Home > George Vancouver (1757-1798) Part 4: The Voyage 1793-1795

George Vancouver (1757-1798) Part 4: The Voyage 1793-1795




On 15 January, 1793, Discovery and Chatham (now with Peter Puget in command) left Monterey and sailed for Hawai`i.  They reached Kealakekua Bay on 12 February, and began a leisurely passage through the islands.  In March, they were off the west coast of Maui, and Whidbey was out surveying the coast.  Vancouver then sent Chatham ahead to Nootka for repairs, while he took Discovery and sailed west to O`ahu.  After four days at Waikiki, Whidbey made the first survey of nearby Pearl Harbour.  Vancouver moved on to Waimea, on Kauai, but anchored there for only a day.  It was time to return to the North American coast but, as a final action in Hawai`i, Vancouver briefly cruised near the islands of Lehua and Ni`ihau before leaving on 1 April, 1793.  The expedition was beginning its third year away from Britain.


Discovery made a slow, cold, and uncomfortable crossing to North America.  It reached the coast near Cape Mendocino, and Vancouver took the precaution of anchoring at Trinidad Bay.  Water and wood were taken on board while the ship was checked and the bay surveyed.  Sailing on, Vancouver entered Nootka Sound on 20 May, where he learned that Chatham had been and gone.  Vancouver stayed for three days before proceeding north to Burke Channel, along the west coast of British Columbia, where he finished his first year’s survey, and where Chatham would meet him.  On 26 May, the two ships met up at Restoration Cove in Burke Channel.  


Puget reported on an interesting few weeks for Chatham.  The ship had made a quick crossing to Nootka Island, but Puget had tried to enter the wrong inlet, and had nearly been wrecked in Nuchatlitz Inlet.  He had luckily managed to extricate the ship, and reach safety in Nootka Sound.  Chatham had to be careened to facilitate the repairs, and while they were carried out, Puget and his men observed the Spanish and Nootka people.  Puget left Nootka on 18 May to meet Vancouver in Burke Channel. 


The second season’s survey commenced on 29 May, 1793, when James Johnstone, sailing master in Chatham, set off in one of the cutters.  Vancouver, himself, led another party that departed the next day.  Over the next few weeks, the Burke, Fisher, Finlayson, Princess Royal, Gardner, Grenville and Douglas Channels, together with all the other connecting passages and inlets, were surveyed as Vancouver and his men slowly worked their way northward.  Many of the present day names for these features date from this survey.  By 20 July, the ships had reached Stephens Island, near Dixon Entrance, where they were surprised to meet a small group of British fur traders, who gave Vancouver information and advice about anchorages.  Gradually, Whidbey and Johnstone assumed more responsibility for the surveys as Vancouver’s health deteriorated.  Lieutenant Joseph Baker continued to handle the chart making, while Archibald Menzies, now Discovery’s surgeon, collected hundreds of botanical specimens.


Vancouver was still looking for the Northwest Passage, and in late July he took his ships up a promising lead, which he called Observatory Inlet.  They anchored at Salmon Cove, and then explored Observatory Inlet, and then another neighbouring large inlet, Portland Canal, but found both to have closed ends.  Vancouver set off instead on a long, and eventful, survey, during which he circumnavigated Revillagigedo Island via the Behm Canal.  On 12 August, as they rowed south, his party were attacked by local people.  Puget’s boat, following behind, opened fire and killed several of them.  Some of Vancouver’s men were seriously injured.  Upon reaching Salmon Cove, Vancouver moved the ships on 17 August, and sailed up Clarence Strait into Behm Canal.  He anchored in Port Stewart, opposite the site of the recent attack.  Behm Canal was named in honour of Magnus von Behm, the governor of Kamchatka in 1779 when Cook’s ships, under Charles Clerke, called at Petropavlovsk.  It was Behm who had carried the news of Cook’s death to Europe.2


More survey parties set out from Port Stewart.  Whidbey re-examined parts of Behm Canal, while Johnstone undertook a lengthy exploration of Ernest Sound, Eastern Passage, Sumner and Clarence Straits, and Duncan Canal.  They returned to the ships, which sailed on 5 September, up Clarence Strait, and round into Sumner Strait.  Vancouver anchored the ships in Port Protection, at the northwest corner of Prince of Wales Island.  He was aware that summer was over, and he had little time left that year for exploration, so he was pleased when Whidbey confirmed that Sumner Strait offered a clear passage to the open sea.  After two weeks based at Port Protection, Vancouver sailed on 21 September, and headed for Nootka Sound.  He kept the ships out to sea, and sailed down the west coast of the Queen Charlotte Islands to reach Nootka on 5 October, 1793.  


