Cree was born on 14 January 1814 in Devonport, Devon. His father was a mercer, then he turned to being a minister in the Unitarian church in Preston, then Bridport, before returning to his former profession. Edward studied medicine at Dublin and Edinburgh Universities, graduating from the latter in 1837. That same year he entered the Navy as assistant surgeon, and spent most of his working life at sea, including ten years in the Far East (1840-1850). At the end of that period, he took leave for a year, and travelled in Europe. In 1852, he married Eliza Tanner Hancock, daughter of family friends.
Thereafter he served in various ships, stationed at Lisbon, in the Baltic and in the Crimea, but from 1856 to 1860 he served in home waters. Various land-based positions followed, with occasional maritime appointments. He concluded his naval career as Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals and Fleets at Portsmouth Dockyard, retiring in 1869, and taking up general practice in London. He and Eliza had seven sons, most of whom followed him into medical careers, and a daughter who became a nurse. Cree lived to see the new century, dying early in 1901, and was buried with his wife, who had died five years earlier, in Highgate Cemetery. A little more biographical information can be found at Royal Museum Greenwich (RMG), which holds an archive of Cree’s papers and sketches.
The Cree archive at RMG consists largely of 21 journals written between 1837 and 1861, comprising over a million words and 1,700 illustrations. According to RMG, ‘The journals account details of his sea voyages, experience whilst in foreign lands, his impressions of people and places, his recollections amongst family and friends and writings concerning his life at home and with his wife.’ In addition to the illustrated journals are ‘his “rough journals” 1841, 1847, 1849, 1851-1852 and 1854, his medical journal kept 1841-1847, journal notes (1837), sketchbook (1839), newspaper cuttings, service records and certificates and invitations.’
Michael Levien, a writer born in India but educated at Harrow, with a military career behind him, uncovered the journals, and edited them during the 1970s, working in the house of Cree’s descendant, Brigadier Hilary Cree. They were then published by the Exeter-based Webb and Bower in 1981 as The Cree Journals: The Voyages of Edward H Cree, Surgeon R. N., as Related in His Private Journals, 1837-1856. The book is lavishly illustrated with Cree’s illustrations, of life on board, of maritime scenes, of places he visited, of events and occasions. (The portrait above comes from the Cree One-Name Study website; but the painting below is one of the illustrations accompanying the diary, and is entitled Hurrah! for Canton.) Here are a few extracts from Cree’s diary as published in The Cree Journals.
24 February 1838
‘Fine morning with breeze from south. Passed Zembra early and afterwards inside the Canes Rocks signalled the Rhadamanthus with mails for Gibraltar. In afternoon we were between Galite and the African coast going 7 knots. The wind hot and sultry and a lurid glare spread under a bank of inky clouds in the west. The barometer was falling rapidly. The clouds gradually formed an arch across the sky and suddenly the squall came on most furiously, taking us aback. Fortunately we had not many sails set and these were soon furled. The wind increased in violence and we made no headway by all our steaming. A heavy swell was getting up from the west. At night the storm raged most furiously and the wind screeched amongst the rigging, the vivid lightning flashed and thunder rolled and heavy driving rain. The sea ran very high and the poor little Firefly rolled as if she would have gone over. The night was very dark and we were not far from the black rocks of Galite. It was a night of trouble and anxiety.’
1 March 1840
‘We have been getting on well till two days ago when we had a dead calm we lost our poor Corporal of Marines, Copperwhite, who died from acute rheumatism, which suddenly left his limbs and attacked his brain - delirium and coma ended in death. He was one of the best men in the ship, sober and obliging and hard-working. His body was committed to the deep this day.’
2 March 1840
‘Today at noon the sun was vertical. The weather pleasantly hot, therm. 86°. A couple of sharks about 9 feet long were caught, to the great delight of the ship’s company, who cut them up and cooked parts. I tasted a bit and thought it remarkably nice. The sailors liked it, but few of the soldiers and none of the women would touch it, as they thought of the poor Corporal of Marines.’
15 February 1845
‘Wilcox and I went on shore [Hong Kong] to call on some of the ladies. Had a long chat with Miss Hickson, who is a pretty, fresh complexioned Devonshire girl, jolly and good. We lunched with Pitcher [a tea-taster from the firm of Thomas Dent] and Dent [from the same firm], and then went to see an amateur Portuguese play, a vagabond place, but we were in mufti. We met there that donkey Paterson, Royal Artillery, with his wife, who is daughter of the sergeant. She is a pretty little girl and well behaved, but ignorant. The rest of the company were mostly Portuguese and policemen, and their “ladies”.’
