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John Mara – Ireland’s First Antarctic Explorer?

John Mara – The Irishman who ‘Cooked Captain Cook’s Books’.

Now it may seem a little strange to see among the posts here, one that isn’t about Tom Crean but this particular one is about an Irish Explorer, John Mara, whose story is just too fascinating not to sit alongside that of the Kerryman’s.

John Mara, had few friends or family and the young seaman from County Cork was a law unto himself with more than a liking for his ‘grog’.

In 1762, 16-year-old John was assigned as a Captain’s servant to HMS Revenge, a ship serving in India. After a term of service just short of a year, in February 1763, young Mara was paid off. 

For the next 7 years, we’re left to wonder about John’s whereabouts but I think it’s safe to assume that his absence of service on His Majesty’s ships was due to an unpleasant introduction to a life at sea. There’s also good reason to believe he continued his seafaring service in the employ of others and nearing the end of the decade that had become apparent. 

In 1770, after serving on the Dutch ship, VOC Schoonzigt, stationed in the East Indies from which he’d deserted, Mara attempted to keep a low-profile in the port of Batavia, eager to evade arrest from the Dutch shipowners.   

It isn’t documented whether John’s recruitment to his next naval assignment was of his own accord or whether he had been a subject of impressment. I rather believe it was the latter and a favourite recruiting ground for the ‘press-gangs’ would be the nearest drinking holes where sailors would congregate in their time ashore. With his fondness for drink, it’s likely Mara’s kidnapping occurred after his captors discovered him undertaking his favourite pastime.

What is clear is that Mara’s Naval record reflects that on 17th October, 1770, he had officially become a member of Lieutenant, (later Captain), James Cook’s ship, HMS Endeavour.

It wasn’t long before his former Dutch employers had tracked the deserter down and remonstrated with Cook, asserting their right that he was their man. Seriously short of crew to man they Endeavour, Cook refused to hand him over on the grounds that Mara was not the man the Dutch assumed him to be. You see, John had originally fooled his Dutch masters into employing him on the grounds that he was a Dane from Elsinore called Jan Marre.

Cook reminded the Dutch representatives that under an order issued by the owners of Schoonzigt, they were not allowed to“to contract people from the East, or Norwegians, nor Frenchmen, Englishmen or Scotsmen.”  For good purpose, Cook conveyed to his accusers that the deserter was in fact an “Englishman” and the matter was at an end.

Before Endeavour had arrived at the port, a number of Cook’s crew had succumbed to the dreaded ‘Scurvy,’ the disease known as the scourge of the age. To address the unexpected crew shortage, Cook sent men ashore to gather, by any means, able-bodied, English-speaking replacements.

Poor John, possibly overheard in drunken conversation, dropped his guise at the wrong moment and was among the first to be accosted. He continued to put on a fine impression of a Danish sailor in a feeble attempt to avoid his enforced draft and it was only when Cook himself detected a strong Irish brogue that his display of acting was unearthed. Reluctantly Mara was forced to join his new ship mates. The game was up and his impersonation of a Dane never made it past first base with Cook.

After Endeavour’s arrival back in England, Mara was mustered, for a period of 3 months as Gunner’s Mate, to HMS Scorpion. He had already, it seemed, made a good impression on Cook who had been placed nominally in charge of the ship prior to his next assignment

Cook quickly discovered how effective and hardy a crew member John was and later gave him the position, again as Gunner’s mate, aboard HMS Resolution, 1772-1775, on Cook’s second expedition, a mission to discover and chart a mysterious land rumoured to exist at the bottom of the Southern Ocean.