There were no messages for Vancouver from London, and the Spanish had, likewise, heard nothing from Mexico.  So after quickly restocking, Vancouver sailed south on 8 October.  A new Governor of Alta California, Jose Joaquin de Arrillaga, had arrived in Monterey, and was unhappy about the British presence in the region.  Therefore, he directed that no Spanish settlement should offer them assistance, so that when the British ships reached San Francisco on 17 October, they received a very cool official reception, even if the unofficial one was more normal and friendly.  Discovery and Chatham left San Francisco, and were pleased to find the British store ship Daedalus standing outside the bay.  All three ships sailed down to Monterey, where Arrillaga gave them a very frosty reception on 1 November.  


Vancouver, angry at the discourtesy he had received, sailed four days later without acknowledging Arrillaga as he left.  He was still intent on charting the California coast, and sailed via Santa Barbara and Buena Ventura to San Diego, where he anchored on 27 November.  At all these points the British received cordial welcomes from both the Spanish authorities, and the Catholic missions, restoring most of Vancouver’s positive feelings towards the Spanish.  He left San Diego on 9 December, 1793, and continued south along the coast to 30˚N latitude before heading southwest for Hawai`i.  




Kamehameha was waiting for him in Hilo, on the east coast of Hawai`i, when Vancouver’s three ships arrived on 8 January, 1794.  Whidbey recommended that it would be better to sail round to Kealakekua Bay, after checking Hilo Bay and finding it unsafe.  Kamehameha preferred to stay in Hilo, but Vancouver persuaded him to accompany them.  On his arrival in Hawai`i, Vancouver had learned of an estrangement between Kamehameha and his wife, so in early February, Vancouver contrived that they should meet on Discovery.  This affected reconciliation between them, and further enhanced Vancouver’s standing.  The British spent six profitable weeks at Kealakekua, and Vancouver had the satisfaction of Kamehameha, and other Hawaiian leaders, swearing an allegiance to Britain.  Vancouver had a 36-foot schooner built for Kamehameha, which also helped sway the Hawaiians.  The close personal friendship that had developed between Vancouver and Kamehameha contributed largely to the overall good opinion of the British held by the Hawaiians.  


While Vancouver was occupied with politics, Menzies went on two mountaineering expeditions.  First, he climbed Hualalai, behind Kailua, and then attempted the far more ambitious Mauna Loa.  He and a small party reached the summit on 16 February.  Daedalus, having transferred all its stores, left Hawai`i on 9 February, taking with it some troublemakers.  One of these was Thomas Pitt, a midshipman whom Vancouver punished on more than one occasion, and who would re-enter Vancouver’s life in London in 1796.  Pitt hated Vancouver, and later sought revenge in London, even attacking him in the street, and challenging the ailing Vancouver to a duel.  For the moment though, Vancouver was free of him, and set about leaving Hawai`i.


On 26 February, 1794, Vancouver prepared to leave Hawai`i, and bade his friend Kamehameha goodbye.  He sailed over to Maui, and passed along its north coast, and that of Molokai.  He proceeded to Waimea Bay, on O`ahu, but did not stop, sailing on to Waimea on Kauai.  After another visit to Ni`ihau to collect yams, Vancouver wanted to locate a tiny island, Nihoa, supposed to be further to the west.  The island was found on 15 March, and Vancouver sailed north, bidding farewell to the Hawaiian Islands for the last time.  


Vancouver decided to head first for Cook’s River in Alaska, so he could then work east and south as the season progressed, reducing the chances of being trapped in ice.  He had copies of maps of the region he was approaching, produced by Cook, the Spanish, and the British fur traders, but he was unsure of their accuracy.  He was also aware that he was entering territory in which the Russians had established trading posts.  No sooner had the ships left Nihoa, than they were separated.  Vancouver and Discovery sailed on alone, reaching land on 3 April.  This was Chirikof Island, off the Alaska Peninsula, and in fixing its position, Vancouver solved a problem that had foiled Cook.  Cook had searched for Foggy Cape, but thick fog had prevented him finding it.  Vancouver showed Chirikof Island to be the Foggy Cape that had eluded Cook.


Discovery sailed on to the northeast, outside the Trinity, Kodiak, and Afognak Islands to enter Cook’s River on 12 April.  He did not realise that Puget had already brought Chatham into the same inlet, and had anchored the ship in a small bay, Port Chatham, on the east shore of the inlet.


Discovery made its way up the inlet, negotiating the shoals and ice.  Vancouver anchored near Fire Island on 27 April, and dispatched Whidbey up Turnagain Arm, while he, himself, explored Knik Arm.  Both were found to have closed ends, so neither was found to be the fabled Northwest Passage.  Meanwhile, on 29 April, Chatham had left Port Chatham, and sailed up the inlet, visiting Russian posts on the way.


