James Burney (1750-1821)

an image of James Burney

  James Burney (charcoal drawing after bust, n. d.)
  By R. H. Dyer (?)

  Born: June 13, 1750
  Died: November 17, 1821







  • With Captain James Cook in the Antarctic and Pacific (Burney's personal journal) (1772-1773)
  • A Voyage to the South Sea in HMS Bounty, by William Bligh (edited) (1792)
  • A Chronological History of the Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean, 5 vols (1803-1817)
  • A History of the Buccaneers of America (1816)
  • A Treatise on the Game of Whist (1821)

Birth and Early Life
James Burney was born on June 13, 1750, in London. He was the second child and first son of Charles Burney (1726-1814) and his first wife, Esther Sleepe (c.1725-1762). At the age of ten, he was sent to sea to act as a captain's servant on the Princess Amelia. By the age of fifteen, he was a midshipman on the Aquilon.

Voyages with Captain Cook
In 1772, John Montagu, fourth earl of Sandwich, arranged a post for James as an able seaman on Captain James Cook's ship, the Resolution. James accompanied Cook on his second voyage of discovery to the south seas. During the voyage, he received his first commission, as second lieutenant of the Adventure, the sister-ship of the Resolution. Upon his return to England in 1774, James acted as an interpreter for Omai, the first Tahitian to visit Britain. In 1776, he accompanied Cook on his third voyage of discovery, during which James witnessed the death of Captain Cook. At the very end of the voyage, upon the death of his immediate superior, Captain Charles Clerke, in 1779, James was promoted to commander of the Discovery

End of Naval Career
James was made captain of the Bristol in June 1782. His task was to accompany a dozen East India Company ships to Madras (now called Chennai). On June 20, 1783, the Bristol was involved in the Battle of Cuddalore against the French fleet. The following year, Burney became ill and was forced to return to England. Though he later petitioned for a new command, the Bristol was his final active naval position. His forced retirement was in part due to his insubordination (he had disobeyed orders in 1782) and in part due to his republican political stance. Only in July 1821, at the age of seventy-one, did he receive a promotion to rear-admiral on the retired list, due to the influence of the Duke of Clarence (later William IV), admiral of the fleet. 

Personal Life
Over the course of his lifetime, James counted amongst his friends such major figures as Samuel Johnson, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Sir Joseph Banks, and others. After his retirement from the navy, James married Sarah Payne (1759-1832) on September 6, 1785. They had two children. In 1798, James left his family for five years and lived with his younger half-sister Sarrah Harriet Burney (1772-1844). He returned to his wife and children in 1803. 

Literary Career
After his forced retirement, Burney began his second career as a writer on the topic of exploration. His first project was to edit an edition of William Bligh's A Voyage to the South Sea in HMS Bounty, published in 1792. His major work was A Chronological History of the Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean, published in five volumes from 1803 to 1817. In 1809, James was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society

On November 17, 1821, at the age of seventy-one, Rear-Admiral James Burney died of an apoplectic stroke. He is buried the churchyard of St Margaret's, Westminster.

Further Reading

Online Resources

James Burney DNB entry
By Lars Troide
Available to online subscribers to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Texts by James Burney available online
Links compiled by the Burney Centre.

Print Resources

Burney, James. A History of the Buccaneers of America. Ed. Malcolm Barnes. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1949.

---. New Method Proposed for Measuring a Ship's Rate of Sailing. London: Royal Society, 1809.

---. Observations on the progress of bodies floating in a stream: with an account of some Experiments made in the River Thames, with a view to discover a method for ascertaining the direction of Currents. London: Royal Society, 1809.

---. On the Causes which Influence the Direction of the Magnetic Needle. London: Royal Society, 1819.

---. A Treatise on the Game of Whist. London: Thomas and William Boone, 1823.

---. With Captain James Cook in the Antarctic and Pacific: The Private journal of James Burney, Second Lietenant of the Adventure on Cook's Second Voyage, 1772-1773. Ed. Beverley Hooper. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1975.

Manwaring, G. E. My friend the admiral: the life, letters, and journals of Rear-Admiral James Burney. London: George Routledge, 1931.


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