Boxing aboard the Resolution

Captain James Cook is hailed as one of the greatest explorers of all times. His discoveries and navigational achievements are numerous and enabled him to virtually redraw the map of the Pacific. During the voyages, however, conditions on board were harsh and the privacy limited. Under these circumstances conflicts between crew members were inevitable. Fortunately, there was one activity that brought some relieve: boxing. The travelogue of the Swedish naturalist Anders Sparrman (1748-1820), who sailed with Cook on his second voyage, contains a lively account of some boxing matches taking place on the Resolution, with a detailed description of the several pugilistic techniques employed.

Sparrman had sailed for the Cape of Good Hope in January 1772. Here he was picked up by James Cook later that year as assistant to the naturalists Johann Reinhold and George Forster.  Cook’s aim was to sail as far south as possible in search of a southern continent, which existence was proposed by the geographer Alexander Darlrymple. On December 25, 1772, the Resolution had proceeded far south and was surrounded by labyrinths of life threatening icebergs. Inside the ship, Christmas was celebrated with punch, porter, wine, and “fighting in the English fashion, which is called boxing.”

Boxing is “a duel with [bare!] fists, in which the blows are principally aimed at the opponent’s eyes, chest, and stomach.” Sparrman furthermore discerns two kinds of boxing: stante pede (i.e. standing upright) and sitting on a chest. Although boxing stante pede is the most common form, on this particular Christmas day it “took place sitting astride a chest”, probably because the opponents were too drunk to stand. After a few moments of fighting the boxers are covered in blood and bruises, often including a ‘regio oculorum’, or black-eye. The boxing matches of course provided a welcome and entertaining break from the harsh discipline and terrible boredom which often ruled life on the Resolution, but it also served as a means of settling disputes. Sparrman seems to be the only one commenting on this activity. George Forster, by contrast, doesn’t mention the matches, and James Cook’s journal  doesn’t contain any references to pugilism either. Sparrman’s travelogue, therefore, forms an important and original account of daily life on board the Resolution.

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