On 6 May, the ships met up again, and together left the inlet that Vancouver renamed Cook Inlet.  On their way south they had more contact with the Russians.  Both ships departed Cook Inlet, and headed east for Prince William Sound, reaching the south point of Montague Island on 21 May.  The ships sailed up the island’s northwest coast to anchor, on 25 May, in Port Chalmers, at the northern end of the island.  Two survey parties were immediately sent out to explore the sound.  Whidbey led one party, and began surveying the western side.  Johnstone led the other party, which set off to chart the eastern side.  Having completed his task by 8 June, Vancouver sent Chatham away to examine the coast from Yakutat Bay to Cross Sound.  


Meanwhile, Whidbey returned to Port Chalmers on 15 June, and Vancouver sailed two days later.  As he left the sound he called in at a Russian post in Port Etches.  In the meantime, Chatham had inspected the coast past Kayak Island, and on 26 June, it entered Yakutat Bay, and anchored at Port Mulgrave.  Puget set about charting the bay, and met Russians who were based there.  Discovery arrived off Yakutat, and attempted to enter the bay, but fickle winds deterred Vancouver, and he sailed away to Cross Sound.  


Discovery anchored against the southern side of Cross Sound at Port Althorp on 7 July 1794, and Chatham joined it the next day.  The last group of surveying expeditions was about to start.  Vancouver’s health was not good, so Joseph Whidbey led the only party that left Port Althorp on 10 July.  Over the next 16 days they investigated Icy Strait, Lynn Channel, Chatham Strait, and the northern end of Stephens Passage.  Even though Vancouver was not in the party, features were named for his home town and family, with Lynn Channel, Point Couverden, Berners Bay, and Point Bridget among the names given.  With Whidbey back on board, Vancouver left Cross Sound on 28 July, and sailed down the coast outside Chicagof and Baranof Islands.  The ships rounded Cape Ommaney, and found a safe harbour in Chatham Strait, on the eastern side of Baranof Island.


Once again, Whidbey and Johnstone were entrusted with leading the survey parties.  Whidbey began another extremely lengthy expedition on 3 August, covering Frederick Sound, Stephens Passage (as far as Lynn Channel thereby showing Admiralty Island to be an island), Seymour Canal, and Taku Inlet.  Also on 3 August, Johnstone crossed Chatham Strait, and confirmed that the southern point on the eastern shore was Cape Decision, visited by Whidbey a year earlier.  He then proceeded carefully north up the eastern side of Chatham Strait, and into Keku Strait.  After showing that Keku Strait connected with Sumner Strait, Johnstone continued along the southern side of Frederick Sound, and on 16 August, met with Whidbey’s party.  Whidbey was greatly relieved by Johnstone’s arrival, as they had been threatened by a large group of local Tlingit people.  The two survey parties rowed back to the ships together.


Since the survey parties were overdue, Vancouver was relieved when they did return.  They had now filled in the middle part of the jigsaw, and had completed one of their tasks.  The continental shoreline of the Northwest coast of America had been charted in detail, from California north to Alaska.  Some of the offshore islands remained to be investigated, but Vancouver could now say with authority, that the Northwest Passage did not exist south of 65˚N latitude.  In recognition of having come to the end of their explorations, Vancouver named their final anchorage Port Conclusion.  On 24 August, Vancouver took Discovery and Chatham out to sea, and headed south for Nootka Sound.  


Everyone in the ships shared the sense of achievement and relief at having finished their huge task.  For most men, their greatest wish now was to return to Britain as quickly as possible, having been away for three and a half years.  Vancouver, though, needed to visit Nootka to attempt to resolve matters resulting from the Nootka Sound Convention.  He reached Nootka on 2 September, and found Jose Manuel de Alava had taken charge for the Spanish.  However, no new instructions had been received, and Vancouver was further disappointed to learn that his friend Bodega had died.  Much to the dismay of his ships’ companies, Vancouver decided to wait.  


Finally, Vancouver tired of waiting, and sailed on 15 October.  Fog soon separated Discovery and Chatham, and when Vancouver reached Monterey he found Puget and Chatham waiting for him.  They were all relieved to find that the unpleasant Arrillaga had been recalled to Mexico, and their reception was a friendly one once more.  In November, word came through about the negotiations.  Representatives of the two Governments were to read statements at Nootka, but it was not to be Vancouver who would represent Britain.  He could return to Britain at last. He had copies of his journals and charts made, and they were sent in another ship to Britain, while he sailed from Monterey on 2 December, 1794.  He did not know that his replacement had already arrived in Mexico City two days earlier.  




