The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 2, Number 2-3, Pages 2-17
Raymond Schults is a professor of History at Eastern Washington University and his wife, Ninon, works at the Spokane Public Library.
George Vancouver, who gave to the Pacific Northwest dozens of place names still used today, and who is memorialized himself by two cities and an island, remains, nevertheless, one of the lesser known of the major explorers of his era. His four and one-half year voyage which resulted in a remarkably accurate mapping of the coasts and islands of today's Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia is well documented by his own pen as well as the writings and sketches of others. However, the man himself remains an enigma and has proven elusive to his few biographers. Was he a brutal martinet or a man of great compassion and concern for his peers and his crew? Were his occasional choleric outbursts of temper reflections of a basic weakness of character or physical illness? Did he lead a remarkably successful expedition or one marred by missed opportunities and failure to fulfill all of its expectations? It is somewhat symbolic that no one is completely certain that the single portrait bearing his name is really that of George Vancouver.
Vancouver was born in King's Lynn, England, on January 22,1757 and followed a career pattern not unusual in that island nation in the eighteenth century by taking to the sea in his youth. Vancouver's family was fairly wealthy and regarded as "gentlefolk" in that seaport community. His father, who held the reasonably important and lucrative post of deputy customs collector, was able to secure for his son at the age of 14, an appointment with Captain James Cook, which held the eventual prospect of a commission in the Royal Navy. A recruit of his station was expected to serve two years as an able seaman, cabin boy or servant before becoming a midshipman; four additional years of experience at sea would then make "young gentlemen" eligible to become officers.
In the 1770's, Vancouver sailed with Captain Cook on the latter's second and third voyages of discovery to the Pacific. The third voyage included a visit to the Pacific Northwest, and after this, Vancouver was present at the Hawaiian Island skirmish which cost Cook his life.
After his return to England, Vancouver's next tour of duty was in the Caribbean Service, where he furthered his career while serving from 1781 to 1789. However, it was an international incident on the Pacific coast of North America with overtones of a possible war with Spain, which laid the groundwork for the climactic voyage of his life.
The Nootka Sound controversy represented the zenith of Spain's pretensions to control of the Western Hemisphere. Nootka Sound, on today's Vancouver Island remote from the sea lanes of the world in the 1780's, was a natural harbor used by the eager international fortune hunters trading for beaver and other pelts to sell in China. Among these was John Meares, a British subject who often sailed with Portuguese papers to avoid the licensing restrictions of the monopolistic East India Trading Company. One of his ships happened to be at Nootka when the Spanish Captain Estaban Jose Martinez arrived in Nootka in 1789 to establish a permanent garrision. The Spanish had become fearful of Russian, American and British encroachment upon their California settlements and decided to lay claim this far to the north. Suspicious of its double national identity, Martinez seized Meares' ship and, later that summer, two other vessels of Meares' sending them as captives to Mexican ports. All the ships were eventually released and an angry Meares arrived in London in April, 1790, claiming $500,000 loss for buildings and lands seized at Nootka as well as the harrassment of his ships.
The British had already formally disputed the Spanish claims to the entire Northwest coast and now, armed with Meares' exaggerated facts and figures, decided to arm for war. It was later discovered that any buildings erected by Meares at Nootka had disappeared before Martinez arrived and that his actual land claim consisted of a few square yards in one corner of the Sound, but the real object of British activity was to oppose Spanish expansion.
Spain had its "Family Compact" with France at this time, but she soon realized the futility of expecting support from a nation being shattered by revolution. The Spanish government was already in the process of decay which was reducing her to a fifth-rate power and there was really no alternative to backing down. Although it was billed as a compromise, the Nootka Convention signed in 1790 was essentially a surrender to England. It represented a tacit acceptance of the English interpretation of an ill-defined principle of international law: that settlement and development were required before a nation could lay claim to territory previously unoccupied by European powers.
It was against the background of empires in collision that George Vancouver, at the age of 33, was promoted to master and commander and given full charge of an expedition to the Pacific. Its mission was two-fold: to receive formally from the Spanish the wrongfully seized lands and buildings at Nootka, and to complete a scientific survey of the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands and of the coast of North America from 30° north to 60° north. Two objectives of the latter survey were to ascertain the number of European settlements in the area covered, and to acquire "accurate information with respect to the nature and extent of any water-communication which may tend, in any considerable degree, to facilitate an intercourse, for the purpose of commerce, between the north-west coast, and the country upon the opposite side of the continent, which are inhabitedor occupied by His Majesty's subjects." The age-old dream of finding the Holy Grail of a Northwest Passage died hard, although ironically at this very time Alexander MacKenzie, the man who was to lay it to rest for once and for all, was fighting his way up and down the turbulent rivers of the interior of British North America.
