KING, JAMES, naval officer and explorer; b. 1750 at Clitheroe, Lancashire, England; d. late October or early November 1784 in Nice (France).
James King, the second son of the curate of Clitheroe, entered the Royal Navy in 1762. He served on the Newfoundland station under Captain Hugh Palliser and in the Mediterranean, being promoted lieutenant in 1771. He then studied science, first in Paris in 1774 and then at Oxford. In 1776 he was appointed second lieutenant of the Resolution and sailed on the last of James Cook’s Pacific voyages, with specific responsibility for astronomical observations. He succeeded to the command of the consort vessel, the Discovery, when Charles Clerke died in August 1779, and he was given post rank after the expedition returned to England.
During the voyage King kept an admirably full and detailed journal, in which factual descriptions are accompanied by more reflective passages. Important for its careful listing of navigational, astronomical, meteorological, and other observations, the journal also forms one of the most reliable running accounts of the famous voyage, and in particular of the explorations of the 1778 and 1779 seasons when the expedition searched in vain for a northwest passage along the coasts of what are now British Columbia and Alaska and through Bering Strait. It shows King to have been better versed in the controversial geography of the northwest coast, and in the accounts of earlier Russian explorations, than any other officer on board except Cook himself. It was no surprise, then, that after the expedition’s return King (who was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1782) was entrusted with the writing of the third volume of the official account of the voyage – though its style owes much to Dr John Douglas’ busy editorial pen. The volume reflects King’s uneasiness about the haste with which Cook had sailed along the west coast north of Nootka Sound (B.C.). He suggests another venture to “trace the coast with great accuracy from the latitude of 56° to 50°, the space from which we were driven out of sight of land by contrary winds,” adding that the expense might be met by trading in sea otter pelts with the Indians. King’s account of the sale of such furs by Cook’s men in Canton (People’s Republic of China) at more than 100 dollars apiece for the best, officially verified rumours about the money to be made in the fur trade with China and may well have helped to secure the capital needed for the private expeditions which were beginning to leave for the northwest coast of America [see James Hanna; John Kendrick].
King did not long survive the publication, in June 1784, of A voyage to the Pacific ocean. After service in the West Indies and with the Channel fleet he went to what is now the south of France for health reasons in the late summer of 1784 and died in Nice of tuberculosis. An unusual man to find serving as a naval officer, King had been interested in science and politics, and was a friend of Edmund Burke’s family and of the political reformer John Cartwright. In the tributes paid to him by friends and colleagues perhaps the most striking came from James Trevenen, one of Cook’s officers, who, meeting William Wilberforce in 1785, “was much struck with the resemblance between him and Capt: King (I kiss the name) the same quickness in his manner, the same ease in his behavior, the same mildness gentleness and persuasion.”
[James King’s journals for 1776–79 are in PRO, Adm. 55/116, 55/122; extracts are printed in Journals of Captain James Cook (Beaglehole), III, 549–69, 582–91, 603–32, 650–54, 659–78, 1361–455. King’s journal for 1779–80, “Journal of the proceedings of his may sloop Discovery from Kamchakta to Cape of Good Hope . . . ,” has recently (1973) been discovered in the archives of the Hydrographer of the Navy, Ministry of Defence (Taunton, Eng.), and is numbered OD279. Letters concerning King’s authorship of the third volume of James Cook and James King, A voyage to the Pacific Ocean . . . (3v. and atlas, London, 1784), are in BL, Egerton mss 2180. Additional information can be found in The correspondence of Edmund Burke, ed. T. W. Copeland et al. (10v., Cambridge, Eng., and Chicago, 1958–78), III, V; in The Banks letters; a calendar of the manuscript correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks . . . , ed. W. R. Dawson (London, 1958), 486–87; and in the DNB. g.w.]