The Vancouver Expedition 1791-5
Following the signing of the Nookta Sound Convention which brought an end to the Spanish Armament in October 1790, the sloop Discovery, Commander George Vancouver, accompanied by a tender, the Chatham, Lieutenant William Broughton, were sent to reclaim those ‘buildings and tracts of land’ which had been confiscated two years previously by the Spanish from the British fur traders after they had attempted to set up a trading post in Nookta Sound on the north-west coast of America. In addition to this diplomatic task Commander Vancouver also had orders to negotiate with the local Spanish commander over Britain’s territorial claims in the region, and to undertake a survey of the coastline from the 30th parallel, two hundred miles south of modern day San Diego, to the Cooks River, near modern day Alaska. It was hoped that in so doing he would open up waterways leading into the interior, and might even discover the long-sought north-west passage.
Vancouver was a 33 year-old recently promoted master and commander who had sailed with Captain James Cook on his second and third voyages of exploration, and had subsequently seen service in the Leeward Islands during the American Revolutionary War, and then at Jamaica during the ensuing peace. On the latter station he had earned the patronage of Commodore Alan Gardner, who upon joining the Board of Admiralty had subsequently nominated him as second-in-command to Commander Henry Roberts when it had been proposed to send the Discovery on a voyage of exploration to the north-west American Coast in 1790. The Spanish Armament had temporarily delayed that expedition, and when news of the mutiny on the Bounty in the Pacific Ocean and the wrecking of the Guardian in the southern Indian Ocean had reached the Admiralty, it had been decided that the vulnerability of a lone ship on such a mission to the far side of the world was too great a risk, hence the addition of the Chatham. At this point Vancouver had been elevated to the command of the Discovery, and after kissing hands with the King at the beginning of 1791 he had taken command of his ships when they dropped down from the Thames to Portsmouth to take on provisions and men prior to their departure.
Joining Vancouver’s expedition were a host of promising young officers, many with experience of serving under Gardner in the West Indies, of whom lieutenants Zachary Mudge and Peter Puget, Master’s Mates Spelman Swaine, and Thomas Manby, and Midshipmen Robert Barrie, Volant Vashon Ballard, and John Sykes, would all in time reach flag rank. Vancouver’s third lieutenant Joseph Baker, would also enjoy a distinguished career, but the life of another midshipman, the Hon. Thomas Pitt, who had only so recently survived the wreck of the Guardian, would end in ignominy and tragedy. As the mutiny on the Bounty was also fresh in the Admiralty’s minds – it was after all just a few months since the Pandora 24, Captain Edward Edwards, had left for the Pacific Ocean to seek out Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers – a detachment of marines was attached to the expedition.
Reaching the north-west American coast would necessitate a voyage through the stormy southern oceans, but after eventually leaving Falmouth on 1 April 1791 the weather Vancouver encountered in the North Atlantic was equally adverse, and an intended visit to Madeira was aborted when his ships were blown straight past that island. Instead the expedition reached Tenerife at the end of April, but here, somewhat inauspiciously, a brawl with the Spanish guard and the local mob resulted in Vancouver being thrown off the quay into the water when he tried to intervene, and Lieutenant Baker receiving a serious injury. Departing unfriendly Tenerife on 7 May, the two ships traversed the equator three weeks later, and on 8 July reached the Cape where they replenished their stores over five weeks before leaving on 17 August.
More unfavourable weather was encountered in the voyage across the Indian Ocean until the two ships sighted the great continent of New Holland, the modern day Australia, at the end of September. Here Vancouver discovered and named King George’s Sound on the south-west coast, and he remained there for nearly two weeks wooding and watering. Sailing on thereafter for the south island of New Zealand, he took his ships into Dusky Sound, an inlet he knew well from his voyages with Captain Cook, and over the next three weeks he completed Cook’s earlier surveys whilst his ships again replenished their wood and water. Shortly after returning to sea the Chatham become detached in rough weather, and the Discovery only rejoined her once she reached Tahiti at the end of December, Lieutenant Broughton having brought his vessel in the day before after he had discovered and named the Chatham Islands, some five hundred miles to the east of New Zealand.
At Tahiti, being mindful of the underlying reasons for the mutiny on the Bounty, the strict Vancouver prohibited visits ashore, and to the horror of his lustful seaman he forbade any communication with the promiscuous local women. When the mischievous Hon. Thomas Pitt was caught trying his luck he was sentenced to two dozen lashes before the assembled officers, which ruthless punishment would ultimately lead to the famous ‘Caneing in Conduit Street’ four years later when the outraged midshipman, who by then had become the ennobled Lord Camelford, sought retribution.
