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Captain James Leask – Hero or Villain

This American Indian or Inuit canoe and all of the associated hunting gear, currently on display in our World Cultures Gallery, was presented to the Natural History Society in 1837 by Captain James Leask from a voyage he made to Greenland in 1835-36. It is a remarkable historical artefact but the story of the Captain and his fateful journey is even more astonishing.

Captain James Leask, a hardy Orkneyman from Stromness, was the master of the Lady Jane, a famous Newcastle whaling vessel.  He was employed to voyage the seas around Greenland hunting and killing whales for their oil which was used as fuel for lamps and also in soap.

During a voyage around Greenland in 1835 his ship became stranded by early winter pack ice. Frozen solidly by December, the crew were beginning to suffer hardship and many men died from scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) found in fruit and vegetables.

By the time the ship arrived back in the Tyne on the 26 March 1836, 12 months and 2 weeks later, 27 seamen had succumbed to illness and scurvy and had been buried at sea. Leask survived to bring the Lady Jane home to Newcastle but he was held accountable for the disaster and accused of incompetence by his crew. A public enquiry was held at the Peacock Inn, Newcastle.

Addressing a group of local Gentlemen, the surviving crew said he had failed to fairly distribute the remaining provisions which would have prevented the deaths of the sailors from scurvy.

We think that Captain Leask is deserving of great blame for not distributing liberally the provisions which the ship afforded, such as raisins, currants, rice and wine. These would have been great service to the whole crew, but were not given even to those who were labouring under the severest illness.

Henry Jameson, a boat-steerer, said he had seen the captain ‘with his pockets full eating them [the raisins] upon the deck’.

However, the enquiry, exonerated Captain Leask stating that the dried fruit was a luxury item for the use of the cabin crew and it was at the discretion of the master to distribute foodstuffs to the sailors.

The Chairman, George Straker, a ship owner, expressed his conviction that not a single charge had been substantiated and that the Captain had come out of the investigation unscathed. Fellow investigator, George T Dunn, further proposed ‘a vote of approbation on the Captain for his conduct during a most perilous voyage, which was moved with and carried with acclimation.’

This fatal event and many others instigated the provision of anti-scorbutics on sailing vessels for all crew members in the future. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1867 required all ships of the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy to provide a daily lime or lemon ration to sailors to prevent scurvy. This is where the derogatory term for British sailors “Limey” comes from.

The gift of the American Indian or Inuit Canoe and the hunting gear in 1837, collected during the fatal trip, immortalised Captain Leask in the pantheon of Natural History Society benefactors. The canoe is still on display in the World Cultures gallery of the Great North Museum: Hancock but there is no mention of the infamous “raisin story”.

Did Leask, our unpopular raisin eating Captain gain further employment after this affair? – Almost certainly!


List of Accessions for 1837 from the Society’s Transactions

Read more about the story here in Tony Barrow’s  –

The Decline of British Whaling in Arctic Canada, 1820-1850: A Case Study of Newcastle upon Tyne. The Ice-Drift Voyage of Lady Jane, 1835-1836.

Read the historical account in the Local Historian’s Table book

Read more about the canoe and related fishing equipment here