JAMES COOK IN NEWFOUNDLAND, 1763-1767 

By Dr. Olaf Janzen (Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland)

With the restoration of peace in 1763, James Cook, Master of Northumberland, was paid off. Yet this was the moment when the contacts and connections that he had developed by then as a master in the Royal Navy came forcefully into play. Hugh Palliser, who had encouraged Cook to take his Master’s examination in 1757, served as commander-in-chief of the Newfoundland station ships for most of the time that Cook spent surveying the coasts of Newfoundland Labrador. Alexander, Lord Colvill, praised Cook’s skills as a chart-maker in a letter to the Admiralty Secretary, remarking on his “Genius and Capacity” and declaring that Cook’s work “may be the means of directing many in the right way, but cannot mislead any.” But of the several individuals who had helped shape Cook’s career, one of the most important surely was Thomas Graves.

Graves was both commander-in-chief of the Newfoundland station and the civil governor of the Newfoundland fisheries when the French captured St. John’s in 1762. He had been impressed by Cook’s cartographic work while serving as Northumberland’s master during the expedition to dislodge the French. Now, in 1763, and still serving as commanding officer of the Newfoundland station and civil governor, he was acutely aware of the way that the Peace of Paris had greatly expanded his jurisdiction – the administration of coastal Labrador had been added to his many other responsibilities, and he knew next to nothing about that region. Graves therefore urged the Admiralty to commission a survey of the coasts of Newfoundland, and he recommended Cook as the person best suited for the job. Thus it was that, in the spring of 1763, Cook found himself returning to Newfoundland, this time with an appointment as Surveyor of Newfoundland.

His first assignment was to prepare a chart of the island of St. Pierre. This had to be done quickly, for St. Pierre and Miquelon had been restored to the French by the terms of the Peace of Paris, and they were anxious to take immediate possession. Indeed, on the very day that the Tweed, Capt. Charles Douglas, arrived in St. Pierre with Cook on board, so did two French warships and the new French governor. Douglas stalled for time while Cook hastily completed a superb chart of St. Pierre; it was a masterful indication of Cook’s ability to work under pressure. Once that work was done, he immediately headed north to the Northern Peninsula, charting harbours there where treaty privileges allowed the French to fish. He also survey several of the harbours on the Labrador shore which was now under British jurisdiction.

By starting first with St. Pierre and then heading to the Northern Peninsula, Cook was revealing something about British Admiralty priorities. Every coast that he was directed to chart was sensitive in some way to British efforts to assert their sovereignty over territory which had been French (Labrador), which was about to become French (St. Pierre and Miquelon), or where the French had been encroaching (Newfoundland’s South Coast).  Thus, Cook returned to the Northern Peninsula in 1764 to complete his survey of the coast most frequented by French fishermen.

In 1765, he turned his attention to the South Coast, from the Burin Peninsula to Bay d’Espoir, where the French at St. Pierre had been engaging in illicit trade with local residents and even over-wintering and engaging in furring, wood-cutting and vessel construction, all in violation of existing treaty restrictions. Cook completed his survey of the South Coast in 1766, from the Bay d’Espoir area west to Cape Ray and Codroy. And in 1767 he surveyed the West Coast, a region virtually unknown to the British and where the British needed to forestall French efforts to claim that coast as part of the so-called “Treaty Shore.”

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