Mara’s problem was that he was transformed under the demon drink he was so fond of and would go to great lengths to get his hands on his rum often deserting ship and slipping ashore to find it.
Below decks he was an unpopular character and on several occasions he was ordered to “kiss the Gunner’s daughter’ a Navy term for the flogging of sailors over the barrel of the main gun in the 18th century. It’s documented that Mara received four floggings over the duration of the expedition placing him as the crew’s top offender. After a stay in Tahiti and having been smitten by the friendship of the natives and their carefree local customs, Mara decided a life on board ship was not for him. Having sampled a taste of a better life and as Resolution was leaving the bay, he dived overboard and swam out to reach a canoe, there by prior negotiations with the islanders. What was meant to be a desertion that would go unnoticed was spotted and he was quickly brought back on board where yet another punishment awaited. 

A flogging after grogging was always a price worth paying for John Mara yet his resilience and work rate was well documented too. In between the many bouts of deserting ship, finding the nearest drinking hole before being brought back for another 12 lashes over the barrel of a gun, he was the most able of the crew and first out of the blocks when the ships whistle required him to be. Even Cook developed a grudging admiration for the man’s resistance to his many punishments –  the result of John’s necessity to down a few swift ones wherever and whenever the ship was moored near land.

John Mara Crosses the Antarctic Circle

On 17th January, 1773, Cook’s ship, with John Mara aboard, became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle. The County Cork man had made his own bit of history by becoming the first Irishman to  reach this historic milestone.

Now at this point in the story it’s important to tell you that there was also another Irish crew member aboard, Andrew Horn, from County Kildare but for the sake of focusing on Mara’s compelling story, we’re making the assumption, false though it most likely is, that Andrew was in the land of nod when Resolution crossed that line into history. Sorry Andrew!!

John Mara - Ireland's First Antarctic Explorer? Tom Crean BookA ship’s artist painted the image on the left here which today still sits in the Greenwich Maritime Museum as the first ever artist depiction of Antarctica. Cook penetrated to 71 degrees south yet further progression was halted by pack ice, bad weather and poor visibility. Speaking of the possible existence of a continent Cook concluded: “If anyone should have resolution and perseverance to clear up this point, I shall not envy him the honour of discovery but I will be bold to say that the world will not be benefitted by it.”  This, along with other references and conversations about their travels aboard Resolution were being fully digested by a certain crew member as they would come in extremely handy for the plans he had in mind.

On his return to England, John Mara rented a room above a pub, (no surprise there), The Angel, in South London but shipmates and officers wondered whether he’d turned over a new leaf as he was now asking several questions of them about the voyage. Determining longitudes and latitudes of where they’d been, what were the names of the tribal chiefs they’d encountered on their discoveries and other questions that fooled his colleagues into believing he was bent on advancing his Naval career.
Had his thirst for knowledge replaced his thirst for Rum?

No, not a bit of it. John was busy creating a Journal partly made up of his own diary written aboard ship, no doubt whilst sober and free from the pains of his many lashings. The majority of his account was made up of the more technical information garnered from other serving members.

Just six weeks after the return of HMS Resolution,  Cook, through his press connections, got wind that an account of the voyage was soon to be published. His mission now was to identify the author. Eventually his investigations led him to Mara who’d sold his book for a very tidy sum to the reputable London publisher, Francis Newbery. 

John’s talent for writing can’t be denied yet the unusually long title he’d given the book suggests he may have been better consulting an expert on the matter. Today, it would make for a long call to enquire whether a bookshop had a book titled:  – wait for it –

‘Journal of the Resolution’s Voyages in 1772, 1773, 1774, and 1775, on Discovery to the Southern Hemisphere by which the Non-Existence of an Undiscovered Continent between the Equator and the 50th degree of Southern Latitude, is demonstrably proved. Also a journal of the Adventure’s voyage, in the years 1772, 1773, and 1774. With an account of the separation of the two ships.’

Cooking the books

Ok, now to the real genius of this story.

Eighteen months before Cook’s official account of the first voyage to cross the Antarctic Circle hit the bookshops, John Mara’s account, which had been snapped up by his publisher, was made available to readers eager to purchase and read about newly discovered frozen lands in the South Atlantic. The Admiralty couldn’t do a thing to prevent it as their laws ended when he’d left the ship and the Navy. 

