John Marra was a very good sailor, when sober. Captain Cook enrolled him a first time in Batavia in 1770, on his way back from his first voyage—he’d just deserted a Dutch ship; then two years later as gunner’s mate for his second voyage. That’s when, between two corporal punishments, he became the first Irishman to cross the Antarctic Circle! Back to London, he published an unauthorized narrative of his travel—to the great displeasure of the Admiralty, indeed; but to our great joy.
Marra’s narrative, together with Rickman’s and Zimmerman’s unauthorized accounts of Cook’s third voyage, form the holy Trinity of the apocryphal relations of Cook’s travels. I came across a copy of the rare French translation (Amsterdam, 1777) the other day. It’s a thick in-8° volume, illustrated with an often-lacking folding map. The English edition of 1775 (London) comes with 5 engravings and two maps. Christie’s sold a copy in September 2002 for £7,768. The description reads: “'very scarce' (Rosove), 'first printed account of man's entry into the region South of Antarctic Circle, with rare additional chart facing p.1' (Spence). 'Beddie mentions copies with uncalled-for charts, but they are exceptional' (Rosove).” This book came 18 months before the official relation—a publishing master strike! “The Admiralty couldn’t do a thing to prevent it,” Tim Foley writes (tomcreanbook.com/john-mara-irelands-first-antarctic-explorer), “as their laws ended when Marra had left the ship and the Navy.”
We know a few things about Marra, including that he wasn’t such a jolly good fellow, and that he loved rum too much. “He was an unpopular character and (...) it’s documented that he received four floggings over the duration of the expedition placing him as the crew’s top offender.” (Foley) Before the ship left Tahiti, he tried to jump ship. The episode is related in our book: “As the ship was sailing away (...) an officer saw, through the portholes, a sailor who was swimming towards the island. The ship was stopped and the big rowboat was sent right after him. He was the gunner’s mate, and he wanted to desert the ship to become a Tahitian in the arms of a beautiful Native.” Was he just missing his woman and his rum? The narrator resumes: “He was a very bold man, and he had ambition. He intended to become the King of Tahiti.” On captaincooksociety.com, Tjerk de Haan writes: “Marra is not mentioned directly by Cook in his journal of the second voyage. (...). In his journal entry for 9 June 1775 Cook (...) makes the following comment: ‘One of my Seamen was on board a Dutch India ship who put in at this isle in her way out in 1770.’ There can be little doubt that the seaman that Cook was referring to was John Marra.” Well, the French edition of Cook’s second voyage (Paris, 1778) relates the attempted desertion, although Marra’s name is not clearly quoted. “ One of the gunner’s mates was so infatuated with the beauty of the island and the character of its inhabitants that he decided to stay there. (...) He was a very good swimmer, but he was spotted. A canoe was waiting for him,” Cook states. Cook punished him, but he could understand his motivation: “When I considered his position, he didn’t appear that guilty to me. There was nothing extraordinary in his wishing to stay in Tahiti. He was Irish, and had been in the Dutch marine. I enrolled him in Batavia, on my way back to my first voyage—and he has always been by my side since. He had no friend, no relative (...), where could he lead a happier life than on one of these islands? (...) I think I would have let him stay, had he asked before running away.”
During this trip, Cook demonstrated that there was no Terra Australis Incognita—even his non-discoveries were major discoveries! Back to London, Marra “was busy creating a Journal partly made up of his own diary written aboard ship” (Foley). Cook apparently tried to prevent Marra from printing his manuscript, but the sailor had already sold it for “a very tidy sum” (Foley). Marra was uneducated and, according to Maurice Holmes (Captain Cook - A Bibliographical Excursion—1952), his correspondence with Banks shows that he “was incapable of writing a consecutive account of anything" Describing a copy of Rickman’s edition (1781) that sold for $6,589 in 2020 (Rare Book Hub), Australian Book Auctions states: “As with Marra’s surreptitious account of the second voyage, Rickman’s account was almost certainly edited for the press by David Henry.” Henry was the publisher of the famous Gentleman’s Magazine. The account isn’t written in the first person, but it is actually Cook at his best with incredible descriptions of the Englishmen meeting with the warlike and tattooed Natives of New-Zealand, their visiting the dark Easter Island, beholding the icy mountains of the South pole and burning their hands while extracting gigantic ice cubes from the ocean; what about the Tahitian women giving themselves away to the sailors like the Sun gives itself to the Earth, or the creepy scenes of cannibalism? This is adventure with a capital A. It’s also valuable as Marra “gives the reasons which caused Sir Joseph Banks and his twelve assistants to withdraw from the expedition at the last moment.” (Christie’s, regarding a copy sold for $9,000 in 2007—Rare Book Hub). Marra never really capitalized on this book, and was last reported in Australia, years later, seeking for a job—the regular life of an 18th century sailor! In the official narrative of the same voyage, Mr Foster wrote several passages about the ship crew. The rude, drunken and uneducated English sailors obviously puzzled him as much as the South Sea Islanders. Some social frontiers are harder to cross than the Antarctic Circle.
Marra’s book is quite expensive. According to the Rare Book Transaction History Search, Forum Auction sold a copy of the French edition for £600 in 2019. On Abebooks, Shapero Rare Books offers a copy of the same French edition for €2,600, and Roger Middleton (UK) lists a complete copy in contemporary binding for €2,000. The English edition is more expensive, being the original one and more richly illustrated. Leslie Hindman Auctioneers sold a complete and rebacked copy for $2,835 in 2023, while Marc van de Wiele Auctions found no buyer for its copy in 2022—estimation €2,400/3,600. On Abebooks, Donald A. Heald offers a stunning copy for €17,000 euros, and Peter Harrington another one for €15,000—please, should you buy any of these, remember to drink a pint, or two, to Marra’s memory.