George Vancouver was the greatest of James Cook’s protégés. In the 1790s he led a British naval expedition to the Pacific Ocean and the northwest coast of North America. His charting of that intricate shoreline and its offshore islands from California north to Alaska was some of the most comprehensive and brilliant ever undertaken. Vancouver’s personal life, though, was not particularly happy, and he died in 1798, only 40 years of age, and largely unappreciated. This series of articles describes his life and career.
Vancouver had been sent to the northeast Pacific to Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He was to represent Britain in negotiations with Spain over European sovereignty of the region. At the same time, he had orders to chart the coast and look for the Northwest Passage. He left Britain in April, 1791, and returned in September, 1795. In the four years away, Vancouver took his two ships, Discovery and Chatham, to Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Hawaii and, finally, to North America. He carried out his diplomatic orders, even though little was achieved in the three years he was at Nootka. During the whole time, Vancouver was able to maintain good relations with Spanish representatives in Nootka, San Francisco and Monterey.
Each winter, Vancouver repaired to Hawaii and its warmer climate to recuperate. During his time there he became firm friends with Kamehameha I, the future King of all the Hawaiian Islands, and this friendship ensured the future good relations between Britain and Hawaii.
Vancouver was ill when he returned to Britain in 1788, after his Caribbean tours, even though he was only 38. His illness hindered his effectiveness on the later voyage to the Pacific, and affected his relationship with colleagues and the ship’s company. He made enemies of several of them who had connections with persons in positions of authority, and they were able to make things very difficult for Vancouver back in Britain. He set about writing up the narrative of the voyage, but he was a broken man, and died before it was finished and published.
Gradually, Vancouver's role and ability have been recognised. His charts of the northwest coast of North America and of Hawaii are testimony to his skills. He is remembered by the island and the city in British Columbia that carry his name.
George Vancouver was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, on 22 June, 1757. He was the sixth and last child of John Jasper Vancouver and his wife Bridget (née Berners). The dates of birth of the other Vancouver children are not known, but their baptism dates are recorded. We do know both George’s date of birth and his baptism date and, strangely, there is a four year gap between them. Dr. Charles Bagge, the vicar, baptised him in St. Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn, and recorded the birth date in the registry. George’s five siblings were Bridget (baptised 1751), Sarah (baptised 1752), Mary (baptised 1753) and, lastly, Charles and John, who were possibly twins as they were baptised together in 1756.
George’s father was the Deputy Customs Officer for the port of King’s Lynn for 22 years and, as such, was a man of some standing in the town. King’s Lynn, at the mouth of the River Ouse that drains the Fen Country, was a major port at the time and handled large quantities of trade. As a result, the customs officials were powerful and important people. The nearby Fen Country is an area of low-lying, marsh land that had been recovered for farming by an extensive network of dykes and drains, very similar to much of the Netherlands. Indeed, much of the work had been carried out by Dutch engineers. This engineering work and trading links had formed a close bond between King’s Lynn and the Netherlands.
The origins of the Vancouver family and their name (as Vangover) and their links with the Netherlands have been considered before.1 Vancouver’s father, John Jasper Vancouver, married Bridget Berners in June, 1749. She was the daughter of an important local family whose property had been at Wiggenhall St. Mary, a few miles to the south of King’s Lynn. Bridget’s father, William Berners, had, however, already dissipated the family fortune some years earlier.
Little is known of Vancouver’s childhood. His well-to-do family lived in Fincham Street (later called New Conduit Street) and it is thought that all the boys attended the local grammar school next to St. Margaret’s Church. Their mother, Bridget Vancouver, died in June, 1768, leaving John Jasper to raise the six children.
An Apprenticeship with Captain James Cook
In 1771, when he was 14, George Vancouver enlisted in the Royal Navy. We do not know whether this was George’s own idea, having formed an interest in the sea from contact with ships in the port, or whether it was at the behest of his father. James Cook had returned from his celebrated First Voyage to the Pacific in 1771 with plans for a Second Voyage. When it was announced, people vied to get their sons into one of the ships, and George was successful in obtaining a position in Resolution, entering the ship’s roll on 22 January, 1772. George was nominally an able seaman (AB) but, in reality, sailed as one of the midshipmen.
To gain the position for George, his father probably used his friendship with the musicologist Charles Burney, who himself had connections with the Earl of Sandwich. Burney had left London in 1751 owing to poor health and had gone to live in King’s Lynn, where he is known to have become friends with the influential Turner family. Charles Turner was the Chief Customs Officer and a colleague of John Jasper Vancouver. It is most probable that the Burneys and Vancouvers were friends. James Burney, Charles’ son, had joined the navy already, and this may have influenced George. Charles Burney had met James Cook at Hinchingbrook House, the Earl of Sandwich’s residence near Huntingdon after Cook’s return from his First Voyage.2 George’s future was probably determined through these contacts.