Vancouver's flagship of the two-ship expedition was the Discovery, a three-masted full-rigged sloop-of-war, ninety-six feet long and little more than twenty-seven feet wide. Her consort was a two-masted armed tender, the Chatham, only fifty-three feet long on her gun deck, and twenty-one and one-half feet wide. The bare statistics of these relatively small ships take on an added dimension when it is realized that the Discovery carried a complement of one hundred and one men, the Chatham, forty-five. For four and one-half years these men lived in incredibly crowded quarters, often cold and damp, with the ordinary seamen only rarely allowed ashore except to fill water casks and collect fresh provisions. They shared their space with food rations, casks of beer and rum, extra supplies of rope and canvas, carpenters' and armorers' materials and tools, ammunition and what seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of trading goods for dealing with the native population. One unusual item which had to be stored in some corner of these tiny vessels was a quantity of fireworks. On many occasions during the long voyage they hauled these out to salute important personages with firework displays which always seemed to impress Hawaiians, Spaniards and Indian chiefs of the Northwest.
Vancouver's officers on the expedition included a number of men who had been shipmates on earlier tours of duty. Joseph Whidbey, the master (navigator) of the Discovery, had been a navigator with Vancouver in the West Indian Service in the 1780's; Peter Puget and Joseph Baker had been midshipmen with him during the same period. These officers were of Vancouver's own choice, but he had one man aboard about whom he was somewhat less than enthusiastic.
Sir Archibald Menzies was a navy surgeon who had sailed on a fur-trading expedition along the Northwest coast in 1786, arriving back in England in 1789. During the voyage he had served as a botanist, collecting new and rare plants and distributing seeds suitable for cultivation. After his return home he eagerly sought a chance to sign on with the Discovery, but according to Menzies, "the Commander of the expedition made some objections, what they were I never heard." Actually, Vancouver never did reveal his reasons, but quite possibly he did not want a "super cargo" of doubtful value to his objectives, forced upon him. Whatever his views, he was going to get Menzies whether he wanted him or not.
The British Navy of that period was the province of the wealthy and powerful, with political and social influence a prerequisite for advancement. Vancouver himself had found a patron in the person of Commodore Sir Alan Gardner, his commander in the Caribbean. Menzies had a powerful friend in Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, and Banks intervened emphatically on his protege's behalf. The Treasury lords, who were in supreme charge of the expedition, appointed Menzies as assistant surgeon and botanist in spite of Vancouver's objections and both men proceeded to make the best of it. Only on the final leg of the voyage in 1795, did their mutual resentment flare into open conflict. There were, however, other possible ramifications to this incident. It has been suggested that posterity's neglect of Vancouver as an explorer-hero of the eighteenth century was in part due to the powerful enemies he made in his short life time (he died at the age of 41, three years after the completion of his voyage). There is no question that he incurred the disfavor of Sir Joseph Banks at the very outset of his great voyage, with his attempt to exclude Archibald Menzies.
One other member of the expedition of whom Vancouver did approve, was ultimately going to cause him more trouble than Menzies. Thomas Pitt made a favorable impression on the commander at the outset, perhaps because of his powerful connections. Indeed, it would have been difficult not to be impressed with a young man who was the first cousin of the Prime Minister, William Pitt; of the Earl of Chatham, First Lord of the Admiralty; and of Lady Grenville, wife of the Foreign Minister. The difficulties with young Pitt would come later.
The Discovery and the Chatham sailed from Falmouth on April 1, 179l. Vancouver noted later that his men made wry jokes about that date when it became apparent they were searching for a non-existent passage reported by perhaps mythical sea captains. Sailing by way of the Cape of Good Hope, the ships wintered in the Hawaiian Islands. In April, 1792, they sailed for the Pacific Coast and explored the Northern California and Oregon coastline. The fact that Vancouver missed discovering the mouth of the Columbia River at times received more attention than his remarkable accomplishments, particularly since it gave the American Captain Robert Gray a chance to establish a claim to the region. However, the recurring thick fogs and frequent heavy weather in that region makes Vancouver's "lapse" completely explicable.