You could say that John had ‘Cooked the Books’

Now a man of means after the sale of his book, John didn’t go back to Cork to buy a nice little cottage and a bit of land by the banks of the Lee. Oh no, it’s likely he had another investment in mind that suited his ambitions right down to the ground and, given his history, he probably squandered the lot on drink and other excesses of the day.

The next we hear of John is two years later when he joined HMS Blenheim in September 1777. At the height of the American War of Independence, Mara, now short of a few bob, joined the ship as she journeyed across the Pacific to New York on a mission to pick up American prisoners of war. After her return in June 1778, he was again paid off.

Another 2½ year period followed before he joined the crew of HMS Licorne on 9th December 1781. Licorne was a ship that had been seized from the French in the English Channel by Admiral Keppel in 1778. She was taken to Portsmouth and put into the service of the crown. Mara’s tenure aboard the vessel would see him serve in the Caribbean as the Anglo-French War waged on. 

He joined the crew of HMS Sirius, flagship of the First Fleet on 12th January 1787 under the command of Second Captain, John Hunter. Among the ship’s cargo were a number of ‘convicts,’ a totally inapt term for the minor offences many had committed.

Mara’s record at this time reveals that he was 35 years-old when he signed up at Long Reach near Gravesend. as the ship set out to establish the first European penal colony in Australia. After a 252-day, voyage of 15,000 miles by way of Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope the ship reached Botany Bay on the 29th January 1788. 

The years hadn’t changed John though and his dependence on the grog and his tendency to go AWOL, was as strong as ever. An account in his captain’s journal revealed that he was again up to his old tricks.

Hunter, in his journal reported:

“On the 7th November (1789), we moored the ship from Careening Cove over to Sydney Cove. A few days before that time John Mara, the gunner’s mate, had been missing, and was supposed to have been lost in the woods; parties were sent out in search of him. The third day after he had disappeared, I was going up the harbour in a boat early in the morning, and some distance up I thought I heard the voice of a man on the north shore; we lay upon the oars a considerable time and listened attentively; we again heard the voice and immediately rowed towards that part of the shore from whence the voice came and there we found the person missing; he was sitting upon a rock, was exceedingly faint, and scarcely able to get into the boat, having had nothing to eat during his absence but an herb, which the people use by way of tea, and which is so palatable they can drink it without sugar; it has exactly the taste of liquorice root.

I interrogated him with respect to the manner of his losing himself; he said, 

“That having been sent on shore in the evening to fill a few water casks, which were landed at a run of water near the ship, and that having, just before he was sent on shore, taken a copious amount of grog, he felt himself a good deal disposed to sleep; that the weather being warm and the evening well advanced, he laid down upon the hill some distance from the run of water and fell asleep upon the grass; that he did not wake until it was late, and the night being dark, and he a little confused when he awoke, he went further into the wood instead of coming out of it, and by that means lost himself entirely”

He also said, “ That when I took him up he was so exhausted that he should not have been able to walk much longer, and that he had only reached the water tide the night before.”

He had no arms of any kind; it was therefore fortunate that he did not fall in with any of the natives; as we have much reason to believe that they are disposed to take advantage of those they meet without firearms.

In March 1790, Sirius was shipwrecked after hitting a reef off Norfolk Island, midway between the coasts of New Zealand and Australia. It was here for 11 months that the crew, including John, were stranded until their rescue and return to Sydney in February 1791.

After the loss of HMS Sirius, Mara’s sojourn to Australia and his colourful naval career was nearing its end. Mara and the remaining crew of Sirius travelled aboard the Dutch vessel Waaksamheid as she left Sydney Cove in March 1791 arriving in England in April 1792. To offer a better sense of the history of the period, the previous month had seen the return of 10 captured mutineers of HMS Bounty who would, in September 1792, face court-martial proceedings aboard HMS Duke. It was to Duke on 27th April 1792, that Able-Seaman John Mara was transferred yet he would remain ledgered to HMS Sirius until 4th May 1792. 

