Sailing with Cook

Sailing with Cook
How I came to write about the private journal of James Burney RN
5 August 2015

I encountered the private journal of James Burney (1750–1821), which forms the basis of Sailing with Cook: Inside the Private Journal of James Burney RN, in 2011 when I was introduced to his youthful work by Susan Hall, the National Library's publisher. Susan advised that the Library wanted to bring his eighteenth-century journal to prominence as one of the treasures of the national collection.

She directed me to a concise annotated edition of Burney's private journal, which the Library had published in 1975. Once I read Burney's account of sailing to the Antarctic and Pacific on Cook's second voyage of exploration, I was hooked.

The Adventure and the Resolution

Peter Fannin, Coloured Drawing of the Adventure and Resolution with Icebergs in the Background  1965 [copy],

The context of the journal was important. Here was a potent mix of family ambition, Britannia's determination to explore and ‘rule the waves', and an unpolished yet fascinating account produced by a young man from one of England's prominent eighteenth-century musical and literary families.

Examining the journal was an extraordinary experience. Wearing the obligatory cotton gloves, I carefully turned each page finding that Burney's handwriting was clear, his phrasing was matter-of-fact and he was coming alive to me.

Burney's Journal

James Burney (1750–1821), Journal  1772–1773,

Burney kept this modestly sized personal journal against Admiralty Instructions, while sailing with Captain Cook during his second exploration between 1772 and 1775. Ah, I thought, Burney was a determined young man and he guarded his private journal carefully. Providing an ingenuous explanation, he claimed that the journal was chiefly for his family's amusement.

Despite often challenging circumstances, Burney managed to maintain his account from mid-1772 until late 1773. On 18 December 1773, on New Zealand's South Island, tragedy struck the Adventure's crew, and thereafter the journal pages are empty. That morning, tasked with searching for ten missing crew in Wharehunga Bay, Burney and his accompanying marines made the grisly discovery at Grass Cove of baskets of roasted flesh, body parts and a familiar tattooed hand. Captain Cook had developed good relations with the Maori and these continued after the incident at Grass Cove.

Queen Charlotte Sound

John Webber (1752–1793), View in Queen Charlotte's Sound, New Zealand  1809,

Probing into the circumstances under which Burney was chosen to sail with Cook, the master navigator, provided me with a remarkable back story. Of course, the Burney name rang a bell. James had a famous father, celebrated musician and musicologist Dr Charles Burney FRS (1726–1814), and his younger sister, Fanny (Frances) Burney (1752–1837), became a famed novelist and diarist. But what of Burney himself?

Why and when did James Burney go to sea? After all, his grandfather, his father and mother were all talented musicians. Music might easily have become his chosen career. Writing also ran in the Burney blood. His younger brother, Charles, became a celebrated classical scholar. At first glance, James appeared overshadowed by his distinguished family. But as more evidence emerged, I discovered that James, or ‘Jem' as his family called him, post-journal, post-voyages, became distinguished in his own right. He wrote extensively, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and he was eventually promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral. His life had taken a series of complicated tacks.

Burney's A Chronological History ...

James Burney (1750–1821), A Chronological History of the Voyages and Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean, Part II, London: printed by Luke Hansard ..., 1806,

But to return to the journal. To air travellers able to look down at the world's now well-mapped oceans, it is a miracle that Burney and his journal survived. Despite the voyage's vicissitudes, the journal's covers are intact without signs of sea water damage, the paper is strong, the ink has not faded much and, importantly, Burney's youthful account remains vigorous and, occasionally, astounding.

In writing Sailing with Cook: Inside the Private Journal of James Burney RN, I acknowledge that this eighteenth-century sailor, geographer and writer has now become one of my historical confrères. He went on to sail with Cook on the third voyage of exploration from 1775 to 1779. But that's another story.

If Burney had access to an eighteenth-century version of the Internet, would he have written a blog? Fortunately, Burney's private journal is now digitised so accessing his words, including his occasional misspelling and hurried edits, is easy. As he wrote at the start of the voyage: ‘I shall write the same as if Speaking of the time present – now & then I may forget myself – you must make allowances'.

Go to the Online BookshopSailing with Cook: Inside the Private Journal of James Burney RN by Dr Suzanne Rickard was released by NLA Publishing in August 2015.