The summer of 1792 was spent in the careful charting of Puget Sound, the coast of Washington and Vancouver Island. As was always the case in the Age of Exploration, the unsung heroes were the faceless, nameless men who performed most of the extraordinary physical labor required in a surveying expedition of this sort. As residents of the Pacific Northwest are aware, the coastline is indented with a myriad of coves, bays and inlets, and many of those to be charted were too shallow or narrow to permit the Discovery or Chatham to operate. This meant that small boats had to be used, and in order for the officers to make the proper sightings and readings, it was often necessary for the crews to toil to the point of agony, pulling on oars for literally hours on end. As Vancouver distributed those familiar place names over the area, like a peasant broadcasting seed, he naturally ignored the common seamen laboring under his direction and immortalized officers and gentlemen, friends back home, and colleagues of earlier service stints. The only way for a crewman to escape obscurity was to desert or get himself killed.
Late in the summer the "surveyors of the sea" circumnavigated Vancouver Island and arrived at Nootka Sound for negotiations with Don Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, the Spanish officer charged with transferring the confiscated territory to the British. However, a conflict of interpretations immediately developed as to the extent of the concessions Spain was to make. Instead of the sizeable portion of Nootka Sound which Vancouver expected to receive, Quadra maintained that he was only authorized to relinquish the actual area previously occupied by Meares, which consisted of "a small chasm in the rocky shores of the Port of Nootka; ... not a hundred yards in extent in anyone direction" [Vancouver's italics]. Vancouver felt that this did not reflect the intention of the Nootka Convention and decided to take no action until receiving further instructions from home. "Now there can be little doubt," he wrote to Whitehall, "I should either proved myself a most consummate fool or a traitor to have acceded to any such cession without positive directions to that effect."
Meanwhile, despite the contradictory viewpoints about their respective responsibilities, the two emissaries developed a warm personal friendship, and at Quadra's invitation, Vancouver sailed for winter quarters in Hawaii by way of the California coast. After a pleasant interlude at the beautiful and hospitable Spanish community at Monterey, he then spent the winter of 1792-1793 trying to make peace among warring chieftains of the Hawaiian Islands.
In the spring of 1793 the Discovery and Chatham headed back to the Pacific coast and, from April to September the survey crews worked the waters of the Inside Passage. It is of interest to note that Alexander MacKenzie, the first European to cross the North American continent, reached the Pacific at the mouth of the Bella Coola River just one month after Vancouver had touched the same spot. When the onset of bad weather brought a conclusion to the second season's work, the expedition once more sailed for winter quarters by way of California. In Hawaii Vancouver demonstrated his talents as a diplomat by getting Kamehameha, the powerful chief who succeeded in uniting the islands, to cede them to British protection as a defense against the threatening encroachments of the United States and other European powers - one of several little-noted accomplishments of this English explorer.
Vancouver returned to the final survey of the Alaskan coastline in the summer of 1794, before touching again at Nootka. However, he never had received the further instructions requested two years earlier and the transfer of land was still not formally completed. He weighed anchor for England in October and after several stops in Spanish America, the doughty and by now, somewhat battered little vessels rounded Cape Horn in May, 1795. The great voyage finally concluded at Deptford on the Thames on October 20, 1795.
Without question, Vancouver accomplished a major feat of seamanship and all concerned with the long voyage agreed that full cooperation among officers and crew was necessary to produce such a success. Yet the picture which was frequently drawn in the years after the expedition's return was that it was led by a man of mercurial and irascible temperament, often cold and aloof from his companions, given to bursts of raging anger, and zealously enforcing a severe code of discipline. What wasn't explained was how such a man could have brought those crowded ships home from over four years of arduous uncomfortable activity in an apparent state of reasonable harmony.
There are a number of sources available through which the historian might take the measure of the man. Vancouver's own three-volume account was published in late 1798, after his premature death; Menzies kept his own account of the voyage; and Thomas Manby, the Master's Mate of the Chatham, maintained both an official and a personal log. Besides these, a number of others on the expedition made written observations which have been preserved. Vancouver's narrative was circumscribed by its official nature, the fact that it was meant to be read by the proper authorities. It goes into considerable detail about navigation and the techniques of surveying; it provides many examples of geographical description; it provides lengthy accounts of dealings with Indian chiefs and the Spanish; but it is often silent on crucial incidents involving the officers and crew of the Discovery and the Chatham. Thus, it is from some of the others on the voyage that we learn of Vancouver's outbursts of temper on the one hand, or of some of his more engaging moments on the other.
