Home > George Vancouver (1757-1798) Part 2: Reasons and Preparations for the Voyage

George Vancouver (1757-1798) Part 2: Reasons and Preparations for the Voyage


The Nootka Sound Incident


From 1785 onwards, a small flotilla of British and American ships began visiting the Northwest Coast of America to exploit the sea otter by trading for the animal’s pelts, which could be sold at great profit in Macao.  Nootka Sound, visited by Captain Cook in 1778, became the focal point for the trade, and each year several ships based themselves at Friendly Cove, just inside the Sound.


The Spanish were upset at what they saw as an illegal intrusion by foreigners into a region that they maintained was under their jurisdiction.  The Spanish had progressed north from their base at San Blas in Mexico, and were known to have established settlements as far as San Francisco by this time.  However, they had kept these northbound voyages secret, including a voyage by Juan Perez in 1774, during which he anchored off the mouth of Nootka Sound.2  This action was now cited by Spain as supporting evidence for their jurisdiction by reason of making the earliest visit.  Among Perez’s company was Esteban Jose Martinez, who in 1789 was dispatched to Nootka to establish a base and assert Spain’s claim to the area. 


Britain did not recognise Spain’s authority in the Pacific region, and was prepared to contest that authority, especially as it was seeking to spread its own influence and business interests.  The loss of many of its colonies in North America was a major blow, and Britain was now looking elsewhere.  One of Britain’s growing industries was whaling and sealing, and the Southern Ocean had been identified as a potential source of these animals.  Britain needed to find suitable bases from which her ships could operate.  


Early in 1789, a confrontation took place on the southern Argentine coast between British sealers and Spanish naval vessels.  The Spanish confiscated the sealskins, provoking protests back in London. 


The British Government was sufficiently concerned to organise an expedition to protect British interests in Southern waters, and to locate possible bases.  A new ship, Discovery, was commissioned. Captain Henry Roberts,3 who had sailed on Cook’s Third Voyage, was appointed to command.  George Vancouver was appointed as his first lieutenant.  In its original instructions the Discovery would first explore in the South Pacific and then proceed to the Northwest Coast of America to explore there.  Vancouver joined the ship in January, 1790, but other disturbing news soon began to arrive.


Martinez had arrested British ships and their commanders when they had arrived in Nootka Sound, and this news quickly reached Britain.  James Colnett, another one of Cook’s midshipmen, had sailed a sea otter trading ship into Nootka only to argue with Martinez, be arrested and be sent as a prisoner to Mexico.4  A business partner of Colnett, John Meares, arrived back in London with further examples, in his view, of wrongs carried out by the Spanish toward him.  He publicised these so-called wrong-doings by presenting a memorial to the Government.  As a result, the Discovery voyage was first postponed and then, in April, 1790, cancelled with the company being laid off. 


While the British and Spanish Governments began an intense round of negotiations, Vancouver joined HMS Courageux (a third rate of 74 guns captured from the French in 1761)5 in May, 1790. She was under the command of his friend, Sir Alan Gardner, and part of the Channel fleet.  Vancouver began as third lieutenant but, by the September, had been promoted to first lieutenant.  Joseph Whidbey joined the ship as master. 


Five months of negotiations in Madrid proved successful, in that Britain and Spain did not go to war over Nootka.  British interests were further served by the Nootka Sound Convention that was signed on 29 October, 1790.  It allowed British ships free access to the Northwest Coast.  Spain agreed to make full reparations to British ship owners for all damages and losses incurred at the hands of the Spanish.  Spain was forced to abandon its claims to exclusive ownership and occupation of the coast.  For the moment, the Southern Whale Fishery was forgotten as the British Government set about sending an expedition to Nootka to represent Britain, and to see that Spain carried out its new obligations.  Discovery was available and its voyage was resurrected.  As Henry Roberts was needed elsewhere, George Vancouver was announced as commander of the new expedition on 15 December, 1790. 


Preparations for the Voyage


The British Government’s first concern was to liaise with the Spanish to resolve the outcomes of the Nootka Sound Convention that had been signed two months earlier.  However, Vancouver received further instructions that covered charting the region and proving or disproving once and for all the existence of a Northwest Passage.  For these reasons, command of the expedition needed to be entrusted to a naval officer with proven surveying and cartographic skills, and who had been to the region before.  George Vancouver possessed such qualities.


Following the practice of Cook’s Second and Third Voyages, in which two vessels sailed together, the Navy began readying two ships for this voyage.  Discovery, only a year old, and Chatham had been prepared for Roberts’ abandoned voyage earlier in the year.  They were still available and were now allocated for Vancouver’s voyage.  Lieutenant William Broughton was appointed as second-in-command of the expedition and commander of Chatham.


