I am lucky enough to be working on the Miscellaneous Personal Name Files, a collection of thousands of original documents from American and European historical and literary figures dating anywhere from the 17th to the 20th Century. Before opening box 26 of this collection, I had seen a list of the names inside. Glancing down the spreadsheet columns, I noticed the name James Cook and for a split second toyed with the idea that it could be the James Cook, Captain Cook. Growing up in Australia his was a name impossible to avoid and he is still an enduring subject of vigorous debate and discussion. So you can imagine my thrill when I pulled this letter from the folder and saw the signature.
In late spring of 1772, Captain Cook, the celebrated explorer, navigator and surveyor was aboard the sloop HMS Resolution docked in the South of England overseeing preparations for an epic voyage that would take him and his crew as far as New Zealand, the Antarctic Circle (twice!) and Tierra del Fuego. He had just returned from a circumnavigation of the world that had begun ostensibly to record the transit of Venus. However, as he discovered in secret sealed instructions, he was also to find and map the fabled great Southern Continent called Terra Australis Incognita—imagined as a place of untold riches—and of course claim it for Great Britain. In addition to creating the first complete map of New Zealand, Cook and his crew are described as being the first Europeans to see and land on the East coast of Australia. Cook anchored in a small sheltered bay, just south of modern day Sydney and named it Botany Bay for its bountiful flora. His voyage changed the course of history by opening the way for the European settlement and colonization of Australia.
Back to Cook’s letter, and back on the docks. It’s the 21st of May 1772 and whilst getting the ship ready to embark on his second grand voyage, Cook opens the door to the bread-room on the Resolution only to discover his store of bread "to be very damp and mouldy". Time is short, teams of workers and the crew are busy with preparations, the ship would sail from Sheerness in exactly a month, leaving no time to sort through the 60,000 pounds of bread to separate the good from the bad. Thus Cook’s letter to the Commissioners for Victualing ‘praying that they would be pleased’ to send him empty bags to bring up the damaged goods and replacement bread for the two-year long voyage. The condition of the bread is blamed on the "greenness of the wood with which the room is lined", perhaps a new addition during the ship's extensive (and sometimes controversial) renovations in preparedness for the open seas. The bread that Captain Cook refers to in his letter is most likely ship’s biscuit. A hard cake made from baking flour and water until it is very dry. Ship’s biscuit would often have to be soaked in whatever liquid was handy before it was edible.
The Resolution was not a large vessel by navy standards and having no purser to attend to provisioning it was not unusual for the Commander to own the responsibility for stocking the ship. For Cook, however, the details of his crew’s diet were his especial concern, a concern by no means prevalent amongst his contemporaries. Beyond what enthusiasm he had for the crew’s welfare in and of itself, he would have been very conscious of the great importance of the voyage to the Crown and he knew that the ravage of scurvy could destroy his hopes of charting new lands in the South Pacific.
He carefully stowed abundant supplies that included many antiscorbutic foodstuffs. As well as items like the standard salted beef and pork, he also stowed carrot marmalade, salted cabbage, sauerkraut and a product he believed strongly in, malt. Whenever they could make land, Cook also made sure to gather scurvy grass, wild-celery or better yet, onions, and it is his insistence on the observation of a strict diet that he credited with his triumphant success in avoiding any death by scurvy on this second voyage.
Those of you wondering if the sailors got their fresh ship’s biscuits or had to eat the moldy variety will be relieved to know that there is a note written on the reverse of the letter, presumably by a member of the victualing commission that reads, “Let bags be forthwith sent down to bring up this bread, and acquaint the captain: and tell him we shall send other bread in lieu when he acquaints us the sloop is ready to receive it.”