Ironically, the incident which probably did the most damage to his reputation became known to posterity primarily through later reports which were scarcely objective. The so-called Camelford Affair began on the voyage, but the event which marked its inception is not related by Vancouver, nor by any other chronicler who might have been present. It is suspected that accounts did exist but were expurgated during an investigation by the Admiralty, which never reached the official stage.
What is known is that three midshipmen were sent home from the expedition in disgrace in February, 1784, but there is no mention in any surviving journal of the reason for their dismissal. Unfortunately for Vancouver, one of the young men was Thomas Pitt, whose influential relatives have already been noted. Pitt, who later inherited the title of Lord Camelford, charged that Vancouver had had him flogged - an unheard of punishment for a midshipman at that time, especially one with important connections. There is no record of any denial of the charge by Vancouver, and it must be assumed that Pitt's offense was a serious one to warrant such treatment. It is probably significant that the aristocratic midshipman had a volatile personality and a career marked by violence. In a later incident he shot a fellow naval officer to death and his own life was ended in a duel. Whatever the cause of his disgrace and humiliation, when Vancouver dispatched the three midshipmen on the first available transport in 1794, he had not seen the last of Thomas Pitt, and the aftermath of the incident would tarnish his own reputation.
It has been plausibly suggested that the source of the trouble was an incident which occurred during the period of 1793-1794 when certain passages - or in two cases entire journals - are missing from the official Admiralty archives. In August, 1793, an unfortunate skirmish broke out between boats from the Discovery and the Haida Indians when the seemingly friendly natives suddenly made an attempt to seize the British guns and ammunition chest. In the fracas that followed, the Indians hurled spears from their canoes and Vancouver ordered his men to fire in return. These volleys sent the attackers scurrying to shore when they abandoned their canoes and ran off into the woods, leaving several dead behind. It is known that Thomas Pitt was in one of the Discovery boats and it is possible that his offense had something to do with misbehavior before or during the clash. Soon afterwards, Menzies mentioned in his journal that "punishments were inflicted on the Discovery of a very unpleasant nature."
Vancouver's critics burnished his image as a harsh disciplinarian by citing his record of administering more than the dozen lashes specified in the Regulations for offenses such as drunkenness, insolence or neglect of duty - as many as five dozen lashes on one occasion. Theft was considered a particularly serious crime, and one marine who seems to have been determined in his knavery, received a total of one hundred and forty-four lashes spread over four different occasions. Over the four and one-half year period of the voyage, there were ninety-five instances of flogging which seems to have been neither particularly harsh nor lenient for those days. In his remote station, thousands of miles from home, Vancouver could not set up a speedy court martial or a court of inquiry and discipline had to be administered in a summary manner. Since no one hinted of any mutinous deeds or thoughts, the floggings presumably were received with the traditional stoicism of the eighteenth century British Navy.
Vancouver has been described as reticent and aloof, remote from his officers and men, who often were not informed of his plans or consulted about the many decisions which had to be made during a survey of the sort being conducted by the Discovery and Chatham. One thing which did seem to arouse a fierce response in him was what he deemed to be insolence. On the entire voyage just one man, Phillips, the carpenter was court-martialled. His troubles began when he failed to repair properly a top-gallant mast which had broken during a storm, but according to Menzies' account (Vancouver does not mention the incident in his journal), it was not really the poor craftsmanship which brought about the punishment. Rather, it was the man's insubordinate reply to Vancouver's criticism which meant lashes and a trip home in irons for the carpenter.
On the other hand, a cook who willfully disobeyed orders and served salt meat drippings with peas to give them flavor, thus contributing to severe outbreak of scurvy, was reprimanded but then forgiven. Presumably, he acknowledged his fault and demonstrated adequate repentance.
Archibald Menzies' final quarrel with Vancouver was a dispute over the responsibility for protecting the botanist's priceless specimens during a heavy rain. Menzies' assistant was off on other duty assigned by the officer of the watch when a sudden storm buffetted the Discovery and ruined many plants. The furious Menzies complained that someone should be disciplined for this lapse since his assistant was not part of the regular ship's complement and thus not subject to orders from the deck officers. Vancouver's account states that he recommended Menzies for court martial because of the latter's "insolence and contempt." Eventually, Menzies apologized and the charges were dropped under pressure applied by Sir Joseph Banks and others after the expedition reached England in 1795.
