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Royal Naval Biography/Cooke, John

[Superannuated Rear-Admiral.]

This officer was born at Kirby, near Norwich, in 1750, and first embarked in the royal navy as a Midshipman, on board the Raisonable of 64 guns, commanded by Captain Maurice Suckling, the worthy uncle, and first professional patron of our lamented hero, the renowned Nelson, who, with several other Norfolk youths, joined that ship about the same period.

The Raisonable was one of the ships commissioned in 1770, on the apprehension of a rupture with Spain, on account of the very extraordinary conduct of that .power relative to the Falkland Islands[1]. On the termination of the dispute, she was paid off, and Captain Suckling was, in May, 1771 > appointed to the command in the river Medway; but Mr. Cooke not relishing so idle and uninteresting a life as that of a Midshipman in a guard-ship, applied for and obtained permission to join the Crescent frigate, then fitting for the Leeward Islands station. In that ship he served, mostly as Master’s-Mate, until Aug. 1774, when she was put out of commission at Woolwich.

We next find him in the Conquestador, 64, guard-ship, at Chatham, where he remained but a short time. In April, 1776, Captain Suckling, then Comptroller of the Navy, presented him with a warrant appointing him Master of the Hornet sloop, fitting at Woolwich for the Jamaica station, of which vessel the late gallant Lord Collingwood was then Lieutenant.

Mr. Cooke continued in the Hornet until Feb. 1, 1778, when he joined the Glasgow, a 20-gun ship, commanded by the late Admiral Sir Thomas Pasley, Bart., with whom he afterwards removed successively into the Sibyl frigate, and Jupiter of 50 guns, of which latter vessel he was appointed a Lieutenant immediately after the action between Commodore Johnstone and M. de Suffrein, in Porto Praya Bay, April 16, 1781[2].

In May 1782, the Jupiter was ordered to convey Admiral Pigot to his command in the West Indies; and soon after her arrival there, was sent on a cruise off the Havannah, where she captured several of the enemy’s vessels. Hostilities ceasing soon after, she returned to England, and was put out of commission July 28, 1783.

During the Dutch and Spanish armaments, in 1787 and 1790, Lieutenant Cooke served under the flag of Sir John Jervis, afterwards Earl of St. Vincent, in the Hannibal, 74, and Prince, a second-rate. At the commencement of the French war in 1793, he was appointed first Lieutenant of the Weazle sloop of war; and in November following, to the Woolwich troop-ship, attached to the armament under Sir John Jervis, then about to sail for the West Indies, where he was removed into the Undaunted frigate; and on the 5th May, 1794, promoted to the rank of Commander, in the Inspector of 16 guns.

Whilst in this latter vessel, Captain Cooke was employed co-operating with the army in the re-occupation of Gaudaloupe, &c.; affording protection to the trade of the Virgin Islands; and in various other services, requiring considerable activity. The following address conveys a sufficient idea of the manner in which he acted on those occasions;

Tortola Council Chamber, May 13, 1795

“Sir.– It having been publicly announced that you are speedily to be removed from your present station in order to join the Admiral, the Members of his Majesty’s Board of Council for the Virgin Islands, who entertain with me every just sense of your merits as a British officer, and of the honorable manner in which you have discharged the duties which you were sent hither to perform, have unanimously determined that you shall not depart from this colony without bearing with you a testimony of their gratitude. They have, therefore, conferred on me the grateful task of communicating to you by letter, their acknowledgments for the steady zeal you have displayed on all occasions [and more especially in times when alarms and threatened dangers have worn the most serious aspect,] in readily co-operating with the President in the adoption of all such measures as were deemed expedient for our safety and protection; and small as is the force of the ship under your command, we have yet the satisfaction to say, that in consequence of your gallantry and good conduct, and of your officers and crew following your example, our enemies have been deterred from executing their threats of attacking this colony, and that you have thereby become the efficient means of our defence. Wishing you health, prosperity, and the enjoyment of every felicity, I have the honor and satisfaction to subscribe myself, with every consideration and respect, Sir,

“Your most faithful, and most obedient humble Servant,
(Signed)Geo. Leonard, President.

To Captain Cooke, H.M.S. Inspector.

