Home > George Vancouver (1757-1798) Part 5: After the Voyage

George Vancouver (1757-1798) Part 5: After the Voyage


Return to England


In September, 1795, Vancouver hastened from Ireland to London to present his initial reports to the Admiralty about his voyage to the Northwest Coast of North America.  Among his first actions were recommendations for promotion for many of those who had accompanied him on the expedition.  During the voyage, several men had been promoted temporarily, and Vancouver sought to have these appointments confirmed, and other men rewarded.  In contrast to the promotions, he asked for a court-martial for Archibald Menzies, the ship’s surgeon and naturalist, in connection with some of their disagreements, but especially because Menzies had refused to hand over his journals.  However, Menzies apologised in October, and Vancouver withdrew the court-martial request.


Most of the immediate duties associated with the end of the voyage were completed, and the company was paid off on 3 November, 1795.  Vancouver himself went on half pay the next day.  As his health was poor, he travelled to Bristol a few weeks later to partake of the hot springs.  In January, 1796, he learned that the Spanish were accusing him of not paying costs incurred by British deserters in California.  The matter was soon resolved, and the Navy Board paid the money.


Vancouver realised the need to be nearer London, and in February moved to Petersham, next to Richmond Park, just to the southwest of London.  He lived in Glen Cottage in River Lane.  This move proved ironic, in that the family of his nemesis, Thomas Pitt, had recently owned Petersham Lodge, a house only 250 metres away on the other side of the village. 


Vancouver was not a rich man, and it took two years for the Admiralty to pay his wages for all his time at sea from 1791 to 1795.  He wrote many letters over the next few years to the Admiralty pressing the case for his wages, and other money to which he felt entitled.  It took until early 1798, shortly before his death, before he received his share of the prize money for Macassar, the ship he captured off St. Helena. 


The Admiralty determined that the narrative of Vancouver’s voyage should be prepared for publication, and instructed Vancouver to write it.  This step was strange, as previous British voyages had not been written up by the naval officers concerned, but by other people recruited for the task.  In early 1796, Vancouver began working in his new home in Petersham.  At this time, it was expected that Menzies would be preparing his journals and natural history notes into a companion volume, but he never produced anything for publication, and his journals remain largely unpublished.  Joseph Baker, with assistance from Peter Puget, produced final versions of the charts, and Vancouver was given permission to organise them to be engraved.  Similarly, the views drawn by Sykes, Humphrys, Heddington and Mudge were engraved, and made ready for publication.


Vancouver drew very closely upon his own journals for much of the text.  Where illness or other reasons prevented him from having been present at an event, he quoted, with acknowledgment, the journal of one of his colleagues who was present.  His poor health meant that writing was a strain, and a slow process, so his brother, John, moved to Petersham in March, 1797, to help.


In late 1796, another interruption occurred, with the return of Thomas Pitt, the midshipman whom Vancouver had sent home on Daedalus from Hawai`i.  While still on his way home, Pitt wrote a letter in June, 1796, from Dalmatia, in which he challenged Vancouver to a duel.  Vancouver’s nemesis was a member of the most powerful family in the country, the Pitts.  His brother-in-law was Lord Grenville, the Foreign Secretary; one cousin was William Pitt the Younger, the Prime Minister; another cousin was the Earl of Chatham, who had just finished a term as the First Sea Lord.  While Pitt had been away, his father had died, so he had returned to find he had succeeded to the title of Baron Camelford.


Influential friends had already begun pleading Camelford’s case for reward and promotion, despite his dismal performance on the voyage.  Vancouver received the challenge for the duel after the date set down for it to take place, but made it known he would not have accepted it anyway.  Vancouver maintained he had acted with total propriety throughout the voyage, and had nothing to answer for.  On 1 September, Camelford arrived at Vancouver’s Petersham address, confronted him, and again challenged him to a duel. 


Letters were exchanged as Vancouver became more concerned and afraid.  Lord Grenville sided with Vancouver, and tried to calm his brother-in-law, while details of the affair were forwarded to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Loughborough.  However, on 21 September, George and Charles Vancouver were walking in Conduit Street when Camelford attacked them.  Camelford actually came off the worst, but the incident was made infamous by the cartoonist, James Gillray, who drew a caricature portraying George Vancouver as a coward.  Camelford was reprimanded by the Lord Chancellor, and bound over to keep the peace. 