Vancouver was responsible for organising the company for Discovery and drew upon his time in the Caribbean with HMS Europa.  His three lieutenants, Zachary Mudge (first), Peter Puget (second) and Joseph Baker (third), and the ship’s master, Joseph Whidbey, had all served with Vancouver in Europa.  Joseph Baker, the Discovery’s third lieutenant, was used as the expedition’s cartographic draughtsman, while the three master’s mates, John Sykes, Henry Humphrys and Thomas Heddington, produced a portfolio of drawings recording the voyage.  All told, Discovery carried a complement of 100 men. 


As Chatham was only a small vessel, with a complement of only 45 men, there was only one other officer, James Hanson as first lieutenant.  Her master was James Johnstone, a man of considerable ability and experience.  Both ships carried a contingent of Marines.


Sir Joseph Banks, who had sailed with Cook in the Endeavour, was now the President of the Royal Society, and had considerable influence in Government circles.  He showed great interest in the expedition, as he did in all British expeditions of the period.  He secured a place in Discovery for one of his protégés, the botanist Archibald Menzies.  Menzies was instructed to find, identify and collect new plant species to be brought home for the collection being assembled at Kew.


For unknown reasons, Vancouver and Banks were not enamoured of each other, and Vancouver did not take well to the placement of Menzies in his ship.  Cook had become intolerant of scientists on his ships, and it remains unclear as to whether Vancouver was just copying his mentor.  Friction continued during the voyage between Vancouver and Menzies, and it contributed to Vancouver’s unfavourable reception in Britain after the voyage.  Menzies reported to Banks and, with Banks as an enemy, Vancouver was always going to struggle for acceptance by British society.


Vancouver’s Ships and Some of the Men on the Pacific Voyage





Ship type


Brig-rigged armed tender

Length on keel

77ft. 9 5/8in.

53ft. 1¾in.


28ft. 3¾in.

21ft. 3¾in.

Depth in hold

12ft. 4in.

10ft. 1in.


330 65/94 tons burthen

131 41/94 tons burthen

Persons on board


(84 seamen, 16 marines)


(37 seamen, 8 marines)


George Vancouver

William Broughton

First Lieutenant

Zachary Mudge


Other Officers

Peter Puget

Joseph Baker

James Hanson


Joseph Baker



Archibald Menzies



Henry Orchard

Edward Bell


Alexander Cranstoun

William Walker

Sergeant of Marines

Edward Flynn

John Fillbrook


Joseph Whidbey

James Johnstone




Discovery was purchased by the Navy in 1789 from Randall & Brent of Rotherhithe, and commissioned in January 1790 by Henry Roberts.  Chatham was purchased in 1788 from Thomas King of Dover. 


It was intended that the voyage would last for several years, so it was arranged that a storeship, the 350 tons Daedalus, captained by Richard Hergest6 (yet another of Cook’s men) would sail independently with provisions to meet Vancouver’s party at Nootka Sound, late in 1792.  Vancouver, who had asked for an Astronomer to be part of the party, sailed without one but expected Daedalus would bring out William Gooch to join him in Discovery.


By 1791 it was fashionable to send young men off as midshipmen on expeditions such as Vancouver’s.  Politicians, naval officers and other members of “society” vied to have their sons included in the company of such ships.  Many of Vancouver’s “young gentlemen” were, therefore, well-connected, and proved a big headache for him as some of them expected to be treated according to their upbringing. 


Thomas Pitt, who would prove Vancouver’s greatest problem, was a cousin of John Pitt, Earl of Chatham (and First Lord of the Admiralty when Vancouver left Britain).  William Pitt the younger was Prime Minister at the time.  Charles Stuart was the grandson of John Stuart, 3rd earl of Bute, who had been Prime Minister in the 1760s.  Thomas Manby was a friend of the Marquis of Townshend and Rear-admiral Leveson Gower.


John Stewart was descended from James Stewart, 2nd Earl of Galloway, while through his mother he was related to Vice Admiral Keith Stewart (a son of Alexander Stewart, 6th Earl of Galloway) and, more distantly, to George Keith Elphinstone, Viscount Keith, another admiral.  Henry Humphrys and Robert Barrie were both nephews of Rear-admiral Sir Alan Gardner.  Robert Pigot was a member of a branch of the distinguished military and naval Pigot family.


Spelman Swaine was a protégé of the Earl of Hardwicke, and had sailed with Sir Alan Gardner and Vancouver in Courageux.  


John Sykes was the son of James Sykes, a prominent navy agent for Vancouver and many other officers.  He had sailed with Sir Alan Gardner and Vancouver in Courageux.


John Robson


  1. Part one of this article appeared in Cook’s Log, page 28, vol. 37, no. 1 (2014)
  2. Cook’s Log, page 9, vol. 35, no. 3 (2012). 
  3. Cook’s Log, page 16, vol. 31, no. 4 (2008). 
  4. Cook’s Log, page 17, vol. 30, no. 4 (2007). 
  5. Cook’s Log, page 682, vol. 12, no. 3 (1989). 
  6. Cook’s Log, page 30, vol. 32, no. 2 (2009). 


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 9, volume 37, number 2 (2014).

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