The Waterford man who sailed with Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook is a renowned explorer who led three separate expeditions into the largely unknown Pacific in the late 1700’s and claimed much of it for his country. But he had the help of at least one Waterford man, a certain William Doyle, who has a headstone dedicated to him at Faithlegg graveyard.  Unlike the commissioned officers, sailors like Doyle who were the backbone of the navy, have remained largely hidden and unknown, surely an injustice.

The actual stone (pictured above) records that; This stone was erected by | MARY DINN of Passage | as a mark of her burial ground and in memory | of her father NICHOLAS, her mother HONORA, her | brother MARTIN, her sisters and | particularly of her brother WILLIAM DINN | alias DOYLE, who sailed round the Globe | with Captr COOK, and was present at the death | of that great circumnavigator at Owhyhee. | and who died respected and regretted at Stoke | near Devonport in England, in June 1840 |having spent a long life as a Warrant Officer | in the Services of his Country. | “May they Rest in Peace. Amen”.
The man William sailed under James Cook, was born in 1728 to a farm hand and apprenticed himself to a coal merchant in Whitby to learn his trade as a mariner.  In 1755, after nine years at Whitby, he left and joined the Royal Navy and within two years was appointed Ships Master, in charge of navigation.  He excelled at this and also developed a particular skill in map making, something of immense value to the navy and the empire builders at the time.
Captain Cook
In 1769 Cook departed for his first and arguably his most successful voyage on HMS Endevour to chart the southern seas and it was a voyage that would see him “discover” New Zealand and Australia and claim them for Great Britain.  Discover is of course a disputed term now, after all Polynesian explores had previously settled New Zealand, and the Aboriginal peoples of Australia had lived happily for thousands of years before.
He returned home in 1771 and received a heroes welcome.  At that stage he had remapped almost 1/3 of the known world.  (Worth remembering however he had the assistance of a Tahitian priest and navigator). He was justly celebrated as he had not lost a single man to the affliction of scurvy – caused from poor diet and lack of vitamin C – which was more common a reason for sailors to die on long voyages than accidents, drownings or other misadventures including strict disciplining such as keelhauling!
Such was his success, and enthusiasm, he was dispatched in 1772 to the south seas again, this time to try discover the great southern continent – which to the seekers of new lands and opportunities for expansion turned out to be a great disappointment – Antarctica.

Sketch of the three voyage routes

His final voyage departed in 1776 with two ships; HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery.  One of the other officers on the trip was a chap named William Bligh, infamous now for the Mutiny on the Bounty. This voyage was to discover the North West Passage, a fabled route to the China tea plantations over North America and Canada.  The trip seems to have been a disaster from he outset, with Cook becoming more erratic and less tolerant which probably led to his death. Arriving in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1779 they were initially treated as guests.  Once provisioned they departed but returned a few days later to repair a broken mast.  This time the islanders were less hospitable.  Apparently the cause of his death is subject to intense academic debate, but he was hacked to death after he and a party of ships marines went ashore with guns to take a king of the tribe hostage.

Michael O Sullivan of the Waterford History Group has previously sent me on information about Faithlegg Graveyard amongst which is a mention of Doyle.  He is listed on theResolution muster on Cook’s Third Voyage”, William. who was born in Waterford in 1756, joined HMS Resolution on 16 May 1776 and served as AB Boatswain’s Mate from 28 May 1776.

His position was one of some responsibility and this rank, piece here on the ranking system within the Royal Navy, could be seen as a minor or junior officer role, one for up and coming men with sea going experience.

Although Cook enjoyed great respect from crew, and many continued to sail with him on more than one journey, Doyle is not listed on any of the previous voyages.  His position however, suggests that he had sailed for a period of years prior to joining the Resolution.

His epitaph tells us that he died having spent a “long life as a Warrant Officer”. The Warrant officer role was a position of some respect and authority, and was the highest that a non commissioned crewman could rise.  It was granted by a certification board within the Navy and the holder had almost the same rights and respect as afforded to commissioned officers. The Warrant Officer had access to the quarterdeck and wardroom, were seen as specialist seamen and also had to have literacy and numeracy skills.

The third great voyage of Cook may have ended in death and failure for the man, but both ships returned to Britain in 1780 and sailor Doyle continued his career and enjoyed a long life.  He must have witnessed many remarkable events in his life. However, being a non commissioned officer, his name and role is not as prominent as the commissioned ranks, or as easy to find.  Doubtless the same can be said for countless others who sailed from Waterford and made valuable contributions to the development of the Royal Navy.  

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Many thanks to Michael O Sullivan of the Waterford History Group for assistance with this piece.