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James King - The extraordinary life of a largely forgotten Clitheroe sea hero

PUBLISHED: 19:47 03 December 2012 | UPDATED: 22:27 20 February 2013

James King

James King

The extraordinary life of a largely forgotten Clitheroe sea hero is revealed in a fascinating new book

It was the night of February 15 in 1779 and Lieutenant James King was standing on the deck of HMS Resolution, at anchor in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii.

Two native priests had rowed to the ship, called out for King, and handed him a parcel wrapped in cloth made from bark. James unwrapped it to reveal something extraordinary - the thigh of his late commander, the famous Captain James Cook, who had been killed in a skirmish the day before.




After recovering from the initial shock he asked the Hawaiians what had happened to the rest of the body. Has he been eaten? James asked. The Hawaiians looked astonished and replied: No. Is that what you would have done?




James later wrote: Our feelings could be better conceivd than describd when the bundle was opend. Its this phrase that provides the title of a fascinating new biography of King by Ribble Valley maritime historian Steve Ragnall.

Born in Clitheroe in June 1750, the second son of the local vicar, James was a pupil at Clitheroe Royal Grammar School until the age of 12. His family had important and influential ties which included Members of Parliament and even a Prime Minister. One of his unclesin-law, Sir William Norton, was a famous frigate captain of the time and he took this boy into the Royal Navy as a midshipman aboard HMS Assistance.




Although the Navy was reducing in size, exploration across the world was continuing. Captain Cook, already a veteran of two extraordinary voyages around the world, was to take a further expedition into the Pacific to try to find a sea route across the top of the American continent. James used his familys contacts to become Cooks 2nd Lieutenant but also took an unusual step for a naval officer of the day.

James, always considered to be very intelligent, had himself schooled in maths and astronomy. Cooks voyages were highly scientific and astronomers were required on board to undertake the testing of the new marine chronometers to calculate longitude and accurately chart the vast Pacific Ocean. James would be one of those astronomers.

The Lancashire lad set sail with Cook in mid-1776, just as the American War of Independence started. After encounters with the cannibalistic Maori of New Zealand, near kidnap in the Friendly Isles and almost sinking off Alaska, Resolution and her consort vessel, Discovery, finally reached what Cook had named the Sandwich Islands, but we now know as Hawaii, in January 1779.




After an unbelievable welcome from thousands of natives who hailed Cook almost as a god and believed James to be his son, the visit ended in the tragedy of Cooks death on the seashore on St Valentines day 1779.

The coincidences and misunderstandings which led up to that event are clearly and concisely detailed in Better Conceivd than Describd and make gripping reading.

James would receive renown as the joint author of the book of the voyage that became the best seller of 1784. In the meantime the expedition went on, returning to England after more than four years and with James as captain of the Discovery.

He became a frigate captain, capturing several vessels in the continuing war with the fledgling United States and France. He fought alongside Horatio Nelson in the Caribbean and won the praise and admiration of his crew and once tangled with the infamous William Bligh of the Bounty.

At home he had audiences with King George and was friends with the cream of Georgian society such as Edmund Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Joseph Banks and Lord Sandwich. Burke would later write: In truth James King was made singularly formed to inspire confidence and attachment.

Unfortunately, his career was cut short by illness and he died from consumption in Nice at the age of 34.

Kings life was very exciting and its been great fun researching it and separating truth from myth, said Steve, who was also born in Clitheroe. I have lots of anecdotes about James but one of my favourite stories relates to his time in Alaska.

In what is now known as Cook Inlet. On June 1st 1778, in command of a
small party in two boats, he stepped ashore where several natives, with their arms extended in a gesture of peace, came forward to meet him as his boat landed.

Seeing James and his men carrying muskets the natives seemed alarmed. They were unarmed, and instructing his men to stay where they were James approached them alone. After gaining their confidence, James instructed his men to raise the union flag, whereupon he claimed the country in the name of King George.

The landing party then drank His Majestys health in good English Porter.
Steve laughed: Perhaps we should now claim Alaska back!


A worthy memorial

Clitheroe commemorated its old boy James King with a blue plaque in King Street. There is
also a memorial at the school, but for the last two centuries his achievements have been
overshadowed by those of Captain Cook.


One reviewer said of Steves new book: This much-needed biography brings to life the quiet
brilliance of James King. Bursting with detailed research, it paints a vivid picture.


Better Conceivd than Describd: The Life and Times of Captain James King (1750-1784) will
be launched at The Grand in Clitheroe on December 5 at 7.30pm with a free illustrated
presentation. The book is available now from Troubador Publishing or from bookshops and
Amazon from January 2013. ISBN 9781780883595

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