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John Marra – Ireland’s First Antarctic Explorer

John Marra – 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 that is a story just too fascinating not to sit here alongside that of Tom Crean’s. The subject, a man called John Marra, was an entrepreneurial Irishman and a man I’m sure you’ll warm to after reading on. I’ll wager that the vast majority of people reading this will never have heard of John and he was, very probably, the first Irishmen to ever see Antarctica.

John Marra, had few friends or family and the 24-year-old seaman from County Cork was a law unto himself with more than a liking for his ‘grog’.

After serving on a Dutch ship, John Marra was stationed in the East Indies and was unfortunate enough to be ‘press ganged’ by crew members ashore from Captain Cook’s ship, The Endeavour.

Many of Cook’s crew had died from disease and so he sent men ashore to gather, by any means, able-bodied, English speaking replacements. Poor John was among the first to be accosted but put on a fine impression of a Danish sailor to avoid his enforced draft. It was only when Cook himself detected a strong Irish brogue that his display of acting was unearthed and reluctantly he was forced to join his new crew mates.

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

Marra’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 was always a price worth paying for John Marra 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 as a result of John’s necessity to down a few swift ones whenever the ship moored near land.

John Marra Crosses the Antarctic Circle

In 1773, Cook’s ship became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle and Corkman, John Marra will have made his own bit of history by becoming the first Irishman to see the ice-covered continent.

John Marra - 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 depiction of Antarctica.
As for John, well on his return to England, he 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 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 remainder of his account was made up of the more technical information garnered from other serving members.

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 Marra’s account, which had been snapped up by a Publisher, was made available to readers eager to purchase and read of the newly discovered frozen land in the Southern Ocean. 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’
Just brilliant don’t you think?

John earned a tidy sum for his journal but didn’t go back to Cork to buy a nice cottage and a bit of land by the banks of the River Lee.

Oh no, not a bit of it, he had a better investment on his mind. He squandered the lot on drink and other excesses of the day and the last account of his whereabouts came some years later when he was seen drifting around the coast of Australia seeking work.

To bring this fascinating story, worthy of any movie screen, up to date, today you can purchase John Marra’s journal, which is a collectors dream. If you’re lucky enough to find one it will set you back around £14,500. (Source:

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

John Marra - Ireland's First Antarctic Explorer Tom Crean Book

It appears we’ve just uncovered yet another Irish Antarctic Hero.

On another note – the tale of a hero from John’s neighbouring county, Kerry is one I’ve written up in a fully-referenced biography, the second edition of which can be purchased here.

John Marra - Ireland's First Antarctic Explorer Tom Crean Book

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  •  John Marra - Ireland's First Antarctic Explorer Tom Crean Book

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