Leaving Tahiti in the last week of January, the Discovery and Chatham reached the Sandwich Islands, which were well known to Vancouver, at the beginning of March, and in avoiding the bay where Captain Cook had been slain by the natives they set about re-provisioning. On this occasion they stayed but a few days before proceeding across the northern Pacific, so that by 17 April they were off the coast of New Albion near the present-day Seattle, where putting aside for the moment the diplomatic aspect of the mission, Vancouver and his surveyors took to the ships’ boats and began charting. In working their way northwards Puget Sound was explored and named, as was Vancouver Island, the Broughton Archipelago, and Johnstone’s Strait in honour of the Chatham’s sailing master, whilst the naming of other discoveries, such as Howe Sound, the Hood Canal and the Jervis Inlet, bore testimony to the reputation of senior serving officers back home. In June the expedition encountered two Spanish vessels engaged in similar exploratory work, and putting aside their previous differences the two parties worked together until the middle of July, whereupon they shared their results.
On 6 August a potential disaster to the expeditionary force was averted when the Discovery went aground in Queen Charlotte Sound at the north end of Vancouver Island, but with the assistance of the Chatham she was heaved off without any great injury. The relief must have been tempered however when the two ships entered Nookta Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island on 28 August, for although they were happy to find at anchor the store-ship Daedalus, which had come out from England, they soon learned the desperate news that her commander, Lieutenant Richard Hergest, together with an astronomer, had been murdered when touching at Oahu in the Sandwich Islands.
At Nookta Sound negotiations began with the Spanish commandant, Don Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, yet although some minor issues were quickly settled in line with written instructions Vancouver had delivered from the Spanish prime minister, the Count of Florida Blanca, the cordial discussions otherwise made little progress. Playing on the ambiguity of the Nookta Sound Convention, Bodega declared that as no buildings had been seized from the fur traders, nor tracts of land claimed by them, there was nothing he could restore to the British, and as such all of Nookta Sound should remain a Spanish possession. Additionally, the two officers could not agree on a border between the Spanish and British territories, for Bodega insisted that it should be set at the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the modern day border between Canada and the USA, whilst Vancouver claimed that King George should have the rights to all land north of San Francisco. Little else could be done other than send home Lieutenant Zachary Mudge to seek further clarification, and after setting off in a tiny Portuguese trader this officer eventually reached England from India in June 1793 aboard the East Indiaman Lord Macartney.
On 12 October 1792 Vancouver departed Nookta Sound and headed south for the tiny new Spanish settlements of San Francisco and Monterey. Here he was surprisingly well received, and was even able to venture some twenty miles inland on horseback. Having briefly parted company to survey the Columbia River, which forms the modern day border between the states of Oregon and Washington, the Chatham rejoined the Discovery at San Francisco, and in January 1793 Lieutenant Broughton was sent home through Mexico with despatches for the Admiralty. Setting sail once more, and with Lieutenant Puget in command of the Chatham, the expedition reached the Sandwich Islands on 12 February where it was planned to winter. During the following month Vancouver toured through the islands, and after despatching the Chatham to Nookta Sound as spring approached he sailed the Discovery to Oahu, on which island the two men from the Daedalus had been murdered. Here he demanded, and received, the perpetrators of this crime, who were then brought before a court, convicted, and executed.
Towards the end of May 1793 the Discovery and Chatham made a rendezvous in Burke’s Channel, some one hundred and fifty miles north of Vancouver Island, and taking advantage of the spring and summer weather they ventured as far north as the current Port Protection on the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island, thereby studying the coasts of modern day British Columbia and the south-eastern region of Alaska. Hundreds of discoveries were made as the surveyors progressed up the coast, and as usual many of them were given the names of naval officers back home, hence the Affleck, Gardner and Duncan Canals. Disappointingly however, a north-west passage still eluded Vancouver.
During this part of the survey another potential disaster was averted on 12 August when Vancouver’s boat was taking soundings at the mouth of a river south of Revillagigedo Island, and it was decided to venture ashore to cook dinner. Whilst rowing inshore Vancouver and his companions noticed a couple of natives lurking on the beach, but considering them not to be a threat they took the boat on into shallow waters. Suddenly a group of natives attired in war dress and paint, and sporting clubs, spears and bows, broke out of concealment and ran onto the beach. With no time to withdraw Vancouver decided that the situation required an appearance of strength, and he ordered the arms chest to be opened. Undaunted, the natives rushed into the water, grabbed hold of the boat and clambered underneath the oars to prevent them being plied. Vancouver attempted to diffuse the menacing situation by opening a dialogue, but he was quickly struck down by a war-club, and then one of his seamen was pinned to the side of the boat by a spear through his thigh.
