1791 voyage commanded by George Vancouver

George Vancouver was a British officer of the Royal Navy best known for his 1791–95 expedition, to lay formal British claim and start colonization of North America's northwestern Pacific Coast regions previously mapped by James Cook.


Statue of George Vancouver in King's Lynn, his birthplace



George Vancouver was born in the seaport town of King's Lynn, Norfolk on 22 June 1757, as the sixth and youngest child of John Jasper Vancouver, a Dutch-born deputy collector of customs, and Bridget Berners. In 1771, at the age of 13, Vancouver entered the Royal Navy as a "young gentleman," a future candidate for midshipman. He was selected to serve aboard HMS Resolution, on James Cook's second voyage (1772–1775) searching for Terra Australis. He also accompanied Cook's third voyage (1776–1780), this time aboard Resolution's companion ship, HMS Discovery, and was present during the first European sighting and exploration of the Hawaiian Islands. On 7 May 1782, he was appointed fourth lieutenant of the 74-gun ship of the line HMS Fame, which was at the time part of the British West Indies Fleet, and assigned to patrolling the French-held Leeward Islands. He subsequently saw action at the Battle of the Saintes, wherein he distinguished himself, returning to England in June 1783.


Map of Voyages of George Vancouver

In the late 1780s the Spanish Empire commissioned a Pacific Northwest colony out of Mexico Viceroyalty. In 1789, Spain and Britain came close to war over the Nootka Crisis, ownership of the Nootka Sound on contemporary Vancouver Island, and of greater importance, the right to colonise and settle the Pacific Northwest coast. When the first Nootka Convention ended the crisis in 1790, Vancouver was given command of HMS Discovery to take possession of Nootka Sound and to survey the coasts.

On 1 April 1791, Discovery and Chatham set sail. They reached Tenerife on 28 April; this was intended as a rest stop and opportunity to botanize, but ended in a drunken brawl in which several officers were thrown into the bay or beaten. On 7 May, the two ships left Tenerife; Chatham arrived at Cape Town on 6 June and Discovery two days later. After more botanizing, socializing, and recruiting replacements for deserters, the ships left on 17 August. The surgeon took ill during an outbreak of dysentery (one sailor died); Menzies assumed his duties for the rest of the expedition.

On 29 September they landed in Australia, at what Vancouver promptly named 1 King George III's Sound.   They quickly surveyed the south coast of Australia and landed at 2 Dusky Sound,   New Zealand on 2 November, for resupplying and botanizing, before departing on 21 November. The ships proceeding separately, both discovered the sub-Antarctic 3 Snares Islands   (23 November), which Vancouver considered a severe shipping hazard (hence, the name). En route to Tahiti, the crew of Chatham furthermore discovered the Chatham Islands before reaching the Polynesian island on 26 November; Discovery arrived three days later. Here, Vancouver enforced rigid discipline to avoid the personal connections that had led to a mutiny on the Bounty. Pitt was flogged for exchanging a piece of ship's iron for the romantic favors of a lady.

Proceeding to winter in Hawaii, Vancouver arrived in March 1792. He had been a young midshipman on Cook's fatal landing 13 years earlier, so avoided coming ashore at Kealakekua Bay. He made arrangements for his tiny fleet to winter and re-supply in Hawaii for the duration of the expedition. Discovery and Chatham proceeded to North America.

Pacific Northwest


On 16 April they made landfall at about 39°N and started a detailed survey northward. On 28 April, they encountered the American Captain Gray of the Columbia Rediviva, with which they had a fruitful sharing of information.

Vancouver entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca - James Cook didn't notice it - on the next day. His orders included a survey of every inlet and outlet on the west coast of the mainland, all the way north to Alaska. Vancouver surveyed the long fjord and named many features for his officers, friends, associates, and his ship Discovery, including 4 Puget Sound, Port Townsend, Whidbey Island, Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, 5 Mount Baker, 6 Discovery Passage  , Discovery Islands, 7 Discovery Bay   and 8 Port Discovery, where he beached for maintenance. Most of this work was in small craft propelled by both sail and oar; manoeuvring larger sail-powered vessels in uncharted waters was generally impractical and dangerous. Vancouver took formal possession of all the coast and hinterland contiguous to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, including Puget Sound (under the name of New Georgia) on 4 June 1792, the King’s Birthday, at 9 Possession Point on the southern end of Whidbey Island, and was the second European to enter 10 Burrard Inlet   on 13 June 1792, naming it for his friend Sir Harry Burrard. It is the present-day City of Vancouver's main harbour area, beyond Stanley Park.

"Mount Rainier from the south Part of Admiralty Inlet". The mountain was first sighted by Vancouver during his exploration of Puget Sound in the spring of 1792.

