Home > George Vancouver (1757-1798) Part 3: The Voyage 1791-1792

George Vancouver (1757-1798) Part 3: The Voyage 1791-1792


Britain to New Zealand


HMS Discovery and Chatham sailed from the Thames in early 1791; Discovery, commanded by Vancouver, in late January, and Chatham, with Lieutenant William Broughton in command, in late February.  Both ships encountered storms in the English Channel, and required extensive repairs at Portsmouth.  Discovery proceeded to Falmouth, and Chatham eventually joined her there on 31 March.  Both ships had touched briefly at Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, to take on duty free wines and spirits.  Vancouver was already showing signs of the illness that would affect him on the voyage, but, at last, the ships were ready.


The voyage proper began at Falmouth on 1 April, 1791; that the ships sailed on April Fools’ Day was of some amusement to many on board.  The ships crossed the Bay of Biscay and headed for Madeira.  Bad weather and the poor sailing performance of Chatham caused Vancouver to miss Madeira, and make for Tenerife in the Canary Islands.  The ships anchored off Santa Cruz on 28 April.  Vancouver carried out the formalities of meeting the island’s governor, and then arranged for 23 tons of ballast to be loaded into Chatham’s hold to improve its sailing capability.  He also took on board quantities of wine and fresh food.


With the ships’ companies ashore, on 1 May, a fight broke out between British sailors and locals.  In the resulting melee, Vancouver, who was trying to break it up, was pushed into the harbour.  It obviously embarrassed him, as he did not mention the incident in his journal.  The British sailed south from Tenerife on 7 May, passing the Cape Verde Islands on the 14th, and crossing the Equator on 27 May, 1791.  Sailing west, they approached the Brazilian coast, and followed it south before starting a sweep across the South Atlantic in early June.  


Vancouver was becoming impatient with the slow sailing of Chatham, and on 28 June, he decided to press on without her.  Much to everyone’s surprise, Chatham not only then kept up with Discovery, but even reached the Cape of Good Hope a day before the larger ship.  Chatham arrived on 8 July, and both ships anchored on the eastern side of Cape Peninsula at Simon’s Bay, rather than Table Bay.  This resulted in delays, as Vancouver and his men had to cross the Cape Peninsula over land to Cape Town to undertake formalities, and supplies had to be transported back over the same route.  Discovery was in need of repairs, which took up more time.  Archibald Menzies, the botanist, appreciated the delay, as it allowed him more time to collect plant specimens.


The stay at the Cape lasted five weeks.  The ships were repaired and restocked.  A Dutch ship arrived from Batavia (Jakarta) in early August with many of her ship’s company suffering from dysentery.  Vancouver hastened to leave Simon’s Bay, but the disease had already spread to both ships’ companies, affecting several men, with one eventually dying.  They sailed on 17 August, heading across the Indian Ocean to New Holland (Australia).


Vancouver wished to investigate the small islands of St. Paul and Amsterdam en route, but their exact location was uncertain.  Due to heavy rain he did not see the islands, and may have even sailed right between them, on 9 September.  Two weeks later gales pounded them as they approached land, which was seen at last on 26 September.  Vancouver began sailing along the south coast of Australia, looking for a harbour.  


Vancouver had reached land, New Holland, which had been located and partially surveyed by the Dutch.  The available charts were, however, rough and imprecise, and he began surveying the coast and assigning names to features.  The first name he gave was Cape Chatham.  On 28 September, 1791, Vancouver’s ships entered a spacious sound, which he named King George III Sound.  They stayed there until 11 October, stocking up with fresh water and wood.  Evidence of habitation was seen, including a group of huts, and a fish trap, but no people were seen.  Once more, Menzies was occupied collecting plants and observing wildlife.


The first chart of the voyage was produced here, and several names in the sound date from Vancouver’s visit.  When the ships sailed, they tried to follow the coast, but poor visibility hampered their progress.  They eventually arrived at a mass of small islands.  Vancouver sighted and named one island, Termination Island, but thought it prudent to keep away from trouble, so he headed away from the Australian coast, and set course for New Zealand.


Discovery and Chatham sighted the South West Cape of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) on 26 October, but continued on.  On 2 November, 1791, Vancouver anchored his ships in Dusky Sound on the southwest coast of South Island, New Zealand.  Having been there with Cook in Resolution in 1773, he knew the area would provide water and wood.  However, even within the confines of the sound, a storm raged before the ships had been secured properly in a safe anchorage.  Luckily, no great damage was done, with Discovery safely moored to the north of Anchor Island, and Chatham in Facile Harbour.  The dysentery suffered by the ships’ companies cleared up here.