Cook’s Second Voyage lasted for three years from July, 1772, until July, 1775, but Vancouver features very little in its written record. He served in Adventure, and Cook does not mention him in the official narrative. One of Vancouver’s fellow midshipmen, John Elliott, described him as “a quiet, inoffensive young man”. There is, however, an anecdote about Vancouver from late January, 1774. Cook had sailed Resolution far to the south, crossing the Antarctic Circle, until cold and ice caused him to retreat north. At the point of turning round, Vancouver is supposed to have climbed out onto the bowsprit and cried “Ne plus ultra”, thereby claiming the honour of having gone the furthest south. However, that honour was disputed by Anders Sparrman, assistant naturalist on the voyage, who was in his cabin at the stern.3
The voyage marked Vancouver’s introduction to cartography and surveying. Cook trained his midshipmen in these arts, and two charts by Vancouver, one of New Caledonia, the other of South Georgia, survive to show his early ability. Vancouver also benefitted by the presence on board of William Wales, astronomer in Resolution. Wales taught Vancouver much about astronomy, and the two became good friends. Several years later Vancouver named features on the west coast of North America after Wales.
When Vancouver returned home in 1775, he found that his father had died in January, 1773. The family home had been sold, and George’s brother John had succeeded their father as Deputy Customer in King’s Lynn. With both his parents now dead, George no doubt felt that his own future lay with the Royal Navy, so he signed up for Cook’s Third Voyage when it was announced in 1776.
Cook set off on his third great voyage in July, 1776, with two ships, Resolution and Discovery. Vancouver was in Discovery, this time as a midshipman, though he signed on as an AB. The ships returned to Britain in late 1780, after Cook’s death, and once again Vancouver featured little in the official account. It is partly explained by Vancouver having not been aboard Cook’s ship, Resolution. He is mentioned only in the record of the voyage at Kealakekua Bay in Hawai`i.
In late January, 1779, Vancouver was part of a shore party that was away for four days trying to climb the volcano, Mauna Loa. Cook, with the ships, left the bay in early February, but was forced back a few days later after gales broke a mast. Relations with the Hawaiians were much less cordial. The Hawaiians believed the British had overstayed their welcome, while the British were irritated by thieving. A theft on 13 February led Vancouver to chase a man ashore from Discovery, only to be attacked and beaten by Hawaiians. He was rescued, but the next day Cook was attacked and killed after a similar fight. Apparently, Vancouver had some aptitude for languages, as he is mentioned as being able to converse with the Hawaiians after the death of Cook, and helped to recover parts of Cook’s body.
Importantly, Vancouver had become acquainted with the northwest coast of North America. He had been to Nootka Sound on the island that would later carry his name, to Cook Inlet in Alaska, and had been present at the birth of the sea otter fur trade. Cook’s men had traded for sea otter pelts all along the American coast and had sold them for profit when they reached Macao in January, 1780. The news of this transaction soon spread, and became the basis for the fur trade that grew up over the next ten years. The poor sea otter was nearly hunted to extinction.
At the end of 1780, Vancouver’s future was in the balance. He had served on Cook’s voyages and this was a great advantage for him. He had received an incomparable apprenticeship in seamanship, navigation, surveying and cartography that could act as an open ticket to advancement in the Royal Navy. Vancouver would refer to Cook, and acknowledge his debt to him, many times in his career. But, in the short term, he needed to broaden his experience and serve on other types of ships in different theatres to help his advancement. Vancouver was still only 23, and without many influential contacts in the Navy who could find good positions for him on glamour ships of the line. Soon after returning to Britain, he passed his examination to be a lieutenant and was commissioned on 19 October, 1780.
The British colonies in North America had revolted in 1776, and the War of American Independence was still in progress when Vancouver qualified as a lieutenant. Both Spain and France had sided with the Americans, so the Royal Navy was at war with three navies. This stretched its resources, but offered many opportunities for sailors like Vancouver to prove themselves in battle. On 9 December, 1780, he joined HMS Martin, a sloop of 14 guns, 289 tons, built at Rotherhithe in 1761, under Commander William Wardlaw. The next year was spent on escort duty in the English Channel and the North Sea. However, on 11 February, 1782, under a new captain, William Merrick, Martin sailed for the West Indies. The ship arrived in the Caribbean in March, and was deployed to help HMS Invincible escort a convoy of merchant ships from St. Lucia to Port Royal, Jamaica. Vancouver’s base for most of the next seven years would be Jamaica and the Caribbean.