After the summer surveying season ended, in August 1792, Vancouver went to Santa Cruz de Nuca on Friendly Cove, then the region's most important Spanish harbour, to meet Spanish commander Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra and receive any British buildings and lands returned by Spain. They were very cordial to each other, and even exchanged the maps they had made, but no agreement was reached; they decided to await further instructions, and agreed to meet again at the Royal Presidio of Monterey (California). At this time, they decided to name Nootka Sound's larger island as Quadra and Vancouver Island. Years later, as Spanish influence declined, the name was shortened to simply Vancouver Island. The crews began to suffer from scurvy, and proceeded to northern Spanish Las Californias province, reaching the Golden Gate and the Royal Presidio of San Francisco on 14 November to a friendly and helpful reception from the Spanish. After resting and reprovisioning, the expedition returned to Hawaii to winter.

Friendly Cove, Nootka Sound. Volume I, plate VII from: A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World by George Vancouver.

The next year, 1793, he returned to British Columbia and proceeded further north, unknowingly missing the overland explorer Alexander Mackenzie by only 48 days. He got to 56°30'N, having explored north from Point Menzies in Burke Channel to the northwest coast of 11 Prince of Wales Island. He sailed around the latter island, as well as circumnavigating 12 Revillagigedo Island   and charting parts of the coasts of Mitkof, Zarembo, Etolin, Wrangell, Kuiu and Kupreanof Islands. With worsening weather, he sailed south to Alta California, hoping to find Bodega y Quadra and fulfill his territorial mission, but the Spaniard was not there. He again spent the winter in Hawaii.

In 1794, he first went to 13 Cook Inlet  , the northernmost point of his exploration, and from there followed the coast south. Boat parties charted the east coasts of Chichagof and Baranof Islands, circumnavigated 14 Admiralty Island  , explored to the head of 15 Lynn Canal  , and charted the rest of Kuiu Island and nearly all of Kupreanof Island. He then set sail for Great Britain by way of Cape Horn, returning in September 1795, thus completing a circumnavigation of South America.

1980 Commemorative Statue to Capt. George Vancouver by Vancouver artist Alan Chung Hung



Vancouver faced difficulties when he returned home to England. The accomplished and politically well-connected naturalist Archibald Menzies complained that his servant had been pressed into service during a shipboard emergency; sailing master Joseph Whidbey had a competing claim for pay as expedition astronomer; and Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford, whom Vancouver had disciplined for numerous infractions and eventually sent home in disgrace, proceeded to harass him publicly and privately, sent him a letter heaping many insults, challenged him to a duel, and ultimately assaulted him on a London street corner. Vancouver's civilian brother Charles retaliated soon after, giving Pitt blow after blow until onlookers restrained the attacker. Charges and counter-charges flew in the press, with the wealthy Camelford faction having the greater firepower, until Vancouver, ailing from his long naval service, died on 10 May 1798, at the age of 40, in obscurity, less than three years after completing his voyages and expeditions. No official cause of death was stated, as the medical records pertaining to Vancouver were destroyed; one doctor named John Naish claimed Vancouver died from kidney failure, while others believed it was a hyperthyroid condition. He is buried in the churchyard of St Peter's Church, Petersham, in the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames.

22 June 2007


The City of Vancouver in Canada organised a celebration at the Vancouver Maritime Museum to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Vancouver's birth, officially declared "George Day" by Vancouver's then-mayor, Sam Sullivan, on 22 June 2007. The one-hour festivities included the presentation of a massive 63 x 114 cm carrot cake, the firing of a gun salute by the Royal Canadian Artillery's 15th Field Regiment, and a performance by the Vancouver Firefighter's Band.

Spanish fort San Miguel at Nootka in 1793
  • 16 Yuquot (Friendly Cove), Nootka Sound, Central Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Here was the Spanish settlement of Santa Cruz de Nuca (or Nuca), where Vancouver met Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra.    
  • 17 Statue of Vancouver, in front of Custom House, King's Lynn, Norfolk. There are also statues of his in front of the 18 Vancouver city hall, and on top of the dome of the 19 British Columbia Parliament Buildings in Victoria, both in British Columbia.
  • 20 Vancouver Maritime Museum, 1905 Ogden Ave, Vancouver/Kitsilano-Granville Island, +1 604-257-8300, fax: +1 604-737-2621. Summer (Victoria Day - Labour Day): daily 10AM-5PM; Winter: Tu-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su noon-5PM. Canada's premiere western maritime museum. Covers the maritime history of Canada, includes artifacts, models and the St. Roch ship. Here took place George's 250th birthday party. $10+GST, senior or student $7.50+GST.    
  • 21 St Peter's Church, village of Petersham in the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. Vancouver reportedly wrote A Voyage Of Discovery To The North Pacific Ocean, And Round The World when staying in Petersham. He is buried in the churchyard; his grave is Grade II listed. There is a memorial tablet to him in the church, placed by The Hudson's Bay Company in 1841.    

See also

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