This address was presented to Captain Cooke on the occasion of his receiving a commission from the late Sir Benjamin Caldwell, commander-in-Chief pro tempore at the Leeward Islands, promoting him to the command of the Quebec frigate, vacant by the demise of Captain Josias Rogers[3]. An unfortunate mistake, however, on the part of the late Sir Charles Thompson, who had received orders to send Captain Cooke to St. Christopher’s, where the Quebec was to assemble the homeward bound trade, prevented him from joining his ship; and his subsequent appointment to the Alarm frigate, by Rear-Admiral Thompson, appears to have been rendered nugatory by the arrival of a new commander-in-chief, the late Sir John Laforey, by whom he was ordered to follow the Quebec to England, where he arrived in the Montagu 74, on the 5th Oct. 1795.

Soon after his arrival, Captain Cooke was gratified by the receipt of an address from the Council and Assembly of Tortola, &c. to the following effect;

Tortola, August 15, 1795.

“Sir.– We, the Council and Assembly of his Majesty’s Virgin Islands, taking into consideration your unremitted exertiens when upon this station, for the safety and protection of this colony, beg leave to return you our wannest thanks. During the time H.M.S. Inspector, at that time under your command, was stationed here, we were exposed to the most imminent danger from the hostile disposition of our enemies assembled at St. Thomas’s, who were so daring as publicly to proclaim their intention of making a descent upon these islands. In this critical posture of our affairs, we had no other hopes of safety but in the exertions of the militia of the country, aided by efforts such as were in your power to make in our behalf; and we reflect, Sir, with gratitude, that we were not disappointed in our expectations of your zeal for his Majesty’s service, and for the preservation of this colony. By your active co-operation with us, in such measures as were deemed most essential for our defence we saw with satisfaction that our enemies were obliged to abandon their intended enterprise. We should sooner have expressed our sentiments of your conduct, had not your unexpected removal from H.M.S. the Alarm, and your sudden departure for England, deprived us of the opportunity of doing so. We hope the services you have rendered this colony will recommend you to the notice of our most gracious Sovereign, and that he will not suffer your merits to pass unrewarded; and we sincerely flatter ourselves, whilst we regret your departure from amongst us, that wherever his Majesty’s service may require your presence, you may enjoy every degree of happiness which life can afford.

“We remain most respectfully, Sir,
“Your obedient, humble Servants,
(Signed)W. Turnbull, President.

To Captain Cooke, late Commander of
“H.M. ships, Inspector and Alarm

Captain Cooke, on his arrival in England, lost no time in paying his respects to the Board of Admiralty; and was greatly chagrined to find that their Lordships would not confirm his post commission from the original date, that of the brave Faulknor’s death, on the score that Rear-Admiral Caldwell was not bona fide Commander-in-Chief. By this decision, he lost upwards of eight months rank, during which period no less than forty-three officers, who would otherwise have been his juniors, took precedence of him. He however claimed and obtained the command of the Quebec, which ship he joined on her return from a cruise, Jan. 1, 1796[4].

After capturing a French national cutter, Captain Cooke was again ordered to the West Indies; where by his conduct in a rencontre with two frigates of far superior force, he obtained the commendations of his Commodore, the late Sir John T. Duckworth. Whilst on the Jamaica station he appears, by the following letter, to have destroyed a formidable privateer; the particulars of which transaction we have not been able to ascertain:

Cormorant, Mole St. Nicholas, 15th Aug 1796.

“Sir, I am favored with your account of the destruction of the privateer Regulus, on which I congratulate you, as she has been of great annoyance to the trade; but I could have wished that among the 16 Sans Culottes who fell by your well-directed fire, that Pierre Olanger, her commander, who is an infamous scoundrel, had been of the party.

&c. &c. &c.
(Signed)J. T. Duckworth.

Captain Cooke, H.M.S. Quebec.