Tremendous damage was done to Vancouver’s reputation by the cartoon and by newspapers that reported the incidents in ways very prejudicial to him.  Other incorrect reports began to appear, including one that stated a mutiny had occurred in Discovery.  Camelford turned his attentions to Charles Vancouver, and tried to provoke him into a duel.  Thankfully for the Vancouvers, Camelford sailed for the West Indies in June, 1797.


Camelford was an arrogant, bad-tempered, violent, and deranged young man.  It is possible that Vancouver was the first person who ever denied him anything, and the first to discipline him.  Camelford’s reaction was to deem Vancouver his enemy.  He went on to have a stormy and dishonourable career in the Navy, including the murder of a fellow officer in Antigua.  Somehow, probably through family influence, he was let off to carry on as before.  Finally, in 1804, he was killed in duel.  However, his influence had already had terrible effects on Vancouver, ridiculed in newspapers, by members of London society, and the Navy. 


Vancouver withdrew further from society life, and concentrated on writing the narrative of the voyage.  Unfortunately, he died on 12 May, 1798, before he had finished preparing the text.  His manuscript covered as far as mid-1795, when the expedition reached Valparaiso.  His brother John, who had been assisting him for some time, completed the preparations, with assistance from Peter Puget.  The narrative, A Voyage of Discovery,2 was published in August, or September, 1798.  It was generally well received in Britain, though one reviewer, still believing in the existence of the Northwest Passage, criticised Vancouver for not having investigated certain parts of the coast.  A second edition was published in 1801, and it was also quickly translated, appearing in France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. 


George Vancouver was buried on 18 May, 1798, in the churchyard of St. Peter’s, Petersham.  No doctor’s report from the time survives, and no official cause of death was ever stated.  Writers since then have tried to analyse the evidence to determine the cause of death, and for some time, a hyperthyroid condition was felt to have been the illness that killed him.  However, John Naish, himself a doctor, has suggested that Vancouver died from renal (kidney) failure caused by chronic nephritis.  Renal damage is often associated with malaria, and other tropical illnesses that Vancouver no doubt had contact with during his time in the unhealthy climate of the Caribbean.  The conditions on board an eighteenth century ship for four years, together with the stress of leadership, would have combined to exacerbate any original complaint.  Vancouver made out a will a few days before his death.  His two brothers, Charles and John, and two of his sisters, Sarah and Mary, were his beneficiaries. 


Assessment of the Voyage


George Vancouver led one of the most brilliant marine surveying expeditions of all time.  This fact, which seems obvious to anyone inspecting the charts produced, and reading the narrative of the voyage, has not always been acknowledged.  Certainly, in his own lifetime, Vancouver was never given the credit he deserved, and even suffered criticism, and ridicule in the immediate aftermath of his return to Britain.  Unfortunately, most assessments of Vancouver’s voyage at the time, and over the 200 years since then, have been distorted or, at least, influenced by (to use horrible modern jargon) his poor people skills.  He has not, therefore, received the praise and attention that is due to him.  Added to which, there has been the tendency in the English-speaking world to concentrate on James Cook, at the expense of other explorers.  Vancouver is just one of several who have been neglected. 


The voyage had two objectives when the ships set sail in 1791.  The first was to represent Britain at Nootka in negotiations with the Spanish, with respect to implementing the Nootka Sound Convention.  Vancouver patiently dealt with a series of Spanish officers, all of whom showed little inclination to comply with the directives of the Convention.  Vancouver was helpless to enforce anything, and the British Government gave no further assistance or guidance over the next three years.  The British were far more concerned with events in Europe, and Vancouver and Nootka were forgotten.  Vancouver had been given a thankless task, and nobody could have done more in the circumstances. 