During an otherwise pleasant visit to Monterey during the winter of 1792-1793, Vancouver had to deal with the unpleasant matter of the only desertions of the voyage. Not surprisingly, the abundance of good food and drink, the friendliness of the Spanish, and the mildness of the climate held a great attraction for sailors wearied by the rigors of the Northwest. Vancouver was angered when a seaman from the Discovery and three from the supply ship, Daedalus, deserted and melted into the Spanish settlements; he was enraged when two men from the Chatham slipped away just when it was about to sail for Hawaii, particularly since one of them was the only armorer on the ship. The deserter from the Discovery had been recaptured, but although the expedition was now delayed while a search was carried out for the others, they were not found. The deserter who was caught was kept on board the Discovery in chains until the ship was at sea because Vancouver had promised the mission fathers with whom the seaman had sought refuge, that he would not be punished while the English were still at Monterey. Once the expedition was under sail again, the culprit was given six dozen lashes on two separate occasions. Being so far from home, Vancouver evidently believed in administering justice on the spot and although the punishment was severe, even for that day, the man could have been sent home for court martial and possible hanging.
Vancouver took a more lenient attitude towards one Matthew Brown, a deserter from another British ship, who threw himself on Vancouver's mercy at Nootka in 1794. In this instance the Discovery was short of men, so Brown was signed on as one of the ship's company. In 1795 when back in England, Vancouver wrote to the Admiralty on Brown's behalf and charges were not brought against him.
Vancouver's attitude towards the Indians of the Northwest was one of cautious friendliness. He arrived laden with red and blue cloth, looking glass, copper sheeting, pieces of iron, blankets, beads, and nails with which to purchase friendship, but often found the recipients sullen when he refused to supply them with arms. One of Vancouver's sacred principles was never to succumb to the pleas of the natives for guns, powder, and shot, believing that when others had done so the lives of Europeans had been endangered. His feelings on the matter were displayed in his detailed account of the ugly incident which followed the attempt of the Haida Indians to seize guns from his surveying boats, which he closed with a stern warning against the sale of weapons to the Indians by fur traders. Vancouver felt strongly about the need to make peaceful contacts with the residents as he surveyed what he ardently hoped would become British territory.
Mount St. Elias, Alaska, 1794
The friendliest relations established were with Chief Maquinna at Nootka, whose people Vancouver believed, had been spoiled by the Spaniards. These Indians were anxious to be on good terms with both the English and Spanish, well aware that negotiations were in progress over the area which they had "sold" to Meares and the Spanish captains. They put on a fine display of hospitality for the English with whom they exchanged gifts, dancing demonstrations and dinners - at which the Indians served tuna, porpoise and wine. Vancouver accepted these pleasantries equably, but observed that Maquinna's apparent naivete cloaked a talent for some cunning policy-making.
Warm and genial - certainly not aloof and severe - would generally describe Vancouver's attitude towards the Spanish he dealt with at Nootka, Monterey, San Diego and later, Valparaiso. The frustrating dispute with Senor Quadra over the exact terms of the transference of territory was an unforeseen complication and as the controversy dragged on, Vancouver's nerves and general health seemed to have suffered from the worry over his own responsibilities in the matter. Nevertheless, throughout this diplomatic impasse in this remote corner of wilderness, he and Quadra developed a remarkable friendship. Vancouver, among other considerations, seems to have suspected that Quadra was close to the mark in asserting that Meares had advanced claims that were atrociously exaggerated.
The genial Spaniard displayed a hospitality that was warm and genuine, both at Nootka and later during the Discovery’s 1792-1793 stay at Monterey. He offered every kind of assistance to the English in their various endeavors and frequently wined and dined the officers on silver plate, serving excellent fresh food. Quadra and Vancouver, two gentlement officers far from home, developed a strong common bond aided by the fact that one of the English seaman spoke Spanish fluently and could act as an interpreter. Quadra eventually sailed back to his regular command at San Blas, Mexico, and died there while the Discovery was still exploring the Northwest coast. Vancouver recorded his deep personal sense of loss in his journal when he heard the news.
