Three times round the world - and nearly once again

Portrait of Captain Clerke
Portrait of Captain Clerke in Government House, Wellington, New Zealand

BROOK Farm stands a little way out of Wethersfield village. Surrounded by rolling grass and arable land, with the requisite brook gurgling a few yards in front of its many windows, it could not be more English.
Yet it is linked, through the life of one man, with the roaring volcanoes and steaming geyser fields of far-away frozen Kamchatka, on the easternmost corner of arctic Russia. That man was Captain Charles Clerke.
He was born at Brook Farm, the fourth son of a magistrate on 22nd August 1741 and buried in Kamchatka on August 29, 1779. In those mere 38 years Charles Clerke covered a lot of ground - or rather sea. He sailed round the world three times and was on his fourth circumnavigation when he died. So why is not Capt Charles Clerke RN more famous than he is? Even the plaque in Wethersfield’s St Mary Magdalene church records the “usefulness” of his father Joseph as a Justice of the Peace, the terrible death of his mother Anne in her twelfth “child bed” and the death of his feckless elder brother John, before it gets down to Charles’ incredible achievement. The reason for Captain Clerke’s comparative obscurity is that he was a loyal No 2 – to that giant of Georgian explorers, Capt James Cook.
Long before he had shared with Cook the terrors of going aground on the Great Barrier Reef, the delights of South Sea island life with willing native girls and the horrendous lashing of Antarctic gales, Charles had clocked up a few adventures of his own.
CHARLES CLERKE was only 13 when he became a cadet at the Royal Navy Academy in Portsmouth.
The Seven Years War with the French, which had started in 1756, gave young Clerke a part to play in battle. He went first to HMS Dorsetshire as a captain’s servant and saw action in the English Channel then served in the Bellona.
When the Bellona’s mizzenmast was shot away by the French Clerk was in the shrouds. He was the only man from the mast to emerge alive.
In 1764 Clerke joined HMS Dolphin, under the command of Commodore Lord Byron to look for Terra Australis Incognito – Australia. The voyage proved fruitless and the ship was back in England two years later.
Clerke had won his spurs as an explorer and the call came for him to join the Endeavour, which was fitting out for Cook’s first and
Brook Farm Wethersfield
A recent view of Brook Farm on Braintree Road, Wethersfield

Clerke Memorial in Wethersfield Parish Church
Clerke family memorial
in St Mary's Church

perhaps most famous voyage. Clerke stayed with Captain Cook on both of his successive voyages the third being in search of the rumoured North West Passagethrough the icefields of the Arctic.Cook’s death at the hands of disgruntled natives on Hawaii put Clerke, as captain of the companion ship Discovery, in charge of the expedition. He took command of Cook’s ship, the Resolution. The two ships had already been as far north as Kamchatka but, fatefully, had returned to Hawaii before making a second attempt. The loyal Captain Clerke, though seriously ill, decided to have another go.
It was his very loyalty, this time to his brother John that was to be his end. John had run away from creditors but Charles wouldn’t let down the family down. He went to the debtors’ prison in his brother’s stead.
There he contracted the tuberculosis that eventually killed him in those far off Siberian wastelands.
Charles Clerke, faithful to the last, a worthy son of Wethersfield.*

*"In the Wake of Captain Cook - the life and times of Captain Charles Clerke, RN, 1741-1779" by Gordon Cowley and Les Deacon is available from Richard Kay Publications, 80 Sleaford Road, Boston, Lincs, PE218EU. (01205 353231)
 
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