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The British Longitude Act Reconsidered

Was it responsible governance or was it subterfuge?

William E. Carter, Merri Sue Carter

In Service of Whom?

It is impossible to determine with any certainty how many lives were saved by the advances in navigation that can be fairly attributed to passage of the Longitude Act. But if Parliament and the Admiralty had truly been focused first and foremost on saving the lives of common British seamen, they would logically have offered prize moneys to solve pressing problems besides the accurate determination of longitude at sea. Their ships desperately needed a better method of propulsion, and their captains needed practical methods to stop the suffering and death of seamen to scurvy. During the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) alone, it is estimated that some two-thirds of the more than 180,000 seamen conscripted into the British navy died of disease, mostly scurvy. On his own initiative, Cook implemented dietary and hygienic measures—including feeding his men greens harvested at ports during their journey—that virtually eliminated scurvy on his ships. But seemingly without concern for loss of seamen, the Admiralty continued to encourage captains who did not take these measures to sail their ships into the highly dangerous Arctic waters in search of a northwest passage from England to the Far East, a region with enormous trade potential. The Admiralty even extended the £20,000 prize they established in 1731 to their naval ships.

2012-03MacroCarterFD.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageIt was not until the Royal Society of London awarded Cook the prestigious Copley Medal in 1776 for his contribution to preventing scurvy that the Admiralty was forced to address the problem. Sir John Pringle, president of the Royal Society, in presenting the award stated that “Britain may now, on the most distant voyages preserve members of her intrepid sons, her mariners; who, braving every danger, have so liberally contributed to the fame, to the opulence, and to the Maritime Empire of this country.”

Cook’s voyages were widely proclaimed to be purely journeys of discovery, of great scientific value to all nations. His discoveries of new lands and the creation of accurate maps and charts did contribute profoundly to understanding of the world’s remote regions. Both France and the United States provided Cook’s ships safe passage, even while their nations were at war with Great Britain. But Cook actually sailed under secret orders, alluded to in his journals but not discovered and published by the Navy Records Society until 1928. These orders directed him to search for a large continent believed to exist in the southern Pacific Ocean and, with the consent of natives, to take possession of it for the king of Great Britain. He was also ordered to claim for the monarch any other lands he discovered that were not already appropriated by European nations. Failure to disclose these orders constituted a certain act of subterfuge by the Admiralty, forever tainting the remarkable discoveries of Captain James Cook.


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