Luckily a second boat containing amongst others Lieutenant Puget, Acting-Lieutenant Swaine, Midshipman Sykes and the botanist Archibald Menzies, had been surveying another bay close by, and at this crucial moment, with the natives on the brink of perpetrating a bloody massacre, it appeared around the point. Beholding a midshipman and his companion levelling their pistols from the sternsheets of Vancouver’s boat at a couple of natives, and seeing the latter stood stock still with spears raised and poised for launching, Puget’s men immediately opened fire. At this volley the natives fled in some disorder, allowing Vancouver’s boat to push back into deeper water and make good its escape.
Leaving Port Protection on 21 September as winter came on, the Discovery and the Chatham voyaged south via Nookta Sound to San Francisco where they reunited with the Daedalus. They then spent a month exploring the Californian coast to the southward before heading once more for the Sandwich Islands, which they reached in early January 1794. Here Vancouver indulged King Kamehameha with the construction of a 36-foot schooner, and such was the enhancement of their already amicable relationship that the king offered to cede the islands to King George. Yet other relationships were not so amicable, and on 7 February the troublesome and much-disciplined Midshipman Pitt was dismissed his ship and placed aboard the Daedalus, which two days later departed with several other midshipmen for New Holland. She eventually returned to Plymouth in July 1795 after a seven month passage, but without Pitt who had chosen to remain in the East Indies, and who had found employment aboard the Resistance 44, Captain Edward Pakenham.
Spring came and once more the expedition set off for the north-west American coast, although within a few days the Discovery and Chatham separated. Vancouver headed for the most northerly point yet to be explored and he spent a month surveying the mighty and icy Cook Inlet on the southern coast of Alaska, reaching a point beyond the modern-day Anchorage. On 6 May, having encountered some Russian fur traders, the Chatham rejoined the Discovery in the inlet and the two ships then sailed for Prince William Sound on the eastern side of the Kenai Peninsula to chart that waterway over the next month. Unfortunately the freezing weather was by now affecting their supplies, and when the elements did change it was only to deliver heavy rain which hampered the efforts of the various surveyors and did little for Vancouver’s increasingly poor health. Separating once more in early June, the two ships eased their way southwards to rendezvous off Cross Sound on 8 July where they began the final set of surveys that would complete the exploration of the whole coast. When Port Conclusion on Baranof Island was appropriately named by Vancouver it signalled an end to their work, and they returned to Nookta Sound at the beginning of September. Here, for over a month, Vancouver tarried whilst awaiting further orders from England, but with none forthcoming it was decided to finally take their leave.
The long voyage home now began. Mexico was left behind in December 1794 and the Galapagos Islands were visited in early February 1795, but at about the same time scurvy broke out aboard the Discovery, and on 25 March the two vessels anchored in Valparaiso to recuperate and take on fresh supplies. Vancouver’s original orders had included a clause that he should not visit any Spanish territories, but as well as her crew’s sickness the Discovery’s mainmast was in such a poor condition that he had little choice. As it happened, the captain-general, Don Ambrosio O’Higgins, accorded the British every courtesy, but it was not until 7 May that the Discovery was able to sail, with the recoverable parts of her rotten mainyard having been fished to a spare topsail yard in order to form a new mainyard.
By 2 July the Discovery and Chatham were at St. Helena following a rough passage around Cape Horn that had seen them separate once more, and upon learning that Britain was at war they fortuitously shared in the capture of a Dutch East Indiaman. The Chatham soon set sail again, on 12 July, to join a convoy that was congregating at Brazil, and the Discovery departed four days later to make her own way north. On 21 August she providentially fell in with a convoy that had left St. Helena in July under the escort of the Sceptre 64, Captain William Essington, and this carried her to the River Shannon in Ireland where Vancouver left his ship to travel overland to England, arriving at the Admiralty on 18 September. A month later, on 17 October, the Chatham reached England, and three days after her happy return the Discovery came into the Thames under the command of Lieutenant Baker.
Despite the success of the expedition in terms of the exploration undertaken, it had not been without its difficulties. Vancouver’s excessive use of flogging as a means of maintaining discipline might well have resulted in him suffering the fate of Captain William Bligh of the Bounty if his crew had been so disposed, whilst his failure to earn his men’s respect had resulted in their ignoring his guidance regarding nutrition, and had led to the subsequent outbreak of scurvy. Continuing in poor health after his arrival home he suffered the ‘Caneing in Conduit Street’ at the hands of the erratic Lord Camelford in September 1796, and in general suffered the wrath of the hugely influential Pitt family for his earlier treatment of Camelford, and for his inability to conclude the negotiations with the Spanish in Nookta Sound.
Such was the deterioration in his health that before he had even completed the account of the voyage Vancouver died on 10 May 1798, and the task of finishing it fell to his brother, John, and to the promoted Captain Puget, who in the following autumn published the work ‘Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World’.