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Captain Cook's Mouldy Bread


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.

Engraving from the first voyage

In late spring of 1772, Captain Cook, the celebrate​d 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.

Ships biscuit, early 19th Century.  Image courtesy of National Maritime Museum Collections

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.

Captain Cook's Letter about Mouldy bread on the HMS Resolution

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.”

References and further reading

In Search of Captain Cook: Exploring the Man Through his Own Words by Daniel O’Sullivan

Captain James Cook: A Biography by Richard Hough

Captain Cook: Master of the Seas by Frank Mclynn

Farther than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook by Martin Dugard

Captain Cook: Obsession and Discovery, a Film Australia National Interest, written and directed by Wain Fimeri, Paul Rudd, Matthew Thomason.

Writing Captain Cook Symposium at The National Museum of Australia.


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He was right to get the bread

He was right to get the bread replaced. You can't have vegemite on mouldy ship's biscuit!

moldy bread Yum!

Moldy bread is good for treating wounds, as penicillin is from bread mold. Secondly it might provide vitamin C to ward off the scurvy, the problem is that once it starts to go moldy it spoils quickly. I believe it was a leak in the ship that made the wood of the room go green and spoil the bread, NOT the bread spoiling the wood. Still as an Australian I am impressed that the Library has anything signed by James Cook, by the way check out how he died! Also one of his cabin boys was to grow up to become in a Mutiny (on the Bounty), and the 'Rum Rebalian' of Australia, guess his name?

Captain Cook

It's great that the Miscellaneous Personal Name Files are being described and cataloged, who know's what other interesting finds there will be inside the boxes? I also grew up in Australia and now live in the U.S. so it was very interesting to read that the NYPL has a document created by Captain James Cook, someone we are so familiar with in Australia but who is not so well-known over here. It shows how important it is for libraries and archives to preserve and make accessible these kinds of documents as you never know who they may be of relevance and interest to.

Biscuit with Jam

What an excellent blog. Captain Cook set the standard for the ship's store. History tells us that this bread was often subject to spoilage and that soldiers had to eat it under any circumstances. The hard tack biscuit was a staple during the United States Civil War. Perhaps what made this bread so appealing is the long shelf life of fifty years. There may be other treasures yet undiscovered in the Miscellaneous Personal Name Files.

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