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Captain Cook's Midshipman: William Harvey

Captain Cook's Midshipman: William Harvey

By mudswimmer

Whilst strolling through a Hertfordshire churchyard, I came across the grave of William Harvey who, as a young midshipman, had sailed with Captain Cook on each of his three voyages of discoveries. With the help of the National Archives, I tracked down his journals and found that they provided a fascinating account of the three voyages and of Cook’s behaviour, particularly on that fateful day in Hawaii when he met a rather gruesome end. Cook had gone ashore to recover a stolen ship’s cutter and intended to take a local chief as hostage until it was returned; following an argument, his shore party was attacked and Cook was stabbed to death. Despite his youth and his lowly position, young William accused Cook of going ashore with ‘treacherous design’ and of ‘trifling around’ on the beach, when, surrounded by a thousand angry natives, he should have been making tracks back to the Resolution. Older and experienced officers were more diplomatic in their comments about the sad end of their beloved but unfortunate commander.

The voyages with Captain Cook

William Harvey was one of a handful of men who accompanied Captain Cook on all three voyages, and had the unique distinction of serving on three of Cook’s ships: Endeavour, Resolution, and Discovery. A Londoner, born in 1752, he was 16 years of age when he joined the Endeavour at Deptford for Cook’s first voyage. Well-educated and older than the other ‘young gentlemen’ who joined as volunteers, his first appointment was as Lieutenants’s Assistant or Servant, a position that was often reserved to oblige relatives or friends. In April 1769 he was promoted to able-bodied seaman and in February 1771 to midshipman. He does not appear to have kept a record of his first voyage, but would have been busy ‘learning the ropes’ and studying the art of navigation through techniques developed by the Hertfordshire born mathematician, Edmund Gunter.

On the second voyage, he served as a midshipman on the Resolution. The purpose of this voyage was to investigate the existence of a large southern continent. When the ship entered the Antarctic circle, the first known to have done so, the voyage became a hazardous adventure in which the crew faced the perils of violent storms, fog and ice. In a ship that was never warm, many of the seamen were unprepared for the intense cold and shivered with despair in their hammocks, but Cook issued them with extra rations of rum and they cheered up considerably. During the voyage, Cook christened both a large island and a bay with the name Harvey, but these were in honour of his Admiralty sponsor and not the young midshipman who may well have been the first to spot them from the crowsnest.

Whilst preparing Resolution for the third voyage, William Harvey met Omai, a Tahitian prince who had come to England in 1774 in one of Cook’s ships and was returning to the South Seas. Omai had much to tell him about his visit. He had been an object of fascination to London’s high society which lionised him as a noble savage; a man untainted and uncorrupted by modern European society. He had met King George III, been introduced to Samuel Johnson, and had his portrait painted by Joshua Reynolds. Upon meeting the King, he is reputed to have greeted him with the words ‘How do, King Tosh!’ The King was amused and later suggested that he should be inoculated against small pox. Accordingly, he visited Hertford where there was an isolation unit for victims of small pox. During his stay, Omai often walked along the River Lea where he enjoyed watching anglers fishing but found their use of worms most disagreeable. Omai soon tired of Hertford and was glad to get back to London. He returned to Tahiti on the third voyage. Though his inoculation kept him completely free of a disease which raged through the island, it was his undoing. Convinced that he was possessed of some kind of evil, his fellow islanders murdered him.

For this third voyage, William Harvey was promoted to master’s mate. The master (usually the most skilled seaman and navigator aboard) was none other than a very capable Mr William Bligh who was to be immortalised by the mutiny on the Bounty. Bligh was actually two years younger than William Harvey and, despite his rather tetchy temperament, they got on well together. During the voyage, at Huaheine, Harvey was officer of the watch responsible for guarding a native who had stolen a sextant. When everyone fell asleep and the prisoner escaped, Cook was beside himself with rage. The sentry responsible was given a dozen lashes on three consecutive days and Harvey was demoted to midshipman and transferred to the Discovery. The prisoner was recaptured and Cook, still fuming, ordered that his ears be cut off, but it is quite likely that the ship’s barber let him go after only snipping at his earlobes. Despite his temporary fall from grace, Harvey was considered to be an honest, reliable and steady officer. He was well-liked by Bligh and also by Cook who had him earmarked for promotion should the opportunity arise. He was eventually promoted to third lieutenant when Cook was killed in Hawaii and all the officers moved up in seniority.

