The beautiful city of Vancouver in British Columbia, along with the large island that lies between it and the Pacific Ocean are both named after an 18th century Royal Navy officer. George Vancouver was the son of a Dutch-born customs official in the port of Kings Lynn in Norfolk. He was born in 1757, the youngest of six children. Little is known of his early life until he joined the navy as a midshipman at the age of fourteen in 1771. At the time Captain James Cook had recently returned from his first voyage of exploration in the Pacific, and the nation was agog with news of the discoveries he had made. Vancouver’s father used his influence to get his son a place on Cook’s second expedition, a decision that would set the course of the young officer’s future career.
Cook was an inspirational leader for the teenager. He was a brilliant navigator who laboured tirelessly to maintain the health of his crews and generally treated the cultures he encountered with respect, all of which was to rub off on his new recruit. Vancouver served on both Cook’s second and final voyages, where he learnt navigation from William Wales, the astronomer on board Resolution, and cartography and surveying from Cook himself. Several very accurate charts drawn by the young officer survive, including ones of New Caledonia and South Georgia. Vancouver also claimed to have been the human who had travelled furthest south in the world. In January 1774 the Resolution set a record by sailing deep into the Antarctic Circle, until cold and ice forced Cook to return north. Just before the ship turned around, the youngster scampered out to the end of the bowsprit, making him the most southerly member of the crew. He also learnt some more brutal lessons, including what could happen when relations with native populations went wrong. George Vancouver witnessed Cook’s death in Hawaii at the hands of the local population, and because he had some aptitude for languages, he was sent to negotiate with the Hawaiians to recover the dismembered parts of the explorer’s body.
On his return to Britain in 1780 Vancouver was promoted to lieutenant. Britain was fighting the War of American Independence against almost every maritime power in Europe, and experienced officers like Vancouver were in demand. He initially joined a sloop, HMS Martin, and served on convoy escort duties in home waters, before transferring to the Caribbean, where he saw action against the Spanish and French. After the end of the war, Vancouver continued to serve in the West Indies, where he carried out extensive surveys of Port Royal and Kingston Harbours and their approaches. By the time Vancouver returned home in 1788 he was a first lieutenant and ready for the next challenge in his career.
In 1789 there was a dispute between Spain and Britain over the right to colonise the Pacific Northwest coast. This was eventually settled in Britain’s favour, and an expedition was prepared to go out to survey the territory and take possession of what would become Vancouver Island. George Vancouver was chosen to lead the expedition, and was put in charge of two small ships, HMS Discovery and HMS Chatham. The little squadron left on the 1 April 1791, in what must have been a proud moment for him as he sailed to the Pacific in the wake of his great mentor.
Cook had taught Vancouver well. He showed all the ambition and thirst for knowledge of his old commander. In its first year the expedition travelled out via Cape Town, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Hawaii, collecting botanical samples and surveying along the way. Over the next four years, Vancouver mapped and charted the coasts of present-day Oregon and Washington State and Canada’s Pacific coast as far north as Cook Inlet in Alaska. Much of this work was carried out in small craft operating from the two ships. During the winter months he headed south to Hawaii to resupply, although he refused to rest, spending his time making accurate charts of all the islands in that group.
Vancouver also displayed many of Cook’s qualities on his own voyage. Just like Cook, he insisted that both his ships and sailors be kept scrupulously clean, and he made great efforts to supply them with fresh fruit and vegetables whenever possible. As a result, although his two ships were away for four years and nine months, he only lost six men, none of them to disease. He also went out of his way to foster good relations with the native tribes he met. On one occasion he stopped some of the scientists in his party examining a native grave because it might “have given umbrage and pain to the friends of the deceased.” He was also very critical of the effect European fur trappers were having on the locals, as they disrupted local power structures for their own gain. Where he differed from Cook was in his handling of his own officers. A fierce disciplinarian, he drove them hard and this did cause some friction as the voyage went on. One young officer, Thomas Pitt (later Lord Camelford), a well-connected cousin of the then prime minister was disrated by Vancouver and subsequently sent home in disgrace. Pitt would go on to become a notoriously violent man who hounded his former captain on his return. He assaulted Vancouver in the street and even challenged him to a duel, which Vancouver declined to take part in. Pitt was quite possibly insane, but was protected by his powerful family, even when he subsequently murdered a fellow naval officer in Antigua over a dispute as to which of them was the most senior.
Vancouver’s achievements are all the more remarkable because for much of his time in the Pacific he was suffering from ill-health. Like many officers who had served in the Caribbean he had been exposed to various tropical diseases, and he suffered from recurring bouts of malaria and probably dysentery. By the time he returned home, his health was already failing and he died a few years later in 1798 aged just forty.