Captain Cook pleads for a press-ganged crewman

Captain Cook pleads for a press-ganged crewman

Thursday, Sep 29, 2022

Detail from an extraordinary letter and most unusually in James Cook's own hand. The letter was written aboard HMS Resolution while the ship was at Deptford, taking on final stores and provisions prior to sailing on Cook’s arduous second voyage. In the letter, dated 9 March 1772 and addressed to an official of the English East India Company, Cook asks for the release of one of his men,  James Keaton, who has been press-ganged into the company’s service.

The activities of press-gangs at this period are well known and were a considerable hazard to a captain preparing to embark. This was especially true in 1772 for Cook, who was enduring lengthy enforced delays in his preparations for the second voyage. Indeed, a great many sailors were known to have “run” from the Resolution in the long months while the two vessels were going through their refit, with an incredible fifty-eight recorded as having thus absconded, and another thirty-nine discharged for various reasons (see John Robson’s online database).

The depth of research that has been done regarding Cook’s musters makes this manuscript document of especial interest, as James Keaton is not otherwise known to Cook historians. It is also interesting that Keaton, in Cook’s words, has been taken ‘as a soldier’, as his detachment of marines did not come aboard until 29 April 1772. Despite the bustle of Deptford, it would seem that Cook was well informed about the fate of Keaton, as the 499-ton East Indiaman Devonshire, captain Robert Morgan, was very likely in port; she later sailed from Portsmouth on 12 April 1772 (see Charles Hardy, A Register of Ships, Employed in the Service of the Honourable the United East India Company, p. 55).
The letter is addressed to “Mr Coggin”, undoubtedly a homophone for “Coggan”, and almost certainly Charles Thomas Coggan, one of the directors of the East India Company and Comptroller of Shipping. Coggan went on to a long and illustrious career in the company, and by 1811 was the company’s paymaster.

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