The ships sailed south, and Vancouver checked the island of Guadeloupe, off Baja California.  He next approached Nayarit in Mexico, the location of the port of San Blas, from which all the Spanish ships had sailed during the previous thirty years.  However, he did not call at San Blas, but stopped briefly at the Tres Marias Islands.  He needed water, but the islands were dry, so Vancouver pressed on.  Progress was slow, and water supplies were close to running out, when they finally reached Cocos Island on 23 January, 1795.  Water and coconuts were plentiful, and the ships stocked up.  Leaving four days later, they headed for the
Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador.  


The ships soon reached the Galapagos, but the shorelines of the islands were forbidding, so only a cursory stop was made.  They sailed away on 10 February.  After a week, Vancouver had become impatient with the slow sailing of Chatham, once more, and determined that the ships make their way independently to the Juan Fernandez Islands.  It would not be smooth sailing for Discovery, as there was a problem with her mainmast.  Chatham was able to catch up on 19 March, and sailed close by the larger ship.  A further problem developed with an outbreak of scurvy in Discovery, which caused Vancouver to change course, and head for Valparaiso on the west coast of Chile.  The port was reached on 26 March, and Vancouver was pleased to find a warm welcome from the Governor, Louis Alava, the brother of his fellow negotiator at Nootka six months earlier.  


Alava did not have the authority to sanction repairs to the ships, and sought it from Ambrosio O’Higgins, the Governor of Chile.  O’Higgins quickly agreed, and invited Vancouver to visit him in the capital, Santiago.  A small party of British officers set out on 3 April, and reached Santiago two days later.  O’Higgins had previously met the French explorer La Pérouse, and been one of the proponents of Malaspina’s Pacific voyage, so it was in character that he was interested to meet Vancouver, and learn about his voyage.  For nine days the British were treated as celebrities before returning to Valparaiso on 16 April.  The necessary repairs to Discovery were more extensive than first imagined, so Vancouver had to wait.  The fragile state of the ships forced Vancouver to abandon his other instructions to examine the coast of Chile.  Instead, on 7 May, 1795, he left Valparaiso intent on returning to Britain as quickly as possible.


Winter was approaching the southern hemisphere, so it was not a good time of year to be entering Antarctic waters.  The conditions were as bad as anticipated when the ships rounded Cape Horn on 29 May, and struck up the Atlantic for St. Helena.  On 9 June, the ships separated once more.  When Discovery reached St. Helena on 3 July, Chatham was also just arriving.


The war in Europe had continued.  France had conquered the Netherlands, meaning that both the Netherlands and the Dutch colony at the southern Cape of Africa, were now officially enemy territory.  Vancouver became involved in the capture of a Dutch East Indiaman, Macassar, which arrived shortly after Discovery.  The repercussions over who should receive part of the prize money lasted for several years, and Vancouver finally received his share only shortly before his death.  Vancouver made stores and tools available to a ship that was about to sail to the Cape.  His own ships needed further repairs, which were immediately carried out at St. Helena.


A merchantman, Orpheus, sailed from St. Helena on 11 July, with instructions for British troops in Sao Salvador, Brazil, who were waiting to go to the Cape to join an assault.  Chatham followed Orpheus to Brazil the following day, and there the ship was to join a convoy heading for Britain. James Johnstone was seconded from Chatham to sail Macassar to Britain.


Discovery sailed on 16 July.  Following Royal Navy practice, Vancouver had called for all the journals, diaries, and logbooks to be handed in as he had approached St. Helena, so they could be presented to the Admiralty.  The only person not to comply was Archibald Menzies, who maintained that he was answerable to Joseph Banks, and that all his journals belonged to Banks, and not the Admiralty.  Discovery made good progress north from St. Helena, and crossed the Equator on 25 July.  On 21 August, the ship joined a convoy that had left St. Helena a fortnight earlier, and Discovery sailed on toward Britain as part of that convoy.  They anchored in the River Shannon, in west Ireland, on 13 September, 1795.


The expedition was over.  Vancouver left his ship, and travelled to London, where he reported to the Admiralty.  Lieutenant Joseph Baker was entrusted with sailing Discovery from Shannon to the River Thames.  She anchored at Longreach on 20 October, before proceeding up to Deptford.  Chatham joined her there later that month.  Chatham had reached Brazil on 27 July, after a difficult crossing, during which signs of scurvy appeared.  The ship’s company was supplied with oranges, and other fruit to combat the scurvy.  Setting off on 19 August, Chatham avoided disaster on 18 September, when a fire broke out on board.  Quick thinking by James Robertson, the helmsman, put out the fire.  Puget brought Chatham into Plymouth on 16 October, and then sailed round to the Thames.  Meanwhile, James Johnstone brought Macassar safely to Britain on 22 November, 1795.


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). 
    Part three on page 22, vol. 37, no. 3 (2014). 
  2. Cook’s Log, page 3, vol. 33, no. 4 (2010). 

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 28, volume 37, number 4 (2014).

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