During Captain Cooke’s continuance on the Jamaica station, he captured l’Africaine, a French corvette of 18 guns; and destroyed a vast number of armed vessels and piratical boats, off the island of St. Domingo; and so highly were those services appreciated by the inhabitants of St. Marc’s, that they presented the following address to the Commander-in-Chief, interceding for his continuance there;

“The inhabitants of the town of St. Marc’s, anxious to testify to Captain Cooke, commander of his Majesty’s frigate Quebec, the great regret they feel at his quitting the station, desiring at the same time to express their gratitude to the Commodore, Commander-in-Chief of his Majesty’s naval forces, seize with eagerness this opportunity to assure the Commodore, the cruises which Captain Cooke has made since he has been in our vicinity, have always been attended with the most happy success. The number of row-boats and other vessels which he has destroyed, witness his great activity in cruising, and evince the services which he has rendered our town. Anxious in the very fullest manner to express their just sentiments to Captain Cooke, the inhabitants of this town supplicate the Commodore that he will be pleased to continue him on the station. They will not cease to pray for the continuation of success to his Majesty’s arms.”

Signed by Januarius Duquesne, various other officers of the garrison, and all the principal inhabitants of the town of St. Marc’s.

To J. T. Duckworth, Esq., Commodore, &c. &c. &c.

Our limits do not admit of the introduction of other documents, relative to the zeal invariably displayed by Captain Cooke in the furtherance of the public service. Such being the case, we must conclude this memoir by observing, that the subject thereof returned to England in Oct. 1797, since which period he has not been employed afloat.

On the renewal of the war, in 1803, Captain Cooke was appointed to the command of the Sea Fencibles between Calshot Castle and St. Alban’s Head. In May, 1804, he assumed the command of all the lighters, launches, &c. armed, in and about the Medway, for the purpose of encountering the formidable flotilla, of which even those who called themselves Britons, at that time stood so much in dread. His last public service was that of superintending the equipment of the gun-boats destined to accompany the Walcheren expedition[5]. The Sea Fencibles being disbanded early in 1810, our officer at that period, like many others, both then and now, wishing for active service, came on half-pay.

Captain Cooke, in consequence of the regulation, proscribing officers who had not commanded ships of the line since the peace of Amiens from becoming Flag-Officers, was superannuated with the rank of Rear-Admiral, June 20, 1814.

Mrs. Cooke died at Portchester, Feb. 26, 1822, aged 69 years.

Residence.– Tiverton, Devon.

  1. The author of the History of England, in a series of letters from a nobleman to his son, generally, though erroneously attributed to Lord Lyttleton, gives the following concise account of the transaction: “In the course of the summer, the Spaniards sent out some ships, and seized upon Falkland’s Islands, where the English had lately made a settlement, and erected a fort; and this violation of peace had nearly involved us in a war with that nation. A negociation, however, took place, and the Spaniards restored the islands. It was privately stipulated that they should be afterwards evacuated by Great Britain; and since that time no settlement has been made upon them. The pens of the political writers were employed to magnify or diminish the consequence of these islands, according as they were engaged for or against the ministry. Junius, a popular and elegant writer, whose real name has never yet been discovered, was at this time a formidable opponent to administration; and Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose moral and critical writings are above all praise, ranged himself on their side. On the whole, if the affront to the nation be overlooked, it does not appear that the possession of these islands was worth contending for.” The late Admiral Macbride, who visited them about the year 1766, says; “We found a mass of islands and broken lands, of which the soil was nothing but a bog, with no better prospect than that of barren mountains, beaten by storms almost perpetual.”
  2. The attack made on Commodore Johnstone’s squadron, by M. de Suffrein, we have already described in oar memoir of Admiral Sir Henry Darby (vol. 1, note at p. 268, et seq.); the Jupiter was on that occasion opposed to a French 74, which she obliged to cut and sheer off; indeed, throughout the whole of the affair she was very materially distinguished for the power and force of her fire.
  3. This was Captain Cooke’s second appointment to a death vacancy; the first was to the Thisbe, the commander of which ship, we believe, had been appointed to the Blanche, as successor to the gallant Faulknor, whose glorious exit we have just recorded in our memoir of Rear-Admiral Watkins, see p. 10; but in consequence of his being absent on distant service, Captain Cooke had no opportunity of joining her.
  4. Captain Cooke’s post commission was dated Sept. 8, 1795; his appointment to the Thisbe, Jan. 6, 1795.
  5. See vol. 1, p. 290.