Voyages of Exploration

George Vancouver, from A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World 1791–1795 (1798)

George Vancouver (1757–1798) was just fourteen when he was offered what any sailor might consider the chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to sail as midshipman with the now-famous Captain James Cook on his second voyage, in the ship Resolution. Aboard Cook's ship, Vancouver learned the craft of sailing, and was trained in the officer's arts of surveying, drawing, and astronomy by the astronomer William Wales.

During Cook's third and last voyage — a voyage made legendary by Cook's violent death in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) — Vancouver sailed in Resolution's companion ship Discovery. The incidents leading up to Cook's death mirror those of an earlier cross-cultural encounter during his first voyage to Tahiti, during which Cook took several local leaders hostage until both his men and goods removed from the ship were returned. Although no one cause can be assigned as instrumental in Cook's death, it appears that Cook's attempt to take King Kariopoo hostage until his ship's stolen cutter was returned caused the Hawaiians to believe that their leader was about to be executed, and Cook was attacked with stones, clubs, and the knives he had earlier traded to the Hawaiians. Scraps of Cook's body and his burnt bones were returned to the ship many days after his death on February 14, 1779. Vancouver continued to admire Cook and to regret his loss for the rest of his life.

Vancouver advanced quickly through the naval ranks during his service in the West Indies during the American War of Independence, and was appointed commander of a voyage to seek the fabled Northwest Passage in 1791. Vancouver was sent to find this trade route and to draft an accurate survey of the region occupying 30º to 60º latitude at a time of intense international pressure to claim the area for the purpose of trading in furs. On Cook's third voyage (in which Cook also sought a northwest passage over the top of North America, to facilitate European trade with Asia), several sailors had found that the sea otter pelts they had gained in North America were highly valuable in China. The northwest coast of North America, particularly the Nootka Sound region, took on new luster as a potential area for pursuing trade with the Orient in the eyes of several European nations. Spain laid claim to the entire western coast of North America; Russia was also pressing down from Alaska.

On his voyage to North America, Vancouver followed in his mentor Cook's wake, touching at Tahiti, and adding detail to Cook's previous surveys of Australia and New Zealand. The North American island that Vancouver circumnavigated and charted with great accuracy now bears his name, as does a major Canadian city. Another event with lasting historical significance occurred during Vancouver's return voyage. Despite his grief for Cook, Vancouver had a good opinion of the Hawaiian peoples, and maintained friendly relations with them throughout his career. On February 21, 1794, a council of chiefs was held aboard Vancouver's ship, Discovery, and Hawaiian leaders decided to form a strategic protective alliance between the islands of Owhyhee (Hawaii) and Britain. Vancouver and his men viewed this as a cession, planted the British colors, and took formal possession of the islands in the king's name. Vancouver returned to England, having, remarkably, lost only one man to disease during a voyage of four years, eight months, and twenty-nine days. He immediately began to write his memoirs.

Because of his personal association with Cook, it seems probable that Vancouver was familiar with the popular version of Cook's journal published by Hawkesworth in 1773. Hawkesworth's edition indiscriminately tumbles together Cook's narrative with those of several other observers as well as Hawkesworth's own inventions. Whether from a desire to create an authentic, unmediated account of his voyage, a wish to quell rising scandal about his harsh shipboard discipline, or for some other reason, when he returned from his voyage, George Vancouver determined to revise his own journals for publication. He spent the next four years, until his early death at the age of forty, doing so. His brother published Vancouver's revised journals as A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World in the Years 1790–1795 in 1798. His original journals are missing.

The excerpt below gives a sense of Vancouver's surveying techniques. Small boats, or pinnaces, were sent out from the main ship to chart shallow inlets. The phrase "taking an angle" refers to the trigonometry calculations necessary to obtain the height or depth or extent of local landmarks. It is also obvious from Vancouver's retelling of Mr. Whidbey's encounter with the Skagit people that despite the competing claims of various European nations to sovereignty and control of coastal trade, there were already traders working and living on the North American coast.

