Captain George Vancouver

George Vancouver was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England. At the age of fifteen he travelled to the Pacific aboard HMS Resolution, on Captain James Cook’s second voyage (1772-1775). It was Vancouver’s first naval service. He also accompanied Cook on his third voyage (1776-1779), this time aboard Resolution’s sister ship, HMS Discovery.

Upon his return to Britain in 1779, Vancouver was commissioned as a lieutenant. He was then posted aboard the sloop HMS Martin, on patrol in the English Channel.

Vancouver next served on the 74-gun ship of the line, HMS Fame. The Fame was involved in the British victory in the Battle of the Saintes in 1782.
While serving on the West Indies station, Vancouver put the surveying and cartographic skills he learned under Cook to use surveying Port Royal and Kingston Harbour, assisted by Joseph Whidbey.

In 1789, the Royal Navy was planning another voyage to the Pacific, to further survey the valuable South Pacific whaling grounds[1]. It was to be commanded by Henry Roberts, another of Captain Cook’s protégés, with Vancouver as his second in command and Whidbey as sailing master. A new vessel was purchased for this expedition and named HMS Discovery after Cook’s ship.

However, the crisis of the Great Spanish Armament intervened, as Spain and Britain came close to war over ownership of Nootka Sound and, of greater importance, the right to settle the Northwest American Coast. Roberts and Vancouver joined Britain’s more warlike vessels (Vancouver going, with Whidbey, to HMS Courageux). When the first Nootka Convention ended the crisis, Vancouver was given command of Discovery to take possession of Nootka Sound and survey the coast.

Vancouver’s 1791-1795 explorations

A statue of George Vancouver outside Vancouver City Hall in Vancouver, British Columbia. See Also: Vancouver Expedition.

Vancouver followed the coasts of what is now Washington and Oregon northward. In April 1792 he encountered American Captain Robert Gray off the coast of modern Oregon just prior to Gray’s sailing up the Columbia River.

Vancouver entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca, between Vancouver Island and the Washington state mainland on April 29, 1792. He intended to survey every bay and outlet in this region and all the way north to Alaska. He used small boats carried on board the Discovery and Chatham to do this because the inlets were often too narrow for the primary ships to safely enter.

Vancouver was the first European to enter Burrard Inlet (beyond Stanley Park), the site of the present day City of Vancouver. This was on June 13, 1792. He named it after his friend Sir Harry Burrard. He surveyed Howe Sound and Jervis Inlet over the next nine days, before returning to Point Grey (now the site of the University of British Columbia) on June 22, 1792 (Vancouver’s 35th birthday). Here he unexpectedly met a Spanish expedition led by Dionisio Alcala Galiano and Cayetano Valdés y Flores. For several weeks they cooperatively explored Georgia Strait before going their separate ways.

Afterwards, Vancouver went to Nootka on Vancouver Island, then the region’s most important harbour, where he was to get any British buildings or lands returned by the Spanish. The Spanish commander, Bodega y Quadra, was very cordial and he and Vancouver exchanged the maps they had made, but no agreement was reached; they decided to await further instructions. In October 1792, he sent Lieutenant William Robert Broughton with several boats up the Columbia River. Broughton got as far as the Columbia River Gorge, sighting and naming Mount Hood.

After a visit to Spanish California, Vancouver spent the winter in further exploration of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).

The next year, he returned to British Columbia, and proceeded further north. He got to 56°N, but because the more northern parts had already been explored by Cook, he sailed south to California, hoping to find Bodega y Quadra and fulfill his mission, but the Spaniard was not there. He again spent the winter in the Sandwich Islands.

In 1794, he first went to Cook Inlet, the northernmost point of his exploration, and from there followed the coast south to Baranov Island, which he had visited the year before. He then set sail for Great Britain by way of Cape Horn, returning in September 1795, thus completing a circumnavigation.

Disgrace and death

Vancouver faced difficulties when he returned. Naturalist Archibald Menzies (politically well-connected) 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, challenged him to a duel. Vancouver was attacked in the newspapers and assaulted on the street by Pitt; his career was effectively at an end. One of Britain’s greatest navigators, Vancouver died in obscurity in 1798 at the age of 40 less than three years after completing his voyage. His modest grave lies in St. Peters churchyard, Petersham.


Vancouver determined that the Northwest Passage did not exist at the latitudes that had long been suggested. His charts of the North American northwest coast were so extremely accurate that they served as the key reference for coastal navigation for generations. Fisher notes:

“He [ie: Vancouver] put the northwest coast on the map…He drew up a map of the north-west coast that was accurate to the nth degree, to the point it was still being used into the 20th century as a navigational aid. That’s unusual for a map that early.”

[Source: Wikipedia, September 2007]