Five days later, on May 9th, John Mara, residing at Stable-Yard Street, Greenwich, submitted an application as a candidate for entry to Greenwich Hospital. Since first opening its doors in 1705, the hospital had served as an institution for the reception of poor, worn-out and disabled seamen. John Mara, with a body branded by the scars of his many floggings, certainly ticked these boxes and now, at approximately 47-years-old and classed as a naval pensioner, his entry is confirmed in the log books on the 20th September 1792. The few guineas he’d received for the sale of his book had long gone and with the taverns of Greenwich and Deptford close-by, profiting from his pension allowance, it provided him an ideal outcome for his days in retirement. 

With a lifetime tendency to jump ship, on April 3rd 1793 he took a course of action he had played out many times before during his career and opted to do a runner. We’re left to speculate as to why he deserted his place of retirement but he was readmitted on 10th March 1794 only to run again on 17th May 1794.

An entry telling us of his later readmission is the last I’m able to uncover of John Marra and all references thereafter, even to his passing, proved too elusive for me to unearth. 

I’d like to think though, that he wrote another book telling of his time in America during the War of Independence and his period of service during the Anglo-French conflict. As one who sailed with the First Fleet to set up the first European colony in Australia or about his time stranded for 11 months on a remote island in the South Pacific. Maybe he did just that and maybe he received a better deal that allowed him to sail off to a place where records don’t exist, where the fingers of authority were absent and where grog was plentiful. 

Whatever became of the gunner runner, he left a popular legacy in a book that is sought by many the world over.

To bring this fascinating story, worthy of any movie screen, up to date, today you are able to purchase John Mara’s journal, which is a collectors dream, but only if you’re lucky enough to find one. If you do it will set you back around £14,500. (Source: Abe Books)

A first edition of Captain Cook’s account of the voyages of HMS Resolution, can be purchased for £4,345 (Source: Abe Books) 

Below, probably the closest most of us will ever get to John Mara’s Journal – a picture of it. 

John Mara - Ireland's First Antarctic Explorer? Tom Crean BookIn John Mara, we have uncovered yet another Irish Antarctic Hero. He was the original rebel from County Cork and a man most worthy of commemoration in his home county. 

©Tim Foley  2014-2021

On a separate note – the tale of another hero, Tom Crean, from John’s neighbouring county, Kerry is one I’ve written up in a fully-referenced, revealing new biography that recently saw the Royal Irish Academy undertake official revisions to his story. In addition to this I’ve written a book for young children (aged 6-10 years-old) that is based on the biography and it’s a fully illustrated account that children will love.

You can discover more about both books, Crean – The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero and Tom The Mighty Explorer and where they can be purchased here.

References used in the compilation of this post are as follows:

Gascoigne, John. Captain Cook: Voyager Between Worlds, 2007, Hambledon Continuum, London

Who was the “runner’ at Batavia? – Captain Cook Society

Wales, William. “Log book of HMS ‘Resolution” Cambridge Digital Library

Moorehead, Alan. The Fatal Impact – The Invasion of the South Pacific 1767 -1840. 1987 Mead and Beckett Publishing, Sydney

Beaglehole, J.C. The Life of Captain James Cook, 1992, Stamford University Press

First Fleet Journals – HMS Sirius

Hunter, John,  An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island 1787 – 1792, 1793, London : Printed for John Stockdale, Piccadilly

Hill, David. 1788 : the brutal truth of the First Fleet : the biggest single overseas migration the world had ever seen, 2009, North Sydney, NSW : William Heinemann

Akenson, D. H. An Irish history of civilisation. 2005, McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Richardson, Harriet. Report of the committee on the subject of the burden sustained by the parish of Greenwich in relieving poor persons connected with Greenwich Hospital. 1831

Remenbrancer. (1783). p.230

The National Archives, ADM 73/16/30

 

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