Madness, betrayal and the Lash: the Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver. Bown, Stephen. 2008

Madness, betrayal and the Lash: the Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver. Bown, Stephen. 2008

Bown, Stephen. 
Madness, betrayal and the Lash: the Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver.
Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver. 
ISBN 978-1-55365-339-4.

At the back of this book the author provides the reader with a series of notes on the source material used for the different sections of Vancouver's life. In introducing these notes, Bown points out that his role as a popular historian has been to blend scholarship with storytelling. He admits that he has not discovered any new documentation to change the known history of Vancouver's voyage. But he claims to have brought a new and modern interpretation of the significant events that happened during and after the voyage. The Canadian author, like many of his contemporaries has also reappraised the role of the indigenous peoples, and addressed some of the previous Eurocentric mistakes. The result is a story with a strong human narrative of how one man successfully battled against nature and the elements only to suffer ignominy and defeat at the hands of his "peers".

The book begins with several chapters setting the background to the era of Pacific exploration in the late 18th century. Cook features prominently as Vancouver sailed with him as an AB on Resolution on the Second Voyage and as a junior midshipman on Resolution on the Third Voyage. Thereafter Cook hardly receives a direct mention, though several of his officers do. Colnett, Dixon, Portlock and Henry Roberts are amongst those who appear briefly, and whom Brown classes as Cook's "alumni".

The early voyages of exploration were quickly followed by voyages of exploitation as merchants from Britain and America sought the alchemist's dream whereby base metals were transmuted into gold. This process was slightly more complicated than the alchemists had realised as it involved trading the base metals for sea otter skins which brought a fortune when sold in China. This unregulated trade, this unseemly scramble for wealth by private merchants eventually resulted in the Nootka Sound Incident and brought Britain and Spain to the brink of war.

The majority of the book is devoted to Vancouver's famous voyage that resulted in his detailed mapping of the west coast of what is now Canada and Alaska. Vancouver was obviously a man driven to prove himself in this unique opportunity. But he appears to have been more focussed on his cartography than the onboard relations with his company. Whereas Cook became a father figure to his "people", Vancouver became loathed and despised for his strict discipline. Bown queries whether Vancouver was not so much a disciplinarian as somebody who was frightened of falling foul of the Admiralty by not obeying his instructions to the letter. And when Vancouver found himself in a situation where he had no instructions he chose inaction rather than risking an inappropriate course of action.

Vancouver's voyage (1791-95) lasted 4 years and covered 60,000 miles. Much happened on Discovery but even more had happened in Britain. Vancouver returned to find the country embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars with little interest in a captain who had been away for four years. Vancouver was not to know that Thomas Pitt, an unruly midshipman who he had punished on several occasions, had inherited his late father's title (Lord Camelford), his estate, and his fortune, until Vancouver received a letter inviting him to a duel. It was the start of Camelford's private and public persecution of his captain, a story that the press found far more newsworthy than Vancouver's voyage. It appears that the power of the press in destroying an individual's reputation was just as great then as it is today. Camelford's persecution of Vancouver (aided and abetted by Joseph Banks) only exacerbated the captain's ill health, and brought him to an early grave in 1798. He was only 41 years old.

The author has achieved almost all that he set out to do. The inter-personal conflicts on board Discovery provide a strong storyline and are just as fascinating as the naval challenges encountered on the voyage. But it is clear that one of the author's goals has yet to be achieved. He closes his book with the sentence "He (Vancouver) accomplished great things and, as our historical and cultural ancestor, he deserves a greater place in our collective memory." So I was saddened to learn that the author has so far failed to find a publisher for his book in the UK. They tell him that Vancouver is not well enough known for them to risk publication. It looks as if Banks's attempt to expunge Vancouver from the pages of naval history has been a success!

Cliff Thornton

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 20, volume 31, number 4 (2008).

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