Cook’s Legacy: furs, discovery and conflict.
I was intrigued by this book’s Introduction. The author had written it as an homage to her late husband Conrad Dixon. He had been a keen yachtsman, who qualified at Trinity House as a Coastal Skipper, and wrote several books for fellow yachtsmen. His affinity with the sea was so great that he wondered if he might have been descended from Captain George Dixon (1748-1795) of “Portlock & Dixon” fame. Several years after her husband’s death the author, accompanied by her daughter, visited the west coast of British Columbia to follow in the steps of Captain George Dixon’s voyage of 1785-1788.
The rest of the Introduction then becomes a travelogue as the author describes her visit to Vancouver Island, followed by a journey, alternating by ship and car, to reach Graham Island. Numerous places and venues on this island are named after George Dixon. Winifred’s visit culminated on the north coast of the island, where she stood looking across Dixon Entrance. Although Winifred does not say so, it is a vast inlet of the Pacific Ocean that was named Dixon Strait by Sir Joseph Banks in 1788, in honour of the Captain.
The author writes well, and the limited account of her travels gives the reader a good feel for the countryside she is travelling through. However, her frequent references to towns and geographical features would have been more appreciated if the book had contained a simple map to show the route of her journey.
I looked forward to reading more of Winifred on her travels as she ventured further north, visiting the places where Captain Dixon had once been. But it was not to be. All but one of the subsequent chapters are devoted to recounting Captain Dixon’s voyage to the west coast of America in his ship Queen Charlotte. Dixon’s command was a 200-ton snow, companion to King George (320 ton) commanded by Nathaniel Portlock, the leader of this fur-collecting expedition.
The author makes no secret that her account of Captain Dixon’s voyage is based upon a book published in 1789.1 Indeed, she even points out that very little of this book was actually written by him. Apart from the captain’s historical introduction, his book is a compilation of 49 letters written by William Beresford, the trader assigned to the Queen Charlotte. Beresford had not been to sea before, so his eyes were open to all sorts of details that might have been overlooked by more experienced eyes.
I suspect that the author sailed with her husband on their 10-metre ketch, as she writes with the confidence of somebody who has been to sea and “knows the ropes”. Her interpretation of the Queen Charlotte voyage introduces the reader to the stark realities of life at sea, where a voyage can take far, far longer than expected due to the vagaries of tide, wind and weather. Her book taught me that one of the essential prerequisites of the captains of sail was a considerable degree of patience, something that I had not grasped from Cook’s journals.
Winifred’s book is not confined to the voyage of George Dixon as, where useful, the author introduces tales of other captains who sailed these icy waters. The vessels of Cook, Meares and Vancouver all sail across her pages as part of the story. If only we could have followed their respective voyages with the aid of a map!
In Chapter 27 the book’s historical story concludes with an account of the Nootka Incident and its subsequent resolution. In 1789, Spanish warships at Nootka Sound impounded four British merchant ships, and imprisoned their crew. The Spanish captains claimed that the British ships were infringing their territorial rights to the west coast. When news of the Spanish action reached London there was uproar in Parliament and amongst the public. The Government’s demand for the release of the British ships and their companies was the start of protracted negotiations with Spain. They came to a rapid conclusion once Spain realised that Britain was assembling a large fleet, and was prepared to go to war over this issue. The subsequent Nootka Convention recognised that both nations had the right to commerce, navigation and settlement on the Pacific coast, north of the Spanish settlement at San Francisco.
Then, in Chapter 28 Winifred resumes her personal exploration of British Columbia. It is two years after her first visit. She describes her trip around Nootka Sound in the ferry Uchuck III, which was followed by a trip in another ferry from Port Rupert to Juneau, and finally a trip in the ferry Queen of the North further north to Anchorage. This chapter is another travelogue, with surprisingly little mention of Captain Dixon.
The book concludes with the information that George Dixon ended his days in Bermuda in the 1790s. There, he established himself as a jeweller, drawing on the skills he had learned during his apprenticeship to a silversmith 40 years previously. It was at Bermuda that Dixon died in 1795. As his wife had predeceased him, their only child, their daughter Marianna, was left an orphan. There is no evidence that she had any children, so Conrad Dixon is not a descendant of Captain George Dixon. However, the author likes to think that Captain Dixon may have had a son, and Conrad is descended from him.
For the benefit of any landlubbers reading her book, Winifred has included a useful glossary of maritime terms. There is also a bibliography of over 40 books which the author consulted during the course of her research. There are three indexes, one for ships, one for individuals, and a third, general, index.
I do not think that this book adds anything to the existing knowledge about Cook and those who followed him, but it makes for an interesting read—if you have a map of British Columbia to hand.
- Dixon, George. A voyage round the world but more particularly to the north-west coast of America: performed in 1785, 1786, 1787, and 1788, in the King George and Queen Charlotte, Captains Portlock and Dixon. 1789.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 29, volume 43, number 3 (2020).