[Saratoga Passage and Penn Cove, 1792]

Mr. Whidbey informed me, that . . . [h]aving advanced about four miles, they found, on a low projecting point of the western shore, a village containing a numerous tribe of the natives. But as my orders, as well as the general inclination of the officers, were to prevent by all possible means the chance of any misunderstanding, it was the uniform practice to avoid landing in the presence of considerable numbers; and as it was now the dinner time of our party, Mr. Whidbey very prudently made choice of the opposite shore, in the hope of making a quiet meal without the company of the Indians. Having reached the place where they intended to land, they were met by upwards of two hundred, some in their canoes with their families, and others walking along the shore, attended by about forty dogs in a drove, shorn close to the skin like sheep. Notwithstanding their numbers, it was important to land for the purpose of taking angles; and they had the satisfaction of being received on shore with every mark of cordial friendship. Mr. Whidbey however, thought it prudent to remain no longer in their society than was absolutely necessary; and having finished the business for which he had landed, he instantly embarked, and continued his route up the inlet until the evening, when he landed for the night about nine miles within its entrance. In the morning they again pursued their inquiry, and soon after they had landed to breakfast, they were visited by a large canoe full of Indians, who were immediately followed by an hundred more of the natives, bringing with them the mats for covering their temporary houses, and seemingly, every other article of value belonging to them.

On landing, which they did without the least hesitation, their behaviour was courteous and friendly in the highest degree. A middle-aged man, to all appearance the chief or principal person of the party, was foremost in shewing marks of the greatest hospitality; and perceiving our party were at breakfast, presented them with water, roasted roots, dried fish, and other articles of food. This person, in return, received some presents, and others were distributed amongst the ladies and some of the party. The chief, for so we must distinguish him, had two hangers, one of Spanish, the other of English manufacture, on which he seemed to set a very high value. The situation of the spot where they had landed was delightful; the shores on each side the inlet being composed of a low country, pleasingly diversified by hills, dales, extensive verdant lawns, and clear spaces in the midst of the forest, which, together with the cordial reception they had met from the natives, induced Mr. Whidbey to continue his examination on shore; on this occasion he was accompanied by the chief and several of the party, who conducted themselves with the greatest propriety; though with no small degree of civil curiosity in examining his clothes, and expressing a great desire to be satisfied as to the colour of the skin they covered; making signs, that his hands and face were painted white, instead of being black or red like their own; but when convinced of their mistake by opening his waistcoat, their astonishment was inexpressible. From these circumstances, and the general tenor of their behaviour, Mr. Whidbey concluded they had not before seen any Europeans, though, from the different articles they possessed, it was evident a communication had taken place; probably by the means of distinct trading tribes. The people, who had been met in that inlet removing with their families, and all their moveable property, were not unlikely to be of this commercial description; particularly, as their voyage was towards the sea-coast, where, in some convenient situation near to the general resort of Europeans, they might fix their abode until an opportunity was afforded them to barter their commodities for the more valuable productions of Europe, which are afterwards disposed of to the inhabitants of the interior country at a very exorbitant price. This circumstance tends, in some degree, to corroborate an opinion hazarded on a former occasion to this effect.

On the boats being ordered on shore to receive Mr. Whidbey and the gentlemen who had attended him in his walk, the launch grounded, which was no sooner perceived by the Indian chief, than he was foremost in using every exertion to shove her off. This being effected, and the gentlemen embarked, most of these good people took their leave, and seemed to part with their newly-acquired friends with great reluctance. The chief, and a few others, accompanied our party, until they had advanced about fourteen miles from the entrance, when they, very civilly, took their departure; here the arm branched off from its former direction of about N.N.W., to the westward, and N.E. The latter being the object of their pursuit, they soon arrived off another extensive and populous village, whence several canoes came off with not less than seventy of the natives in them; and several others were seen coming from the different parts of the shore. Those who approached the boats conducted themselves with the utmost propriety, shewing, by repeated invitations to their dwellings, the greatest hospitality, and making signs that they had plenty of food to bestow. In these entreaties the ladies were particularly earnest, and expressed much chagrin and mortification that their offers of civility were declined. As the boats sailed past the village those in the canoes returned to the shore.


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