Newspaper Article – ‘Whitby cats’ were slow but sturdy

‘Whitby cats’ were slow but sturdy

Michael Fowler
Historic Hawke’s Bay

Two hundred and fifty years ago, in October 1769, Lieutenant James Cook and his crew of the HM (His Majesty’s) Bark Endeavour off the East Coast of New Zealand, noticed the presence of birds and seaweed, which suggested they might be near land.

Not since Abel Tasman’s visit in 1642, had a European reached New Zealand, although Tasman never set foot on land.

On October 7, at 2pm, Cook records in his journal that land was sighted from the mast of the ship. It was by ship’s boy, Nicholas Young. His feat was rewarded by Cook with a gallon of rum and naming a headland after him, Young Nick’s Head.

Cook’s HM Bark Endeavour began its life as the Earl of Pembroke, a collier (bulk cargo ship) designed to carry coal on the North Sea.

The 4-year-old Earl of Pembroke was purchased in March 1768 for refitting by the Royal Navy for a mission to observe the transit of Venus across the sun in Tahiti on June 3, 1769. It was 368 tons and 29.6m long and 8.9m wide. Cook was familiar with colliers, having worked on them before joining the merchant navy.

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Nicknamed “Whitby cats” (coal and timber ship), from where they were built in England, the colliers were slow, but sturdy and importantly, their shallow draught meant reduced chances of running aground (and this certainly saved Cook and his crew from total destruction when it became entangled on the Great Barrier Reef in 1770). She could also easily be beached for repairs.

There was already an Endeavour in the Royal Navy – a sloop – so she was registered as HM Bark Endeavour to differentiate the two vessels.

Conversion of the HM Bark Endeavour (Endeavour), for what was to be an eight-month voyage to Tahiti took place at the Deptford yard, around the corner from the Tower of London.

James Cook would personally oversee the conversion for his voyage – he had to make sure the work was done to a seaworthy standard because there had been some issues at the yard.

The London Gazette reported that the crew of the Endeavour had engaged in “much carousing in the dockside taverns” before being away from England for considerable time. They received two months’ pay in advance and the rest would be received at the end of the voyage which would be from August 25, 1768 to July 13, 1771.

Provisions loaded on the Endeavour for the voyage, the London Gazette reported, included 9000 pounds (4082kg) of flour, 4000 pieces of beef, 6000 pieces of pork, 20 bushels of salt, and almost 8000 pounds (3628kg) of sauerkraut – used as preventative to scurvy.

The meat was salted as a preservative. There was also 17 barrels of rum, 44 of brandy, 250 of beer on board and fresh water. Food supplies would be replenished by catching fish at sea, and at various landfalls.

A goat kept on deck supplied officers with milk, and chickens to supply eggs. Other animals included four ducks, 17 sheep, a sow and piglets.

One man was responsible for cooking and that was John Thompson, with the assistance of only one man.

Ninety-four men would leave from the port at Plymouth on August 25, 1768, including botanist Joseph Banks (1743-1820) and his team of seven men. Banks paid a small fortune to go on the voyage.

Cook’s wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to a third son, Joseph, the day after he set sail. Joseph died 19 days later. Elizabeth would not only survive her husband by 56 years, but all her children.

Two of the boys, Nathaniel and James, died while on service in the Royal Navy, and Hugh died age 17 while at Christ’s College, Cambridge. In addition to Joseph above, George died aged 4 months. The only daughter, Elizabeth, died aged 4 years.

The painting featured of James Cook in this article was gifted to widow Elizabeth from artist John Webber, who accompanied James as official artist on his third and fatal Pacific voyage.

In 1960 the portrait was purchased by the New Zealand Government from Canon T Harrison Park. James Cook’s nephew was given the painting by Elizabeth, whose descendants sold it around the 1850s.

Lieutenant Cook had sealed secret instructions dated July 30, 1868 from the Admiralty’s Sir Edward Hawke (after whom Hawke’s Bay is named), Sir Piercy Brett and Lord Charles Spencer, which he was forbidden to open until the observation of Venus had been completed.

Some believe the trip to Tahiti was a ruse, with the main objective listed in the sealed orders to discover what many in Europe believed to be Terra Australis (meaning Latin for South Land). It was thought a large land mass must exist to balance the continental land in the northern hemisphere.

If Cook failed to find the fabled Terra Australis, he was instructed to chart a course to come across towards the land charted by Abel Tasman as a jagged wave of coastline in the Pacific Ocean called New Zealand.

Cook had more orders regarding claiming territories for King George III and how to treat indigenous people he came across.

Next week I will look at James Cook’s visit to Hawke’s Bay.

Signed copies of Michael Fowler’s Historic Hawke’s Bay book are available at $65 from the Hastings Community Art Centre, Russell St South, Hastings and Wardini Books Havelock North and Napier.

Michael Fowler FCA ([email protected]) is a chartered accountant, contract researcher and writer of Hawke’s Bay’s history.

Photo captions –

Captain James Cook as painted by John Webber, the official artist on Cook’s final and fateful voyage to the Pacific.

Model of Captain James Cook’s Endeavour, exhibited at Dominion Museum. Credit: Evening Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, N.Z. EP-1957-3761

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Newspaper article

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Hawke's Bay Today


Published with permission of Hawke's Bay Today and Michael Fowler


  • Joseph Banks
  • Sir Piercy Brett
  • George Cook
  • Elizabeth Cook
  • Hugh Cook
  • James Cook
  • Lieutenant James Cook
  • Joseph Cook
  • Nathaniel Cook
  • Canon T Harrison Park
  • Sir Edward Hawke
  • Lord Charles Spencer
  • Abel Tasman
  • John Thompson
  • John Webber
  • Nicholas Young

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