Author Tags: 1700-1800
George Gilbert’s writing has been lauded as even-handed, even mature, reminiscent of the “magnificent lack of imagination” displayed by the younger James Cook in his Endeavour journal.
George Gilbert joined Captain Cook’s 1776 expedition as a seaman and was promoted to midshipman during the voyage. His father George Gilbert had served as master on the the Resolution for its preceding voyage to the Pacific, during which time Cook had named Gilbert Island off the coast of Tierra del Fuego for him. Upon his father’s retirement, John Gilbert had been replaced as master by William Bligh, later deposed as captain during the mutiny on the Bounty.
While in his late teens or early twenties, Gilbert was on the Resolution when Cook visited Nootka Sound and undertook repairs from late March 1778 until April 27. His extensive account of their travels was not included within The Journals of Captain Cook. Vol. 3. Parts 1 & 2, Resolution and Discovery—as were extracts from journals by his contemporaries Anderson, Clerke, Burney, Williamson, Edgar and King—because Gilbert’s 325-page manuscript journal was likely completed in the early 1780s.
Gilbert’s memoir was not published until two centuries later, 80 years after a descendant of Gilbert’s brother, Richard Gilbert, took the manuscript to the British Museum in 1912.
At King George Sound, Gilbert described the perceived threat of attack by two large parties of canoes. Cook was unwilling to fire at them. “At last we discovered it to be a quarral betwixt the two parties, and that the dispute was the right of trading with us; which after several long harangues, and threatening gestures, on both sides, was happily decided without their proceeding to greater extremities: and both parties traided with us ever afterwards in a very peaceable manner, and friendly,” Gilbert recalled. “They had very often little quarrels with one another alongside, which generally ended with pulling each others hair; this they would do for near half an hour together, without the least motion till one of them gave out, being apparently of a very obstinate dispossion. When their disputes do not run so high as to require weapons to decide them, this seems to be the only method they make us[e] of; having no idea of striking with their hands, which is rather surprizing, as boxing is generally practiced by most Indians.”
When the Resolution and Discovery returned to Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii on January 17, 1779, some of the Hawaiians initially believed—so the story goes—that Captain Cook could be the ancient God Lono returned to them. It had been foretold that Lono would return on large floating islands. Nevertheless, so many islanders tried to board the Discovery that that there was a danger of capsizing.
“When we wanted to work,” Gilbert wrote, “we could not come at the ropes without first driving the greater part of them [the Hawaiians] overboard; which they bore with the utmost cheerfulness and good nature jumping from every part of the ship into the water, as fast as they could, appearing to be much diverted at it, and would come on board again when the business was over.”
When Captain James Cook was killed at Kealakekua Bay, George Gilbert recorded how Cook’s men felt when one of them confirmed that they had “lost their father.”
“When on the return of the boats informing us of the Captains Death; a general silence ensued throughout the ship, for the space of near half an hour;—it appearing to us some what like a dream that we cou’d not reconcile our selves to for some time. Greif was visible in evry Countenance; Some expressing it by tears; and others by a kind of Gloomy dejection: more easy to be conceived than described: for us all our hopes centrd in him; our loss became irrepairable and the Sense of it was so deeply impressed upon our minds as not to be forgot.”
After Cook’s death, Gilbert transferred to the Discovery under Captain Clerke and was paid off at Woolwich on October 21, 1780. He became fifth lieutenant on the warship Magnificent until 1783. The year and nature of his death are not known. Gilbert’s original journal is in the British Museum.
Christine Holmes (editor). Captain Cook's Final Voyage: The Journal of Midshipman George Gilbert. (Horsham: Sussex: Caliban Books, 1982; University of Hawaii Press, 1982)
[BCBW 2003] "1700-1800" "English"