STEVE Ragnall’s quest has taken him to the far corners of the globe, exploring the life and times of Clitheroe sea-faring captain James King.
King was aboard HMS Resolution as a lieutenant with England’s most celebrated navigator Captain Cook on his fatal Pacific journey in 1779 – and for the last decade the Ribble Valley author has immersed himself in maritime tales of adventure and derring-do.
“I was always fascinated by James King, how he had travelled from this little market town in the Ribble Valley to the ends of the earth,” said Steve, who like King himself, attended Clitheroe Royal Grammar School.
“I suppose I became a literary forensic detective for 10 years, chasing leads that at times would go nowhere.
“Then I would stumble on a tiny, golden nugget of information and all of a sudden it would open another door on King’s story.”
Steve recalls reading about a carved, wooden head of a man that King had given to a governor in South Africa as a gift when his ship docked in Cape Town over 200 years ago.
“I travelled to South Africa, and deep in the dusty vaults of an ancient old museum was the wooden relic, that King had gifted to the city,” he said.
“The curator explained that very few people had seen it. However, I was able to hold the head and see it at close quarters. To pick up something that I knew that King had handled was so exciting.
“It brought the story to life for me. I went to Hawaii, where there is a Tahitian mourning dress in a museum.
“It was very weird, and was apparently used to scare people away at ancient burials. It was part of Captain King’s collection of artefacts he had collected on his travels.”
Born in Clitheroe in 1750, the second son of the local vicar, King joined the Royal Navy as a 12-year-old midshipman.
He set sail with Cook in 1776, and after suffering the perils of the Southern Ocean, encounters with cannibals and near kidnap, they finally reached The Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii.
“King is arguably one of Clitheroe’s most famous sons, a true pioneer, yet very few people in the town seem to know much about him.
“But he claimed Alaska in the name of George the Third, gave the first written description of Hawaiian surfing in his diary, fought as a captain in the American War of Independence and helped test the marine chronometer that revolutionized navigation.”
Steve has lectured extensively on maritime history around the world, and his own journey of discovery took him to Africa, Australia, the North-West coast of America and New Zealand.
“As I researched James King, I was struck by the immediacy of his story and the huge changes the world had undergone throughout his life.
“The major hurdle was the paucity of letters written to or from James and his family. If they still exist, then they have eluded me despite an extensive search.
“His story was like a spiders web, but slowly I drew the different strands together.
“For example, I uncovered one of King’s old journals in the Hydography Office at Taunton, and I did hours of research at The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, the Admiralty Library and The National Archives at Kew.”
King never returned to the town of his birth, but one of Clitheroe’s main streets was subsequently named after the family.
“Funnily enough, I worked in the building where King was born, which is now the Yorkshire Bank. I did meat a couple of his descendants, one in London and another in New Zealand, which was thrilling,” he added.
“Studying and researching James’s life, it showed how much we’ve lost in terms of the excitement of historical discovery.
“To think James King was on the deck of HMS Resolution when two Hawaiian priests rowed out to the ship, called out for him, and gave him a parcel wrapped in bark cloth “James unwrapped it to reveal a gruesome sight, the thigh of Captain Cook, who had been killed in a fight. It was a true moment in history.”
When King returned to England four years later he was captain of the famous ship Discovery.
“James King fought alongside Horatio Nelson in the Caribbean and won the admiration of his crew, and at home he regularly had audiences with King George, so he was a very well known society figure.
“Sadly, he was only 34 when he died of consumption, but he will be remembered as Clitheroe’s naval hero.”
Steve’s book, Better Conceiv’d than Described: The Life and Times of Captain James King will be launched at a free event on December 5, 7.30pm, at Clitheroe’s Grand Theatre with an illustrated presentation by the author.