Friday, 3 January 2014

The Masons of St Helena: The Visit of Captain Cook

Journal of Captain Cook, May 1775

Following my recent post on Polly Mason, my friend John Grimshaw has pointed out that the Masons of St Helena entertained a very famous visitor, Captain Cook, long before Napoleon emerged on the world stage, let alone set foot in the Fishers Valley on St Helena.

In May 1775 Captain Cook landed on the island of St Helena for his second visit. Many locals had been upset by the description of the island given in the official account of his first voyage, compiled by John Hawksworth, which Cook had not seen, and which had drawn heavily on the journal of Joseph Banks.

All kinds of Labour is here performd by Man, indeed he is the only animal that works except a few Saddle Horses nor has he the least assistance of art to enable him to perform his task.  Supposing the Roads to be too steep and narrow for Carts, an objection which lies against only one part of the Island, yet the simple contrivance of Wheelbarrows would Doub[t]less be far preferable to carrying burthens upon the head, and yet even that expedient was never tried.  Their slaves indeed are very numerous: they have them from most parts of the World, but they appeard to me a miserable race worn out almost with the severity of the punishments of which they frequently complaind.  I am sorry to say that it appeard to me that far more frequent and more wanton Cruelty were excercisd by my countrey men over these unfortunate people than even their neighbours the Dutch, fam'd for inhumanity, are guilty of.  One rule however they strictly observe which is never to Punish when ships are there.

During his 1775 visit Captain Cook apparently visited the eastern part of the island where the Mason family had its property and where Napoleon was to spend his last years:

the two Mr Forsters and myself dined with a party at the Country house of one Mr Masons, at a remote part of the island, which gave me an oppertunity to see the greatest part of it, and I am well convinced that the island in many particulars has been misrepresented.

It is a pity that Captain Cook didn't give more information about Mr Mason and the location of the house in which he was entertained. Presumably the Mason referred to was Polly Mason's grandfather, Benjamin Mason, baptised in January 1725 who died in 1805. Polly Mason's father, Richard Mason, was only 22 in 1775. Richard and his wife Elizabeth then had only one daughter, Elizabeth. Interestingly "Polly", christened in 1780, was given the names Mary Elizabeth, which suggests that the first Elizabeth did not live long.


Hels said...

Why would Captain Cook have visited St Helena the first time and why did Captain Cook did he return to St Helena in May 1775? Was the island a routine stop for ships on the north south run?

John Tyrrell said...

Hi Hels,

It was a routine stop for ships heading north to Europe (and of course for whalers) before the opening of the Suez Canal. They could take on water and fresh supplies of food. The prevailing wind from the Cape is westwards, which made it a sensible mid Atlantic stop for sailing ships.



Simon Pipe said...

Cook obviously revised his view of the island, but is there anything to suggest that he retracted what had been published in his name regarding the severe treatment of slaves? I haven't seen Cook's testimony cited in any of the writing in the wake of the excavations in Rupert's Valley. Topical, I'd say.

As ever, a very interesting post.

John Tyrrell said...

Hi Simon,

John Grimshaw is the expert on this, and he has pointed me to a page on the Captain Cook Society website:

Some fourteen hundred slaves did the bidding of the four hundred or so of the "Principal Inhabitants," who no doubt were relieved to find how easily Cook dismissed the charge of cruelty. He had no wish to stir up trouble for his compatriots, and his statement that "there is not a European settlement in the world where slaves are better treated and better fed than here" might have been technically correct. As compared with Banks, however, he was more than a little disingenuous, especially because he observed, with typical perspicacity, that the slaves "subsist cheifly on Yams, Rice and Fish" even while the island teemed with 2,500 cattle, 3,000 sheep, besides hogs, poultry, and goats--animals rarely of benefit to the slaves, as he noticed, but rather reserved for the settlers and the company ships.



John Grimshaw said...

Hi John and Simon,

Returning to England from his second circumnavigation in July 1775 and not wishing to have the account of his second voyage ghost-written, the Admiralty allowed Cook to publish, and receive all proceeds from the journal of his second voyage. In the published narrative of this second voyage, Cook was determined to prevent the kind of editorial license that John Hawkesworth had enjoyed with his first, and which had caused such controversy on St. Helena, and he assumed full authorial control:

“I shall therefore conclude this introductory discourse with desiring the reader to excuse the inaccuracies of style, which doubtless he will frequently meet with in the following narrative; and that, when such occur, he will recollect that it is the production of a man, who has not had the advantage of much school education, but who has been constantly at sea from his youth; and though, with the assistance of a few good friends, he has passed through all the stations belonging to a seaman, from an apprentice boy in the coal trade, to a Post Captain in the Royal Navy, he has had no opportunity of cultivating letters. After this account of myself, the Public must not expect from me the elegance of a fine writer, or the plausibility of a professed book-maker; but will, I hope, consider me as a plain man, zealously exerting himself in the service of his Country, and determining to give the best account he is able of his proceedings”

He also added the following footnote:

“In the account given of St. Helena, in the narrative of my former voyage, I find some mistakes. Its inhabitants are far from exercising a wanton cruelty over their slaves; and they have had wheel carriages and porters' knots for many years. This note I insert with pleasure.”

For details of Cook’s visits and the controversy see: