Alaska Travel and George Vancouver


No voyage left its mark on the charts of the Pacific coast of North America like that of Captain George Vancouver, yet when he returned from his five-year voyage (1791-1795) he was not honored and respected, but harried, ridiculed, and subjected to a court marshal. 

Young George Vancouver served as midshipman on the second and third voyages of the great explorer/navigator Captain James Cook. He learned surveying techniques from Cook, but he did not master his mentor's leadership skills, and for this he was to pay dearly. Vancouver drove himself and his men hard, and he maintained strict naval discipline with frequent application of the lash for transgressions. 

Vancouver's first and, as it turned out, his only command was on HMS Discovery, accompanied by the smaller HMS Chatham. His orders were to negotiate the withdrawal of a Spanish contingent from Nootka, on the west coast of what is now Vancouver Island, and to chart the coast and enter any inlet that might allow passage into the interior of the continent. The first year was spent circling the globe to reach and chart the coast of Oregon and Washington, but Vancouver missed the entrance to the Columbia River. He did enter the Strait of Juan de Fuca and showed that it was not the entry to the fabled Northwest Passage.

Vancouver's negotiations with the Spanish commander at Nootka, Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra were cordial, but they were hampered by the lack of explicit instructions from the Admiralty. Eventually the Spanish did abandon their settlement at Nootka, making this coast part of Britain and later Canada. 

In subsequent seasons, Vancouver conducted a meticulous and accurate survey of the Northwest Coast. The surveys were done from ship's boats. The men rowed, often for twelve hours a day, while the officers recorded the details of the coastline. They were away from the mother ships for weeks at a time under the most difficult of conditions. Vancouver attached names to coastal features large and small, after members of his crew (e.g. Puget Sound and Whidbey Island in Washington) and prominent members of the aristocracy, government, and the admiralty at home in England. Chatham Strait Passage (which we explore on our Alaska cruise) and Discovery carry the names of his two ships. 

When the ships retreated to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) to rest and recuperate for the winter, the men expected liberal shore time and opportunity to enjoy their liberties with the Native women, but Vancouver ordered the men to remain aboard the ships, and prohibited trade (usually iron for sexual favors) with the Natives. Midshipman Thomas Pitt ignored this order, and Vancouver had him flogged and sent home in disgrace. Unfortunately for Vancouver, the wild, young Pitt was from one of the most influential families in England. When his father died while Pitt was on his way home, Thomas became Lord Camelford and one of the wealthiest men in England. He used his money and influence to try to destroy Vancouver. He challenged Vancouver publicly to a duel, and ridiculed him for his refusal. Within two years of his return, George Vancouver was dead, even before the journal and charts of his great voyage were published.

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