News

John Thompson (unknown-1771)

Not much is known about the life of John Thompson, the ship’s cook on the Endeavour, but what is known is that it was a challenging job, especially with only one hand.

Thompson rose to the challenge and maintained the health of the 94 people on-board for most of the voyage.

Becoming Cook’s cook

Thompson was not the first choice of cook for the Endeavour. The original cook only had one leg and Captain James Cook did not think he was suitable for the job. Cook wrote to the Navy Board, stating.

‘Hon Gentleman, the man you have been pleased to appoint Cook of his Majestys Bark the Endeavour, is a lame, infirm man, and incapable of doing his Duty without the assistance of others.’

Cook requested someone new and the Board appointed John Thompson.

Thompson was received poorly by Cook, however, who noted that he was one-handed and once again requested a new cook. Cook wrote of him,

‘As this man hath had the misfortune to loose his right hand, I am of opinion that he will be of little Service; as I am very desirous of having no one on board but what is fully able to do their duty in their respective stations I hope the Board will not be displeased at my objecting to this man also.’

This time Cook was overruled.

Despite Cook’s misgivings, Thompson kept the job and proved to be thoroughly good at it. Even Sir Joseph Banks, the wealthy naturalist aboard the Endeavour enjoyed Thompson’s food, describing a soup made of cuttlefish as ‘one of the best soups’ he ever ate.

 

Image of a working-model of the firehearth used by John Thompson, located on the lower deck of the replica HMB Endeavour. Most food was boiled in large coppers and liquid was run out via taps.
Image of a working-model of the firehearth used by John Thompson, located on the lower deck of the replica HMB Endeavour. Most food was boiled in large coppers and liquid was run out via taps.

An adventurous menu

Huge amounts of food were taken on the voyage including live animals such as chickens, goats, cattle and pigs, as well as salt, peas, oats, raisins and flour.

Even though they set off with food that was familiar to the crew, for most of the voyage there was a more adventurous menu.

Thompson often used food that was caught or acquired where they were. He created meals such as kangaroo stew, stingray pie, albatross stew, seared shark steak and turtle soup.

Sometimes Banks would go out in his small boat and catch animals to study, then bring them back for Thompson to cook for dinner. Sailors also fished from the deck and from the small boats, catching and collecting a huge variety of fish and molluscs to add to the table.

Keeping the crew healthy was no easy task

Cooking at sea was extremely challenging. Thompson had to be resourceful, flexible and creative.

He had limited ingredients and had to ration the food for the 94 crew on-board. He also had challenges with weevils, maggots, rats and cockroaches infesting the food.

However, Thompson’s main goal was to keep the crew healthy. Scurvy, a sickness caused by a lack of vitamin C, was common among sailors and could be lethal. At Cook’s direction, Thompson served the crew with rations of sauerkraut, and supplemented it with fresh fruit and vegetables whenever the ship’s course made them available.

Image of the Mess on the lower deck of the replica HMB Endeavour. Crew members would eat their meals at these tables in groups of six, and the frayed rope tassels at the end of each table would be used as serviettes.
Image of the Mess on the lower deck of the replica HMB Endeavour. Crew members would eat their meals at these tables in groups of six, and the frayed rope tassels at the end of each table would be used as serviettes.

With a diet as healthy as it could be on such a long voyage, most of the crew avoided scurvy. Sadly, this was not a defence against other illnesses and in Batavia (Java) the health of the crew changed.

Cook wrote in his journal,

‘We came in here with as healthy a Ship's Company as need go to Sea, and after a stay of not quite 3 months left it in the condition of an Hospital Ship, besides the loss of 7 men.’

In Batavia illnesses such as malaria and dysentery had a large impact on the crew and many died there and on the remaining journey.

Unfortunately, Thompson was one of them and died on 31 January 1771.