Cook and his colleagues had produced an accurate and nearly complete chart of Dusky Sound, and its connected neighbours.  However, he had not fully explored the head of Breaksea Sound to the north, and had put “Nobody knows what” on the chart where he had left off his survey. Vancouver now set about completing Cook’s work, and took small boats round into Breaksea.  It was found to split into two branches, later called Vancouver and Broughton Arms, but both came to an end with no connection to any other inlets.  Vancouver filled the pieces into the chart and wrote triumphantly over his entries, “Somebody knows what”.  Menzies found numerous new ferns and mosses.  No Maori were seen, nor signs of them.


New Zealand to Hawai`i


Both ships sailed from Dusky Sound on 22 November, 1791, only to encounter a storm, during which they were separated.  Vancouver had taken the precaution of arranging a rendezvous point in Tahiti in the event of separation, and so the two ships sailed on independently.  Discovery sailed around the south of New Zealand, and passed some islets and rocks that Vancouver called The Snares.  He then headed northeast for Tahiti.


In the meantime, Broughton, in Chatham, also encountered The Snares and sailed right through the middle of them.  Both Broughton and
Vancouver have an islet named after them.  


Broughton next encountered land on 29 November, east of New Zealand at 45ºS.  He sailed along the north shore, and anchored by a small bay where he went ashore.2  The shore party found the land inhabited, and met a party of the local people, Moriori.  The meeting was not successful and, in a skirmish, one local was killed.  Broughton returned to the ship and sailed away.  He called the island Chatham Island after the Earl of Chatham, not after his ship, and the bay where he landed, he called Skirmish Bay.  The name has since reverted to its local name, Kaingaroa Bay.


Meanwhile, Discovery reached a small island on 22 December.  It was Rapa, in the Austral group.  Cook had visited two other islands in the chain on his voyages, Rurutu and Tubuai, far to the northwest.  Vancouver stood off the island while many canoes came out to visit the ship.  He stayed only a few hours, and then sailed off to the north.  A week later, Vancouver brought Discovery safely to Matavai Bay on the north coast of Tahiti, and was relieved to find Broughton and Chatham already at anchor there.


For Vancouver, it was his fourth visit to Tahiti, and he and his company were made very welcome by the Tahitians.  He found that the chief at the time of his last visit, now known as Pomare, acted as a Regent, while his son had assumed the name Tu, and was the present Chief.  At the time of their arrival, Pomare was on Mo`orea visiting his father-in-law, Mahau, the local Chief, who was extremely ill.  Vancouver sent boats across to the neighbouring island to escort them back to Tahiti.  Mahau died a few days later, and the British were able to observe parts of the funeral process that took place over several days.


While the ships were being repaired and stocked up, Vancouver tried to reduce contact between his company and the local people.  Only selected persons were allowed ashore, including Menzies who was in his element.  Vancouver wanted to avoid the desertions and other problems that had arisen on previous European visits to Tahiti.  The Bounty incident was fresh in his memory.


Thieving had always been a problem, and Vancouver suffered like his predecessors.  He became angry at the continual theft of laundry. However, relations were still very friendly when Discovery and Chatham sailed from Matavai Bay on 24 January, 1792.


Vancouver did not call at any of the other Society Islands, and made for the island of Hawai`i, whose volcanoes were sighted on 1 March, 1792.  Vancouver had visited the Hawaiian group of islands with Cook in 1778 and 1779.  He recognised its advantages as a stopover in preparing for visits to the colder climates of the North Pacific region.  He formed a strong attachment to the place, especially the people, and would return here on two more occasions in the course of his voyage.


At this time, he stood off Hawai`i, and decided not to enter Kealakekua Bay, where Cook had died.  He did converse with people in canoes, but decided to head for Waikiki, on the island of O`ahu, where he anchored on 7 March.  That area did not provide what he needed, so he moved on to Waimea on the island of Kauai.  He stayed a few days, and after collecting yams from Ni`ihau, set course for North America.


Hawai`i to Nootka Sound


On 16 April, 1792, Vancouver reached North America near Cape Cabrillo, California.  The ships worked their way north along the coast, passing the mouth of the Columbia River on 22 April, without realising its existence.  A week later, Vancouver met Captain Robert Gray, an American fur trader, who was able to give him much valuable information about the current state of affairs with the Spanish, and recent explorations, including the Columbia River.  Vancouver decided against going straight to Nootka, on Vancouver Island, and instead, as it was early in the year, began a detailed survey.  He sailed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and anchored in an inlet on its southern shore that he called Port Discovery.  

At this time, Vancouver was unaware that the Spanish had already surveyed the strait.  Quimper, Eliza, and Narvaez had been charting there for two years, and even the inlet in which Vancouver was now based had been named Puerto de Quadra, after the Spanish officer he would soon meet at Nootka.  He also could not know that two Spanish ships were, even then, about to follow him up the Strait.


