Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Log 193: Capt Vancouver, meticulous navigator, was ill-used by his bosses

One of the advantages of moving house, which I did less than a year ago, is that it gives you a new insight into the books you own. In the last year I have been reading a lot of books I had owned for many years, but never read.

The most recent of these is a rather odd biography of Captain George Vancouver, a name that certainly rings in Canadian history, written by a woman called Brenda Guild Gillespie, and published in 1992 by a small Victoria publisher, Horsdal and Schubart.

I say the book is odd because Ms Gillespie has chosen to pretend that its author is Capt Vancouver's brother John, writing in 1828 long after the events it records. Capt George Vancouver was born in 1757, and died in 1798 at the age of 40. Unfortunately Ms. Gillespie has chosen as a central theme of her book a jeremiad against a half-mad British peer of the realm, Lord Camelford, who was a member of the well-connected Pitt family, a nephew of William Pitt, (the youngest British Prime Minister ever), and who was a midshipman in Vancouver's mammoth five-year voyage around the Pacific. A notably unstable personality, this young peer was so delinquent in his duties that Vancouver had him flogged three times, and eventually dismissed him and sent him back to England, where, burning with resentment, he went out of his way to poison the British establishment against the good Captain.

This is taken up in the first pages of the book, and the story dominates almost every subsequent chapter. I have nothing against a good jeremiad, but in this case it does leave one wondering how much is true, and why this author should have chosen to give it such a prominent place in her story. And then, why does the author pretend she is Vancouver's brother, John?

Anyway, I found the account of Vancouver's long journey quite fascinating, leaving Camelford aside. He was given the assignment by the Admiralty to chart the western coastline of North America, and when he arrived there he discovered the Spaniards had already created outposts along the coast, and had themselves done a lot of charting, most of which Vancouver showed was quite inaccurate.

Vancouver was exceptionally young to have been given such responsibility, but he had sailed with Captain Cook, was well grounded in the problems likely to be faced in the Pacific, and had also received a sound grounding in cartography. He needed exceptional tenacity, for another part of his assignment was to go as far north as he could in the hope of taking Cook's investigations into the so-called Northwest Passage a step further. An interesting section of the story is that by the time he proceeded into Alaska his ship was virtually crippled, worn out from the trials of the heavy seas it had encountered, and the various accidents and groundings experienced along the difficult coastlines it was charting, and by this time, too, Vancouver was deathly ill. So intense was Vancouver's admiration for Captain Cook, that when he discovered the great navigator had made a mistake by supposing what is now known as Cook Inlet to be a river, he was covered with embarrassment and shame because he was supposedly undermining his great hero's vast achievements.

Vancouver went further into Cook Inlet than Captain Cook had managed, and was able to discover that it wasn't a river, but an inlet that, remarkably for a place so far north, is free of ice year round. Because of this, Anchorage, Alaska has since been built as an ice-free port at the base of Cook Inlet.

Vancouver, according to this account, always had exceptional concern to maintain good relations with the Polynesians and Indians he encountered, and there is strong evidence he fell in love with a Hawaiian girl who accompanied him for much of his voyage before he left her off --- bearing an infant, according to Ms. Gillespie's unsupported speculation --- to resume life on her home island. He was also supposed to negotiate the surrender to Britain of Nootka island and sound, on Vancouver island, from the Spanish who were already installed as governors. He did make an agreement for the handing over to Britain of the territory, and on a second visit to the territory he carried out this part of the assignment, the groundwork for which he had prepared with a man who became his close friend, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra.

Vancouver always apparently regarded himself as doing work for the benefit of all nations. And certainly his work achieved on this punishing voyage has stood the test of time. Probably because of the machinations of Camelford, Vancouver was shabbily treated by the Admiralty after his return, a frail and ruined man, and had to spend several years struggling for enough money to allow him to finish compiling the official story of his epic voyage. He was finally, after long delay, paid $700 for his five and a half years of Pacific travel, many of the documents he prepared describing the journey disappeared (Ms. Gillespie blames Camelford for all this), and he was denied various other payments that were due to him, solely because, she writes, of the solidarity of the British upper classes which coalesced around the young nobleman. Camelford apparently committed several murders for which he was acquitted, and was himself, at the age of 29 killed in a duel.

I had never read much about Vancouver before (although I have made a copious study of Captain Cook) and am impressed by what Ms. Gillespie has revealed, in her rather eccentric account, of the man's remarkable qualities.


  1. For obvious reasons Captain George Vancouver is of much interest in my neck of the woods! One look at a chart of the BC coast will show you the challenge he undertook. The total length of the British Columbia Coast is over 25,725 kilometres (15,985 mi), but so well did he do his job that the charts Vancouver made were in use for generations. Gillespie is actually fairly accurate about his shameful treatment on his return home, viz. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Vancouver#Later_life
    I used to live in the Nootka Sound region of Vancouver Island which both Cook & Vancouver visited.

  2. Macadavy: I always had this wish to invent my own Captain Cook. I eventually wrote a sort of thriller the theme of which was that Cook was not killed by the Hawaiians, but went to live there, was betrayed by one of the leaders, and went slightly mad. By the time his letters arrived in the Admiralty, the myth of the great explorer had been established, and the Navy wouldn't countenance upsetting it, so they sent out Molesworth Phillips (married to Fanny Burney's sister) to finish him off. Since then, one person had always been entrusted with the truth in the Admiralty, and the drama came from a journalist's effort to find the documents.