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Cook's Voyages - Marine Greensdale Lost Over Board

Updated: Mar 31

Unit/ Formation: His Majesty's Marine Forces

Location: South Pacific Ocean

Period/ Conflict: 1700's

Year: 1769

Date/s: Sunday, 26th March 1769.

Squally weather, with rain. At 5 p.m. saw some sea Weed pass the Ship, and at 7 William Greenslade, Marine, either by Accident or design, went overboard and was Drowned.

The following circumstances makes it appear as tho' it was done design'dly.

He had been Centinel at the Steerage door between 12 and 4 o'clock, where he had taken part of a Seal Skin put under his charge, and which was found upon him. The other Marines thought themselves hurt by one of their party commiting a crime of this nature, and he being a raw young fellow, and, as very probable, made him resolve upon commiting this rash Action, for the Serjeant not being willing that it should pass over unknown to me, was about 7 o'clock going to bring him aft and have it inquired into, when he gave him the Slip between Decks, and was seen to go upon the Forecastle, and from that time was seen no more.

I was neither made acquainted with the Theft or the Circumstances attending it, until the Man was gone. Wind, North-West to West; longitude 127 degrees 43 minutes West.

The Marines of Endevour.

John Edgecombe : Sergeant R.M.

John Trusslove : Corporal : Died : 24 January, 1771.

Thos. Rossiter : Drummer.

William Judge : Private.

Hy. Paul : Private.

Danl. Preston : Private : Died : 16 February, 1771.

William Wiltshire : Private.

William Greenslade : Private : Drowned : 6 April, 1769.

Saml. Gibson : Private, Corporal, 26 January, 1771.

Thos. Dunster : Private : Died : 26 January, 1771.

Clement Webb : Private.

John Bowles : Private.

From Untold Live Blog

by Huw Rowlands - Project Manager Modern Archives and Manuscripts;

Private William Greenslade was one of twelve marines serving under Sergeant John Edgcumb.  Barely 21 years of age, quiet and industrious, Greenslade disappeared overboard on 26 March 1769, as the Endeavour was within days of its destination – Tahiti.  Both Cook and the young botanist Joseph Banks describe the events retrospectively and second hand.  As Cook noted, 'I was niether made acquainted with the Theft or the circumstances attending it untill the Man was gone'.

According to the accounts of Cook and Banks, Greenslade had shame heaped upon him by his fellow marines and Sergeant Edgcumb for having stolen a piece of sealskin in his care.  The sealskin acquired in Tierra del Fuego was prized for making waterproof bags to protect tobacco.  Banks appears to have concluded it was suicide, sure that Greenslade 'was drove to the rash resolution by an accident so trifling that it must appear incredible to every body who is not well accquainted with the powerfull effects that shame can work upon young minds'.  Cook was not quite so so sure, writing that his disappearance overboard might have been 'either by Accident or design', although he too agreed that 'circumstances makes it appear as tho it was done designedly'.

However Banks's description opens up opportunities to speculate about the role of the other marines, especially Sergeant Edgcumb, opportunities that Martin Dugard explores fully in Farther Than Any Man.  We learn from Banks that the sealskin was in the charge of one of Cook’s servants, possibly Thomas Mathews, who had promised to make tobacco pouches for several of the men.  Greenslade’s requests for one had been refused several times.  While Greenslade was on duty outside the Great Cabin around noon, Cook’s servant had been called away hurriedly, leaving the sealskin with the young marine.  The temptation apparently proved too much to resist, and he cut a piece from it to make his own tobacco pouch.  When the servant immediately discovered the theft on his return, he decided not to raise it with the officers “for so trifling a cause”.  The marines, however, had other ideas.

Sergeant Edgcumb “declard that if the person acgreivd would not complain, he would”,  and resolved to take the matter to the captain, for the honour of the marines.  Between the noonday theft and around seven in the evening, the marines “drove the young fellow almost mad by representing his crime in the blackest coulours as a breach of trust of the worst consequence”.  When Edgcumb ordered the young marine to follow him up on deck, Greenslade slipped away and was seen no more.  It was half an hour before Edgcumb reported him missing, by which time there was no chance of a rescue.

For Dugard, there is enough in these accounts to speculate whether Greenslade had been deliberately set up with the temptation to steal and driven to suicide.  Whatever the truth, young William Greenslade holds a melancholy place in the records of Cook’s first Pacific voyage.

Related Royal Marines 'Dits'

References/ Further Reading:

  1. From Captain Cook's Journal During the First Voyage Round the World by James Cook (available here)

  2. From Untold Live Blog - A Melancholy Death on James Cook’s first Pacific expedition – Private William Greenslade

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