Harvey’s journals

All journals from the voyages were impounded by the Admiralty and now lie in the vaults of the Public Record Office in Kew. Written in a most elegant copperplate script, Harvey’s are largely devoted to everyday events aboard a King’s ship, e.g. the weather, the ship’s position, duties undertaken by the crew, and floggings. He was probably aware that all such diaries would be confiscated at the end of the trip for there are few personal opinions amongst his comments.

e.g. ‘John Marra, punished with 12 lashes for drunkenness and insubordination. Midshipman fell overboard and was drown’d. Light Breezes and Fair.’ Just another day at the office.

Even when he faced Cook’s wrath, was disrated and banished from his sight, he summed up the whole of this unfortunate episode quite briefly with ‘This Day, I was transferred on board the Discovery, hence forward will be the remarks on her.’ The entries begin to sparkle, however, when he records sights and events which take place in the various islands. ‘As soon as it was Day break, 12 or 14 single and double canoes came off full of Natives who were Black. A small set of People with woolly Heads and naked except a covering to their Penis having with them Clubs, Spears, Bows and Arrows. After some inticing, one or two came onboard to which the Captain gave Medals and several other Trinkets. They had not long been onboard before they got up to the Mastheads and spoke to the Indians on shore who came swimming off to the Ship. We soon had near a hundred onboard when an Indian in one of ye canoes fired an arrow into the Ship. By firing one of our Great Guns to frighten him, all those onboard jumped overboard and swam ashore.’

A St Valentine’s Day Massacre

On 14th February 1779, Cook and several marines were attacked by natives in Hawaii’s Kealakekua Bay and killed. Writing under some stress after witnessing the event, Harvey explained how Cook had gone ashore with a party of marines to invite a local chief back to the Resolution. The plan was to keep him as a hostage until one of the ship’s boats, which had been stolen, was returned. Despite, or because of, his recent demotion to a lowly midshipman, Harvey accused Cook of going ashore with a ‘treacherous design’ and of ‘trifling around’ on the beach when surrounded by a thousand angry natives. Sparing us some of the more grizzly details, he described how two natives returned during the night ‘and brought us a part of the sad remains of our unfortunate Commander, being a piece of his flesh, about 8lbs.’ His main criticism, however, was reserved for a junior officer in a nearby launch for failing to come to the assistance of Cook’s party. He claimed that the officer had threatened to shoot any man who pulled a stroke towards the shore.

The officer, Lieutenant Williamson, was eventually cleared by a shipboard enquiry. Thereafter, Williamson’s naval career flourished and he was promoted to post captain, but in 1797, during the battle of Camperdown, he held back his vessel Agincourt from engaging with the Dutch fleet and was cashiered in disgrace from the Navy. Nelson thought he should have swung from the yardarm. Harvey probably had the same thought, eighteen years earlier.

After the excitement of the discovery voyages, however, Harvey’s career followed a less-adventurous route. His promotion to lieutenant was confirmed in December 1779 and he served aboard the Isis, a ship that seems to have led a charmed life avoiding capture and groundings. In October 1790, he was promoted to the rank of Commander and captained the Gorgon. This 44 gun Adventure Class frigate with a crew of 300 men carried convicts to Australia in the Third Fleet and later served as a troop carrier and hospital ship. The Prince of Wales was another of Harvey’s postings. By 1800, he was one of the longest-serving commanders in what had been a period of intense naval activity against the Dutch and French navies. Presumably he was not a high-flyer or he lacked the social connections that were so important in those times because he never attained the coveted rank of post-captain.

In his will, he left all his worldly possessions ‘to my dearly beloved wife Martha’, and died on 12th July 1807, but the cause of his death is unknown. A large dusty Admiralty ledger reveals that, at the time of his death, he was receiving a junior captain’s half-pay of 8 shillings (40p) per day. Shortly afterwards, Martha was awarded a Navy widow’s pension of £60 a year.

William Harvey is not entirely forgotten. Although a Harvey Island is to be found in the Cook group, that was named in honour of a Lord of the Admiralty. Off the coast of North East Australia, near Cape York, however, there is a group of small islands called the Home Islands. Cook named each island after younger members of his crew including William Harvey. Though Harvey’s Island is uninhabited, it has a tidal gauge on one of its beaches and the gauge relays tidal data to oceanic research centres in Australia.

Little Hadham

William married Martha Plummer, who was 12 years his junior, on 27th July 1790, in Southampton. Later, they moved to the village of Much Hadham in Hertfordshire and lived in Halfway House not far from the old ford. Captain William Harvey ended his days in this quiet Hertfordshire village with his wife, his young daughter and his memories. Perhaps, of an evening, he would stroll down to the Nags Head Inn and entertain the customers with stories of Captain Cook and young Mr Bligh, South Sea paradises, naval engagements, narrow escapes and mutinies. Who knows? But, if he did, well what a tale he had to tell

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20 Jun, 2011
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