It was on February 22, 1779, that Captain Charles Clerke of His Majesty’s Sloop Discovery committed the remains of fellow Captain James Cook of HMS Resolution “to the deep with all the attention and honour we could possibly pay in this part of the world.”
Ships Master Thomas Edgar tells us that, at five in the afternoon, Cook’s Resolution and the Discovery “hoisted ensigns and pendants half staff up and crossed over yards. At three quarters past the hour, Resolution tolled her bell and fired 10 four pounders, half minute guns, and committed the bones of Captain Cook to the deep.”
Fifteen minutes later, both ships “at 6 p.m. squared yards.” Most of the officers on board the two vessels presumed they would be setting course for home – that the third great voyage of Cook, the one that put the West and Northwest Coast of Canada and much of the Pacific Ocean on the maps of the world, was over after three years of discovering and charting new lands.
The officers were wrong. Captain Clerke, who had assumed command of the expedition and the Resolution after the assassination of Cook in Hawaii, said he understood the anxiety to get home after so long at sea, but felt it would be a betrayal of Cook’s plan to search northern waters once more for a dreamed-of northwest passage before heading home. He was determined, he said, to complete Cook’s plan even though he was seriously ill. His two ship fleet sailed north.
On August 17, 1779, while sailing the Bering Strait off the coast of Kamchatka just five days before his death, Clerke sat down to write a simple will and last testament. He was 38, 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.
He must have been feeling a million miles from home when he wrote: “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 a testimony to Captain Clerke’s character. “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 were 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 brother 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 intervention by 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. That wasn’t known when he finally sailed with Captain Cook who was in command of 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 had lost their captain.
Cook’s remains had been “committed to the deep” off Hawaii; Clerke had sailed north to die and be buried – as requested – on land.
His grave was originally near the village of Paratunka on the Kamchatka Peninsula. In 1918, his remains were moved to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. A Royal Navy memorial stone and a Russian tribute remind the world that: “This officer made several trips to the opening of new lands.” In his short life span, Clerke had circumnavigated the globe twice and came close to completing a third.
The home of his birth, Brook Farm, Braintree Road, Wethersfield, Essex, England, still exists today as a bed and breakfast establishment of high repute. However, it makes only modest reference to its most famous resident who joined the Royal Navy at 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 as memorial tributes.
Captain 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 is remembered each year and rightly praised for great achievements on the anniversary of his brutal death on a Hawaiian beach on the 14th of February, 1779.
I try to remember Captain Clerke from time to time. He’s not as high as Cook on the honour and memorial charts, although he did two circumnavigations of the globe and was second in command of the third when he died so far from home. I remember him and his lonely grave in a remote corner of Siberia with its bleak Royal Navy reminder that Captain Clerke also made “several trips” to open up new lands.
Rupert Brook penned better and longer lasting words than I for those who, worthy of higher honours, die and lie in far away and oft-forgotten places.
“If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam.
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.”
I think Captain Clerke, a quiet hero, would be happy to be so remembered in a small patch of Russian soil “for ever England.”