I doubt if you have ever heard of him. He was 38 when he died while sailing the Bering Sea off the coast of Kamchatka, ravaged by tuberculosis, reduced, according to his shipmates diaries, “to almost an absolute skeleton” of the man who had sailed them from the far side of the world.
His last will and testament, written August 17, 1779, five days before he died when he must have been feeling a million miles from home, give a measure of the man.
“In the name of God, Amen, I Charles Clerke (Captain) of His Majesty’s Sloop Resolution, having been long in a state of straighten (cct) and not knowing how soon it may please God to remove me from this life, I hereby make this my last will and testament that all my just and lawful debts be paid and which are as follows……”
The list was not long and basically contained the same beneficiaries as his first will, a will made by most early sailors before they launched on voyages of discovery expected to last for years, and from which there was always the danger of no return. One bequest is testimony to Capt. Clerke’s character. He left “to my dear brother and friend Sir John Clerke, Captain in His Majesties (cct) Navy, 10 Guineas”. A generous gesture considering he’d once done hard time for brother John. Another brother didn’t fare nearly as well: ”To my brother Joseph Clerke of Ipswich, Attorney at Law, one Guinea.”
No reasons given for the difference but history tells us when Charles Clerke was posted to Captaincy of Resolution he was in debtors prison serving time for John who had failed to pay back a loan. Charles had been his guarantor. Some historians suggest lawyer-brother Joseph, with only a guinea from his brother’s estate, had been lacking in family loyalty at the time and that it had taken timely intervention by other friends who paid the bills to gain release for Charles in time for him to race to the coast and take command of HMS Discovery. Unfortunately he carried with him the early seeds of Tuberculosis picked up during his grim incarceration in the notorious Fleet Prison. But that wasn’t known when he finally sailed with Capt. James Cook who was in command of and HMS Resolution and overall commander of the expedition. It would be October 4, 1780, before the two ships returned to the Royal Navy yards in Deptford, England – four years, three months and two days after they left. Both ships without their captain.
After Cooke was killed in Hawaii, Clerke, who had succeeded Cook in command, was urged by his officers to set sail for home. Clerke insisted Cook’s intention to make final search for a northern passage from the Pacific to the north Atlantic be carried out. His officers argued he was too ill to again battle arctic ice and gales.
Cook’s remains were committed to the deep; Clerke sailed north to die and be buried – as requested – on land..
His grave was originally near the village of Paratunka on the Kamashatka Peninsula. In 1918 his remains were moved to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy. A Royal Navy memorial stone and a Russian tribute remind the world ”this officer made several trips to the opening of new lands.” In his short life span Clerke had circumnavigated the globe three times and came close to completing a fourth.
The home of his birth, Brook Farm, Braintree Road, Wethersfield, Essex, England, still exists today as a bed and breakfast establishment of high repute but with only modest reference to its most famous resident who had joined the Royal Navy age 13 and 10-years later sailed on HMS Dolphin on his first circumnavigation – an unsuccessful search for Terra Australis Incognito – Australia.
In Wethersfield there’s a wall plate in St Mary’s Church listing Clerke family accomplishments and almost in passing the contributions of Charles. In New Zealand’s, Government House, there hangs a portrait painting of Clerke with a Maori chief. But that’s about all we have a memorial tributes.
In the meantime Capt. Cook continues to command centre stage for northwest and pacific discoveries – and no one can deny the wonders of his perseverance, his discoveries, charts, diaries, maps, and descriptions of worlds once unknown. He will again be remembered and rightly praised for great achievements on the anniversary of his brutal death on a Hawaiian beach on the 14th of February, 1779.
I just thought that this year as that day of remembrance approaches we might spare a few thoughts for Captain Charles Clerke and his lonely Russian grave. He, too, was a man who can teach today’s leaders much about loyalty in leadership and courage in adversity.