One of the oldest ceramic sets in the province that once belonged to the wife of a well-known British navigator will soon be on display at the Royal B.C. Museum.
Earlier this week, the museum accepted into its collection a ceramic china set once owned by Elizabeth Cook, the widow of famed British explorer and navigator Captain James Cook, who was the first to make contact with the northwest coast from 1776 to 1779.
The set was originally in the possession of the City of Victoria when a city archivist personally purchased the set for $800 from the family who inherited it and donated it to the city, where it was housed in the archives for years.
While much is known about Cook and his voyages as a colonial explorer, seaman and cartographer of the West Coast and much of the southern globe, the china helps sheds light on his personal life.
According to Dr. Lorne Hammond, curator of human history with the museum, the china would have been purchased by his wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was born in 1842 and was the daughter of a pub owner, who operated an ale house on Execution Dock in Wapping, England, which is where she likely met Cook. They married in 1762 and had six children, all of whom died tragically at sea on different voyages.
Elizabeth likely purchased the set, when she was in her 60s in England.
Based on family accounts, Thursday was formal dinner day when the fine china, including the dessert set, would have been used to feed roughly 12 to 20 family and friends in their home.
The set would have been used to serve fruit, bon bons, sugared candies, trifles and puddings.
Elizabeth passed away in 1935 at the age of 93.
The 21 pieces are half of a 42-piece set, the rest of which is on display at a museum in England. One piece is also on display as part of a Captain Cook display in Australia.
“We know volumes about Captain Cook, but it is important to consider, question and explore our assumptions about his domestic life — and this china can be a window into this colonial history,” said museum CEO Prof. Jack Lohman. “They make a welcomed addition to the museum’s collections.”
Mayor Lisa Helps hopes the set will compliment Captain Cook’s story that is already so well known.
“Captain Cook’s life was one of accolades and adventure, but little is known by the public about Elizabeth Cook – how she was widowed by the age of 50, she lost all her children by the age of 50, lived 43 years after that,” she said. “There’s tragedy in the domestic life. The china set is a tangible manifestation of her life and her contributions to Cook’s success.”
The museum currently has a number of artifacts related to Cook on display including medals, a model of his ship the Endeavour, a copy of his second voyage draft log and the dagger used to kill him, and a rare book of cloth samples collected during his voyages of the South Seas between 1776 and 1780.
For more information visit royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.