Person 32

David Samwell

15 October 1791 – 23 November 1798


Born and raised in Nantglyn, Denbighshire, David Samwell became a naval surgeon at the age of 24, although where he gained his initial medical training is unknown and he was clearly inexperienced; in October 1775 he had been examined at the Surgeon’s Hall in London and admitted to the Royal Navy as a Surgeon’s Second Mate, Third Class – the lowest admissible rank. He set sail on James Cook’s third voyage (12 July 1776 – 4 October 1780) as surgeon’s mate to Dr William Anderson aboard HMS Resolution, and was promoted over the duration of the voyage to Surgeon’s First Mate, and then (when Anderson died of Tuberculosis in August 1778) to Surgeon of the Resolution. He was present at the death of Cook in Hawai‘i in 1779, and wrote one of the most reliable accounts of those events, as well as being among the most astute cultural observers of the Third Voyage.

When Samwell returned to London, he organised a sale of the very large collection of natural and artificial curiosities he had accumulated in the Pacific, and on the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. The sale took place at Hutchins’ Auction Rooms, Covent Garden, on Thursday 14th and Friday 15th June 1781. Only one copy of the Samwell auction catalogue is known to remain in existence, in the archives of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu; it was only in recent decades recognised to be that of David Samwell’s sale by the insight of Adrienne Kaeppler. Furthermore, it is only partially annotated with values fetched (approximately 20% of the lots), and of those lots fewer than twenty have names attached to them. However, the catalogue shows that William Hunter, and his younger brother John, attended the sale and made a number of purchases – although we have no idea how many of the 80% of non-annotated lots were also purchased by the Hunters.

It may be that William himself only attended the first day’s sale, for the name “Hunter” appears attached only to Lot 94 (“Ashes & Cinders Thrown out of the Awachinsky mountain, a volcano at Kamtschatka; in an eruption that happened 15 June 1779. — 5 Hunter” – i.e. 5 shillings). He often used his relatives and friends as proxy buyers, however, and John Hunter made six purchases on Day 2, including Lot 227 (“A barbed Hawaiian spear, 10s6d”) which is certainly in Glasgow today. Some of the other purchases the Hunters made at Samwell’s sale can be readily identified in Laskey’s (1813) General Account of the Hunterian Museum, and these purchases explain his reference to the displayed tapa primarily coming from the voyages of Captains Cook and King; James King only served in the Pacific on Cook’s Third Voyage. Within the Samwell collection, two documented tapa lots purchased on those days in 1781 primarily concern us here: Lot 229 (“A beautiful piece of chequered painted cloth, from Owhyhee. 10s-6d J.Hunter”) and Lot 240 (“A piece of fine white Otaheite barkcloth. 5s-6d Hunter”). Several other items in Hunter’s museum, however, could only have been acquired before 1783 on Cook’s Third Voyage, and therefore it is virtually certain that the Hunters acquired significantly more material from Samwell.

The following year, perhaps afforded with his profits from this extremely large sale or bought with more collections that he reserved from the sale, Samwell enrolled for several months at William Hunter’s Anatomy School. He continued his work as a naval surgeon until 1791, although between voyages he played an influential role in the Welsh cultural renaissance, actively promoted the regular holding of eisteddfodau, and published anthologies of his own poetry in traditional Welsh forms alongside his works on Cook’s Third Voyage.


Engraved portrait of David Samwell, by Gilles Louis Chrétien (1754-1811) engraver, by Jouquet, artist, drawing, 1798 (courtesy of The National Library of Wales; licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0)
Portrait of David Samwell, by Gilles Louis Chrétien (1754-1811) engraver, by Jouquet, artist, drawing, 1798 (courtesy of The National Library of Wales; licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0)




Other Names

Daffyd ddu Feddyg

Date of Birth

15 October 1791

Date of Death

23 November 1798


Entry created on 28 August 2020