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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 whose story is just too fascinating not to sit alongside that of the Kerryman’s.

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’.

In 1770, after serving on a Dutch ship stationed in the East Indies from which he’d deserted, Marra 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 Marra’s kidnapping occurred after his captors discovered him undertaking his favourite pastime.

What is clear is that Marra was then enlisted as a member of Lieutenant, (later Captain), James Cook’s ship, HMS Endeavour which was soon to depart for England.

It wasn’t long before his former employers, of the Dutch ship Schoonzigt, had tracked the deserter down and remonstrated with Cook, asserting their right that he was their man. Seriously short of crew to man Endeavour, Cook refused to hand him over on the grounds that Marra 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, 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, 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 Marra 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.

Cook quickly discovered how effective and hardy a crew member John was and later gave him the position of 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.

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’s documented that Marra 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, Marra decided a life on board ship was not for him. Having sampled a taste of a better life and as Endeavour 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 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 –  the result of John’s necessity to down a few swift ones wherever and whenever the ship was moored near land.

John Marra Crosses the Antarctic Circle

On 17th January, 1773, Cook’s ship, with John Marra 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 do reach this historic milestone.

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 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 Marra 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 Marra 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 Marra’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’ – 
Just brilliant don’t you think?

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, he had an investment in mind that suited his ambitions right down to the ground. 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 are able to purchase John Marra’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 Marra’s Journal – a picture of it. 

John Marra - Ireland's First Antarctic Explorer Tom Crean BookIn John Marra, 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  2014-2020

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, the second edition of which 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

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

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