasury, was a significant figure in late-18th-century Cape Town. A German immigrant, he became the first Presiding Master of the first South African Freemason lodge (the Lodge de Goede Hoop). We also come across his name in connection with a report that he wrote on the wreck of the East Indiaman Grosvenor.

Various rates and currencies are used in the conversion: Rix Dollars and Stivers were both currencies widely used in Europe and were the standard units of exchange in such dealings, as was the "Flemish pound" referred to in the document, though by this date it was a rather antiquated unit, while the "Agio", noted in the document as "the usual Advance" of 8% was a commission or "cost plus" charge.

It is interesting to note that Cook is described in the document as "Commander and Purser"; he was of course exercising his role as Purser in the acquisition of stores at Cape Town.

The relevant Bill was finally honoured by the Victualling Office who authorised the Treasury to pay out on it with this Imprest Document, signed off by various officers of the Victualling Office, including Joah Bates and Jonas Hanway. Bates was a protégé of Lord Sandwich; musically gifted, he conducted a performance of the Messiah in which the astronomer Herschel played first violin! Hanway was the celebrated merchant and philanthropist who was also a governor of the Foundling Hospital and the prime founder in 1756 of the Marine Society, the well-known charity which took in destitute orphan boys and raised them for sea service. He was also said to have been the first man to use an umbrella in London, and was consequently ridiculed by Dr Johnson. For a recent study of the Board and its functions (albeit at a slightly later period) see Janet MacDonald, The British Navy's Victualling Board, 1793-1815: Management Competence and Incompetence (Boydell & Brewer, 2010).

The Cook expert Cliff Thornton has kindly shared with us some research into similar documents of the period. The present piece receipts one of altogether eleven Bills of Exchange issued by Cook at the Cape, just one of which is known to survive today (Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand). Cook lists the Bills in two letters to the Victualling Board of 28 November 1776 (reproduced by Beaglehole, Journals, III part 2, p. 1522). Three of the eleven were issued to Abraham Chiron, the present one for 1000 Rix Dollars and the other two for 2000 RD and 690 RD.

Cook was concerned to justify these transactions and that the Bills would indeed be honoured, writing the same day to the Admiralty Secretary (Beaglehole, op cit p.1523) that work done to the Discovery "has detained me here some days longer than I expected. I am now ready to put to sea with the first wind, having filled the Sloops with Provisions and made some considerable addition to the Live-Stock onboard the Resolution intended to be sent to Otaheite. As I have taken the liberty to do this with a view of serving Posterity, by having some to spare to leave on the lands I may touch at before I arrive at that Island, I hope it will meet their Lordships approbation, and that they will order the Bill to be honoured [details of one of the Bills of Exchange]… being for the Purchase and keeping the Livestock, supporting Omai and for defraying Mr Webber's expences…".

The great interest over the last two centuries in any documents relating to Cook's voyages explains their rarity on the market. This particular document was rediscovered with an otherwise unrelated letter by James Cook behind a picture in an English country house in 2002; the discovery has been written up by Cliff Thornton (Cook's Log, vol. 35, no. 2, 2012).

In this context it is interesting to note the appearance at auction in 1844 of a related Bill of Exchange for 2000 RD given by Cook to Abraham Chiron for one of his two other transactions with him. In 1844 the Exchequer evidently decided to lighten its archives by selling off items considered to be surplus to requirements (advertised in The Times for Friday 19 July 1844). The auctioneer Fletcher was commissioned to dispose of several thousand manuscripts. Amongst the items was a pair of documents, described in a contemporary newspaper report as:

"Autograph of Captain James Cook, the celebrated voyager, to a draft on the commissioners of the victualling office for 2000 rix dollars, in payment of supplies to the Resolution and Discovery, dated Cape of Good Hope, 28 November 1766 [sic], with the orders of the commissioners for payment, signed James Hanway and others" (in other words offered together were a Bill of Exchange from the Cape, together with its Treasury Imprest equivalent to the present document, similarly signed off by Hanway). However at the last minute the sale of the Exchequer papers was prohibited by the Attorney-General. "The information was forthwith made known to the gentlemen in the rooms, among whom it was said was an official representative from the British Museum, who would have purchased the lots for that national establishment. The announcement of this injunction was, of course, received with much astonishment, but, it is almost unnecessary to say that it was at once complied with…" (Morning Chronicle).

TRANSCRIPTION

Imprest

To Treasurer

Received 18 June 1777 No. 557.

We pray you to pay the Bill of Exchange hereunto annext for two Hundred forty pounds sixteen Shillings and sixpence Sterling, drawn on us 28 November 1776 from the Cape of Good Hope, by Captain Jas. Cook Commander and Purser of his Majesty's Sloop Resolution, payable at thirty days sight to Mr Abraham Chiron or order value receiv'd of him in one Thousand Rix dollars at forty eight Stivers p/ Rix dollar, with the usual Advance of eight p/Cent Agio, 104 7/8 for 100 Exchange at 34.21/2 Flemish pound Sterling being for provisions purchased for the use of his Majesty's Sloops Resolution and Discovery: to be charged as an Imprest on Captain Cook.

Dated at the Victualling Office London 18th June 1777

Signatures of:

?JLBxxx?, Joah Bates, Jonas Hanway, J. Cewletham?

Annotated at side: £240.16.6. Witness Thomas Johnson, squiggle, Jos Edward, Van Harthal

At head a later pencil note "Miss Clark".

Provenance: Rediscovered in an English country house in 2002 (see article by Cliff Thornton, <em>Cook's Log</em>, vol. 35, no. 2, 2012).

Price (AUD): $28,500.00  other currencies     Ref: #4401840

Condition Report