Vancouver realised immediately that a proper survey could not be carried out using the ships.  Instead, he would need to send teams out in the small boats, which could get into all the small and shallow inlets and passages.  A plan developed whereby the ships would be anchored in a safe harbour, and boat parties would leave to perform the surveys.  While they were away, an observatory would be set up on shore and the exact co-ordinates of the location would be calculated.  When the survey teams returned, the ships would move on to another location to repeat the process.  Part of Vancouver’s remit was to find the Northwest Passage, and to this end, he began delineating the continental shore, and followed it doggedly through all its ins and outs.  He was in unknown waters, and started bestowing many new names to geographic features they encountered.


Over the next few weeks of May and June, Vancouver and his men charted the intricate network of Puget Sound, Hood Canal, Admiralty Inlet, and the southern end of the Strait of Georgia.  Survey parties went off provisioned for up to two weeks, and the boat crews rowed for hundreds of kilometres to produce the surveys that Joseph Baker brought together as charts of the area.  As well, midshipmen such as Thomas Heddington, John Sykes and Henry Humphrys drew many sketches that depicted the landscape.  The Masters of the two ships, Joseph Whidbey and James Johnstone, immediately demonstrated their abilities by conducting large parts of the survey.  Peter Puget, who led one long foray, was rewarded by his name being given to the sound on which present day Seattle sits.


Discovery and Chatham next moved north to Birch Bay, and Vancouver set off for another survey.  This time he went into Burrard Inlet, past the site of the future city of Vancouver, before rowing north to explore Jervis Inlet.  Much to his surprise, as he returned to the ships, Vancouver encountered two Spanish ships.  They were Sutil and Mexicana, commanded by Antonio Galiano and Cayetano Valdes, members of Malaspina’s expedition, who had been dispatched to make their own survey of the region.  Vancouver and Galiano quickly agreed to pool their resources and knowledge, and for the next few weeks the British and Spanish worked together.  The four ships sailed into Desolation Sound, and began a survey of Toba and Bute Inlets.  


James Johnstone made an important discovery when his party rowed through to Queen Charlotte Sound, thus proving the land on which Nootka was situated was a large island. The passage was called Johnstone Strait after the master.  The British and Spanish separated in mid-July, as the British ships were much swifter at sailing, while the smaller Spanish ships could enter shallower waters.


The Spanish were left to make their own way to Nootka while Vancouver pressed on, exploring the maze of channels in the area.  Broughton was honoured for his part in the work with a group of islands being named the Broughton Archipelago.  Discovery ran aground in Queen Charlotte Sound on 6 August, but was refloated without major damage.  Vancouver nursed the ships round to Port Safety on Calvert Island.  Nothing hindered the survey though, and the small boats were dispatched to survey Smith Sound and Burke Channel.


It was now mid-August, and late in the season, so Vancouver decided to head for Nootka.  On 28 August, 1792, Vancouver finally entered Nootka Sound, where he met Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, who had taken charge for the Spanish.  Over the next six weeks, the two men undertook long negotiations, but without ever really achieving much, as the Spanish procrastinated, being reluctant to relinquish anything to the British.  


The men did become firm friends, so much so that Vancouver proposed that the large landmass he had just shown to be an island should be called Quadra and Vancouver’s Island.  Unfortunately for Bodega, his name was subsequently dropped and given to another much smaller island in the Strait of Georgia.  


Three days after Vancouver arrived at Nootka, Galiano’s expedition anchored in the sound, and the two parties were able to share and compare results.  


There was also mixed news for Vancouver.  The British storeship Daedalus had already reached Nootka, via Hawai`i, when he arrived.  Tragedy had struck at Waimea on O`ahu when Richard Hergest, its commander and Vancouver’s friend, and William Gooch, the astronomer coming to join Discovery, had been killed.  Vancouver realised that he would have to continue doing most of the astronomical work himself.


Lieutenant Zachary Mudge was sent home to Britain aboard a fur trader, Fenis, with the latest news, and a request for instructions on how to proceed with negotiations with the Spanish.


Vancouver’s three ships left Nootka on 12 October and began heading south down the American coast.  Broughton and Chatham went on to investigate the Columbia River, and charted to a point upstream of Portland.  The ships met up again at San Francisco, then moved down to Monterey, where they found Bodega.  


Vancouver was still anxious to inform London of his progress, and chose William Broughton to be his envoy.  Broughton departed with Bodega, carrying with him correspondence and copies of logs, charts and journals, which he took to Britain via Mexico.


John Robson



  1. Part one of this article appeared in Cook’s Log, page 28, vol. 37, no. 1 (2014)
    Part two appeared on page 9, vol. 37, no. 2 (2014)
  2. Cook’s Log, page 1812, vol. 24, no. 1 (2001). 


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 22, volume 37, number 3 (2014).

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Steven, Reference 1 in this article has links to the two previous parts of this article.
By Administrator on 3/12/2017 7:34:04 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Has the rest of Vancouver's voyage been published in this form. If so How do I access it?
By Steven Gentry on 3/11/2017 6:08:21 AM Like:0 DisLike:0

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