Isaac Smith (Royal Navy officer)

Isaac Smith

Isaac Smith (second from left in boat, in red coat) preparing to step ashore in Botany Bay, April 1770.
Born 1752
Died 1831
Merton, Surrey
Allegiance United Kingdom of
Great Britain and Ireland
Service/branch Royal Navy
Years of service 1768-1807
Rank Rear Admiral
Commands held HMS Weazle
HMS Perseverance
Battles/wars Capture of the Résolue, 1791
Relations James Cook

Isaac Smith (17521831) was a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy and cousin of the wife of Captain James Cook, with whom he sailed on two voyages of exploration in the South Pacific. Smith was the first European to set foot in eastern Australia and the first to prepare survey maps of various Pacific islands and coastlines including Tierra del Fuego in South America.

Early life

Smith was born in London in 1752, the eldest of seven children of Charles and Hannah Smith and cousin to James Cook's wife Elizabeth.[1] He enlisted for naval service in 1767 at the age of thirteen, using his family connections to secure an immediate ranking of able seaman and a position aboard HMS Grenville under Cook's command, for a survey voyage off the west coast of Newfoundland.[1] On 27 May 1768, and still ranked able seaman, he transferred to his second vessel, Cook's Endeavour, at Deptford[2] ahead of its expedition to the Pacific to observe the 1769 Transit of Venus[3] and then to search the south Pacific for signs of the postulated Terra Australis Incognita (or "unknown southern land").[4]

Pacific exploration

Midshipman Isaac Smith depicted in c.1770 as a crew member aboard HMS Endeavour. Oil painting by Richard Cosway

Smith sailed with Cook to Tahiti, then to New Zealand and the east coast of Australia.[5] On 28 April 1770 he became the first European to set foot on eastern Australian soil, Cook telling him "Jump out, Isaac" as the ship's boat touched the shore at Botany Bay.[6] A month later on 23 May 1770, Smith was promoted to midshipman following James Magra's suspension on suspicion of having assaulted Cook's clerk.[2]

Cook's lieutenant Zachary Hicks died from tuberculosis in May 1771, and was replaced by the master's mate Charles Clerke. In turn, Smith was promoted to fill Clerke's former role and served with distinction for the remainder of the voyage.[7] Cook singled him out in a letter to the Secretary of the Admiralty in 1772, noting that Smith "had been of great use to me in assisting to make Surveys, Drawings &c in which he is very expert."[8]

Smith sailed again with Cook in 1772, as master's mate aboard the HMS Resolution.[9] He assisted first mate Joseph Gilbert in drawing Cook's maps and survey charts during the voyage, including one of the first recorded maps of Tierra del Fuego in 1773.[10] Smith's wider artistic talents were also demonstrated by the production of a small watercolour of icebergs, painted while Resolution sailed close to Antarctica in 1773.[11] On Resolution's return Cook again singled Smith out for praise, advising Admiralty that he was "a Young man bred to the Sea under my care and who has been a very great assistant to me in [making charts], both in this and my former voyage."[12]

Independent command

On Resolution′s return to England in 1775, Smith was promoted to lieutenant and given command of the elderly 16-gun sloop HMS Weazel, holding this post for two years.[2][13] In December 1787, he was promoted to post-captain in command of the 36-gun frigate HMS Perseverance.[14] The future Admiral John Surman Carden was a member of Smith's crew from 1787 to 1793, before his transfer to the HMS Marlborough. As captain of Perseverance, Smith was assigned to the East Indies Station under the overall command of Admiral William Cornwallis[14] and took part in the capture at sea of the French frigate Résolue in 1791 at the Battle of Tellicherry, shortly before the outbreak of the first French Revolutionary War.

Later life

Despite this achievement and continued commendation from his superiors, Smith's active service days were drawing to a close. In 1794 he contracted hepatitis, and his ill health gradually prevented him from performing his duties. In either 1804[15] or 1807[14] he applied for and received a promotion to the superannuated post of Rear Admiral and returned to England to retire.

In initial retirement Smith shared a house in Clapham with his cousin, Cook's widow Elizabeth, until in the 1820s he inherited Merton Abbey in Merton, Surrey, from his brother in law.[14] He then divided his time between these two homes, until his death on 2 July 1831 at the age of 78.[16]

His will left a sum of £700 to the church of St Mary the Virgin in Merton, the interest from which was to support the poor of the parish.[17] A memorial to Smith, originally financed by Elizabeth Cook, stands in the church grounds.[18]


  1. 1 2 Robson 2009, pp. 175-176
  2. 1 2 3 Beaglehole 1968, p. 590
  3. Rigby and van der Merwe 2002, p. 24
  4. "Secret Instructions to Lieutenant Cook 30 July 1768 (UK)". National Library of Australia. 2005. Retrieved 26 August 2008.
  5. Blainey 2008, p. 18
  6. Maclean, Donald (5 August 1933). "Coasting With Cook: A Cruise in Historic Waters". The Argus. Argus Office, Melbourne Victoria. p. 9. Retrieved 20 July 2009.
  7. Hough 1994, p. 210
  8. Cook, James, Admiralty 1/1609, cited in Hough 1994, p. 216
  9. Hough 1994, p. 231
  10. Hough 1994, p. 301
  11. Rigby and van der Merwe 2002, p. 103
  12. Letter from Captain James Cook, R.N to the Admiralty Secretary, 24 May 1775, cited in Robson 2009, p. 175
  13. Hough 1994, p. 319
  14. 1 2 3 4 Urban 1831, p. 178
  15. Besant 2009, p. 180
  16. "Maritime Memorials". National Maritime Museum (UK). 2009. Retrieved 20 July 2009.
  17. Lewis (ed.), Samuel (1848). A Topographical Dictionary of England: Mersea, East - Methwold. Institute of Historical Research. pp. 295–298. cited in "British History Online". University of London & History of Parliament Trust. 2009. Retrieved 19 July 2009.
  18. "St. Mary the Virgin". Merton Council (UK). December 2006. Retrieved 20 July 2009.


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