It was in the other objective that Vancouver triumphed.  He had been instructed to survey the Northwest Coast of America, and in doing so, was to prove or disprove, once and for all, the existence of the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.  Over three years, Vancouver and his company surveyed the whole coast from California to Alaska, including the maze of inlets and islands north of 50˚N latitude.  The charts that they produced were magnificent in their comprehensiveness and accuracy.  They had drawn upon earlier work by James Cook, the Spanish, and the fur traders, but the majority of the work was done by Vancouver’s team.  The Northwest Passage was shown not to exist or, at least, not south of 65˚N latitude.  In searching for the Passage, Vancouver employed the action of following the continental shore, thereby charting every twist and turn of the shoreline.  In doing this, a few offshore islands were neglected, which is a minor criticism.  The charts are testimony to Vancouver, Puget, Whidbey, Johnstone, Broughton, Baker, and the rest of the men who rowed for thousands of kilometres to create them. 


Vancouver achieved something else not included in the objectives of the voyage.  The friendship that developed between him and the Hawaiian King Kamehameha created the possibility that Hawai`i would become a British ally in the Pacific.  Kamehameha even declared his allegiance to Britain.  However, the British Government was not interested in Hawai`i, or even the Pacific, when Vancouver returned to Britain.  Nobody ever followed up on Vancouver’s initiatives, allowing Hawai`i to fall into the American sphere of influence. 


After the voyage, Vancouver was accused of strict, even harsh, treatment of his ship’s company.  He employed a strict regimen aboard ship, largely to keep control and prevent mutiny.  The mutiny on HMS Bounty had taken place only two years earlier, and Vancouver was, no doubt, not prepared to suffer the same fate as William Bligh.  He appears to have generated a certain respect from his officers, and from much of the ship’s company, even if he had few friends among them.  He does not seem to have been a man particularly at ease with fellow officers, and his background, compared with the upper class background of some of his midshipmen, would not have eased matters.  On top of which, the illness that affected Vancouver throughout the voyage obviously compounded the problems of four years living in close proximity, under awful conditions. 


Vancouver even made enemies of some on board.  Surgeon’s mates and clerks made criticisms, but they had little opportunity to cause trouble for Vancouver.  It was different for some of his midshipmen, and the naturalist on board, Archibald Menzies, who were related to, or knew people who could hurt him.  Vancouver had done his cause no good by alienating Joseph Banks, Menzies’ benefactor, even before the expedition started.  Banks was an extremely powerful and influential person in London society in the 1790s, with close friends in Government, and the Admiralty.  He could, and probably did, make life very difficult for Vancouver, when Vancouver returned to London.


How Vancouver is remembered


Any assessment of George Vancouver must be based largely on an assessment of his voyage to the Pacific between 1791 and 1795.  In most other regards, his life was uneventful, and very similar to many others who served in the Royal Navy.  Indeed, not much is known of his life prior to the voyage.  The negativity that surrounded him at the end of his life in 1798 ensured that no biography was written of him for over a hundred years, thus denying contemporaries the opportunity to comment, and allowing sources of information to disappear. 


Even Vancouver’s detractors on a personal level have all praised the cartographic achievements of the voyage, which produced a portfolio of charts and detailed descriptions of one of the most intricate coastlines in the world.  He had gone to the Pacific to help resolve the Nootka crisis, and it is most appropriate that the large island where Nootka Sound is situated should now carry his name.  He, himself, had suggested that Bodega y Quadra, his fellow negotiator, should also be honoured, but I feel sure Bodega would not begrudge Vancouver the sole right.  Vancouver Island lies astride the 49th parallel, the dividing line between Canada and the United States, which is fitting, as he did much to delineate the outlines of those two countries. 


Vancouver Island hides the Strait of Georgia
from the Pacific Ocean.  When the Canadians were building their transcontinental railway in the late 1800s, they arrived at the Strait of Georgia, between Burrard Inlet and the mouth of the Fraser River.  It was there that the terminus was built.  The great city, which grew up around that terminus, is Vancouver.

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)
    Part four on page 28, vol. 37, no. 4 (2014). 
  2. Vancouver, George.  A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World; in which the Coast of North-West America has been Carefully Examined and Accurately Surveyed....  1798. 
    See Cook’s Log page 1232, vol. 19, no. 1 (1996). 

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 14, volume 38, number 1 (2015).

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