Martin was dispatched to carry supplies to a British fort on the Swan Islands (Islas Santanilla), two tiny islets 140 kilometres north of Honduras. They arrived too late and found that the fort had been overrun by the Spanish. On the return journey to Jamaica, Martin was engaged in the capture of a Spanish ship on 19 April, 1782. As a result, Vancouver missed an opportunity for combat in the Battle of the Isles des Saintes. In this battle, fought on 12 April, off Guadeloupe and Dominica, the British decisively beat the French, and prevented the French fleet from combining with its Spanish counterpart to attack Jamaica. When Vancouver in Martin returned to Jamaica at the end of April, they were met by part of the victorious British fleet rather than an attacking enemy one.
Vancouver transferred to HMS Fame, on 17 May, as fourth lieutenant under Captain George Wilson. Admiral Pigot, who had just assumed charge of the West Indies fleet, took all of his ships, including Fame, north in July, 1782, to New York in order to miss the hurricane season. When they returned south in October, Fame patrolled off the Leeward Islands, monitoring French shipping. Peace between the British and Americans was declared in April, 1783, and Fame left the Caribbean on 22 April, reaching Plymouth in early June. Peacetime meant idle time for warships, and Vancouver was one of many laid off on half pay.
Vancouver remained ashore for over a year until November, 1784, when he joined HMS Europa at Spithead. She was a fourth rate of 50 guns, 1,050 tons burthen, built at Woolwich in 1783. She was the flagship of Rear Admiral Alexander Innes, the new Commander-in-Chief of the Jamaica Station, with Richard Fisher as flag-captain. Vancouver was appointed 3rd lieutenant.
In early 1785, Europa sailed for the West Indies and, in February, Vancouver was back in Port Royal, Jamaica. In 1786, Rear Admiral Innes died and Captain Fisher was declared insane. They were replaced by Commodore Sir Alan Gardner and Captain Edward Marsh, respectively. Gardner became a close friend, patron and major influence in Vancouver’s career. The British squadron at Jamaica was reduced to only two ships, Europa and Experiment. Gardner switched his flag between the two vessels, as one ship stayed in port while the other undertook patrols into the Gulf of Mexico.
Captain Marsh died in September, 1786, and was replaced by Captain James Vashon. He also became a friend and patron of Vancouver, and rose to the rank of admiral in 1814.
Joseph Whidbey joined Europa at this time as master. He later sailed with Vancouver to the Pacific in 1791. General instructions had been sent out from London that British naval bases should undertake surveys, and chart local harbours and the waters in their vicinity. Whidbey’s arrival was very timely, as he was able to join Vancouver in the new project. For the next year, the two men carried out a comprehensive survey of Port Royal and Kingston Harbours and their approaches. The results were published in London in 1792.
The climate in the Caribbean was notoriously unhealthy and many men died in service, leaving regular openings for promotion for their healthier colleagues. Vancouver benefited, being promoted to second lieutenant on 24 November, 1787, and to first lieutenant on 13 February, 1788. However, it is likely that the illnesses that killed him only ten years later had their origins in the Caribbean.
Europa made a visit to Cartagena on the north coast of South America, and to Navassa Island between Cuba and Santo Domingo in early 1789. They would prove to be Vancouver’s last experiences in the Caribbean. Rear Admiral Affleck arrived to take over from Gardner as Commodore of the Caribbean squadron. Gardner left Jamaica, together with Vashon and Vancouver, and sailed north of Cuba and through the Strait of Florida, to return to Britain in Europa, arriving in Plymouth in September, 1789. Vancouver was paid off, while Gardner went on to become Lord Gardner and a member of the Board of Admiralty, in which position he was able to help Vancouver’s career.
Vancouver’s time in Europa proved invaluable. He had risen to become a first lieutenant, in effect second-in-command of a 50 gun warship, so gaining valuable experience in running a ship. He had shown himself to be a very able surveyor and cartographer, and had made contact with people who could help him gain commands.
He had made friends with a group of men that would accompany him on his Pacific voyage. Joseph Whidbey, Peter Puget, Zachary Mudge and Joseph Baker all sailed with him in Europa, and later in Discovery or in Chatham.
- Cook’s Log, page 29, vol. 31, no. 1 (2008).
- Cook’s Log, page 14, vol. 35, no. 1 (2012).
- Cook’s Log, page 108, vol. 4, no. 2 (1981).
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 28, volume 37, number 1 (2014).