9 August 1845
‘Weighed and proceeded into the Brunei River with the Admiral and a guard of honour consisting of 170 Marines &c., to return a visit from Badrudeen, a nephew of the Sultan of Brunei. We saw him as he passed yesterday in his boat, a long, low proa with eighteen paddles, a 4-pounder gun in the bow, red silk umbrella with green fringe, a large yellow ensign, with all the ragtag and bobtail of the place. Some of the nobs had on sku-blue jackets and yellow pyjamas, much like the worthies of Siak. The Agincourt saluted him with seven guns and the Admiral sent him back in the Nemesis steamer, which doubtless gratified his vanity much.’
22 September 1846
‘Returned to Honiton, and next day went on to Bridport. Stay at Mr John Hounsell’s, the dear old master [Cree’s tutor during his apprenticeship]. The same changes in the children here: Eliza, the eldest, grown into a pretty, clever girl of nineteen, well read and accomplished; Henry, the eldest boy, commenced medical studies at London University, and so nothing remains stationary. I had hosts of old friends to see at Bridport, which was a great pleasure, but some dear ones had gone to their last rest.’
3 October 1846
‘Left Bridport by the old four-horse coach “Forrester”, but in going down the hill into Winterbourn, one of the front wheels came off and we were overturned into the hedge, but no one was hurt, except a few scratches. We had to take a dogcart to Dorchester, getting to London at 9 p.m.’
6 October 1849
‘Coaling, preparatory to another pirate hunting expedition: this time to the west, where a large fleet of pirate vessels are said to be crusing, plundering junks trading to Hong Kong, and burning villages, &c. They are supposed to be in the neighbourhood of Hai-nan Island.’
8 October 1849
‘This pirate fleet is said to be a formidable one, commanded by an energetic Chinaman called Shap-‘ng-tsai, known to the Hong Kong people as a desperate robber. Embarked fifty Marines and fifty bluejackets, Captain Moore, [. . .]. At 9 a.m. left Hong Kong, taking steamer Phlegethon in tow, to save coals, with H. M. Brig Columbine, Captain J. Dalrymple Hay in command, as he is one day senior to Willcox. Looked into some of the numerous bays on the coast and anchored for the night at the small island Cow-kok.’
18 October 1849
‘5.30 weighed and made sail; rounded Go-to-shan Point. Noon, hove to in a pretty bay with sandy beach and fishing village, backed by wooded hills whose sides were cultivated with the sweet potato, a kind of convolvulus. The day was cloudy and pleasant, with a fresh breeze, and we enjoyed the sail along this beautiful coast lined with picturesque little islands. A high range of mountains of about 8,000 feet are seen far inland, lower ones near the coast, with serrated tops like enormous teeth.
On turning the point of another island the Columbine suddenly came on a fast boat, which Wang pronounced to be one of Shap-‘ng-tsai’s fleet. We immediately gave chase and all had long shots at her. She made all sail and got out her long sweeps and got away into shallow water, where we could not follow. The Phlegethon, which drew less water, followed her into the bay, putting some shots into her. She attempted a narrow passage between the islands, but seeing the steamer gaining fast upon her, ran her aground. All her crew escaped up the hill, which was covered with jungle, where a party of men searched in vain.
On returning to the junk she was found to stowed with smoke-balls, small arms and ammunition, and carried six guns, but no cargo, showing her character, so we set her on fire and she continued to blaze away all night on the beach.
We anchored here in the bay; it came on to blow and rain - a dirty night.’
23 October 1849
‘All the piratical fleet being destroyed except six, two large and two small junks, which escaped through some other branch of the river, we prepared to return to Hoy-how and Hong Kong.
Junks destroyed - 58; 6 escaped
Killed, Chinese pirates - estimated 1,700; escaped to the shore, to be captured, or killed, by the Tonquinese - 1,000
Prisoners - 49; women 8, children 6; most of the latter kidnapped from Hong Kong and the coast. (I fear there were many women destroyed in the junks, unfortunate prisoners of the pirates, who had been plundering and burning the villages along the coast.)
We received 40 prisoners from the mandarin at Chok-am, who had given themselves up to the natives. Forty guns taken are to be given to the Governor of Hoy-how.’