This journal written for official consumption, provided only fleeting glimpses of the author as an individual with emotions, be they sorrow, anger or amusement. It is from the other records of this long and difficult voyage that the more human side of the leader emerges. These other writers were at times at odds with Vancouver, yet all accounts are agreed on Vancouver's constant concern over the health and welfare of the crew. He fought scurvy as the deadly enemy it was; rations of sauerkraut were served regularly and fresh food was obtained whenever possible. He was justified in his anger with the cook who unbalanced the crew's precarious diet by serving meat drippings. Other health measures included periodic swabbings of deck and cabins with vinegar and building fires below deck to combat the omni-present, disease-bearing dampness.
Vancouver considered the traditional daily ration of rum to be beneficial to health as well as morale. Like virtually all commanding officers of the day, he was inclined to punish drunkenness severely; but on at least one occasion it is possible to deduce that he permitted the crews of the Discovery and Chatham four days of fairly intoxicating revelry. The time was August, 1794, and the survey of the Northwest coast had finally come to a close. The ships dropped anchor at the tip of the King George III archipelago in the Alaskan panhandle in a cove appropriately dubbed Port Conclusion. Here in Vancouver's own words, "an additional allowance of grog as was fully sufficient to answer every purpose of festivity on the occasion" was issued to the men.
An unusual episode of the voyage which adds to the complexity of Vancouver's character and personality, began at Nootka in September, 1792 when he took on board his ship two Hawaiian girls, aged fourteen and seventeen. The girls arrived in the Northwest in the British ship, Jenny, whose Captain Baker explained that he was sailing directly for England and asked if the Discovery could take them home to Niihau. Vancouver took great pains in declaring the innocence of the girls and Captain Baker, particularly since it had been rumored that British ships had previously kidnapped Hawaiian women to trade for furs in the Northwest. The girls told him they had boarded the Jenny with many other women before the ship sailed from the Islands, and that they were forcibly kept below deck without the Captain's knowledge until they were several days at sea. After this they had apparently not been mistreated and they had no complaints about Captain Baker. Vancouver was on the point of leaving for his visit to Monterey when they were first brought to his care, so the girls were to be on board the Discovery from September, 1792 until late March, 1793.
During this period of time Vancouver tells us that the girls adopted the European mode of dress and code of modesty, and expresses nothing but admiration for them. They ate with the officers, lived in the officers' quarters and attended the parties given for and by Vancouver in Monterey.
On his last stop in Hawaii before returning to the Northwest survey, Vancouver purchased land and houses for the girls, and during his Hawaiian winter stop of 1794, visited them and reported that all was going well.
Of course, all sorts of romantic or suggestive interpretations can be made about the presence of two females aboard the Discovery for a period of seven months. Seafaring men of that period often found willing sex partners among the native women, and Vancouver does have one comment bearing on the general subject in his official record. In discussing the Indian villages near South Inlet on the east coast of Vancouver Island, he relates laconically, "They offered the skins of the sea-otter and other animals to barter, and besides promises of refreshment, made signs too unequivocal to be misunderstood that the female part of their society would be very happy in the pleasure of their company. Having no leisure to comply with these repeated solicitations, the civil offers of the Indians were declined."
As far as the Hawaiian girls are concerned, none of the surviving journals discuss this implication of their long association with Vancouver and the other officers of the Discovery. Perhaps it was too well understood and accepted to warrant comment; presumably it would not be considered a matter which belonged in the records for home consumption; quite possibly the whole relationship was completely innocent.
When the coastline was finally charted and the myth of a Northwest Passage laid to rest, Vancouver turned for home. He was quite satisfied with the survey work he and his men had accomplished, but still suffered grave misgivings about the Anglo-Spanish agreement over Nootka. Certainly the obstacles which the Spanish placed in the way of a final settlement were not his fault, and he rightly refused to renegotiate the terms of the Nootka Convention without specific instructions from home - instructions which he never received.
A new convention was signed in Madrid in January, 1794 which called for the abandonment of Nootka by both the British and the Spanish. A ceremony in which the British flag was unfurled symbolically over the territory Meares' men had occupied in 1789, was followed by the departure of all concerned. A Lieutenant Pierce of the Marines, represented Britain at this somewhat anticlimactic event, at a time when Vancouver's homeward-bound expedition was off the coast of Chile. The establishment of sovereignty over Vancouver Island was going to wait for a later date, but in the meantime Nootka reverted to the quiet fishing village it remains today, and Spanish expansion northwards had been permanently checked. To this degree Vancouver had accomplished the other part of his mission.
Vancouver was ill during much of the last year of his voyage, but no clear medical evidence exists as to the nature of his malady. Biographers have attributed his occasional outbursts of temper and fits of depression to physiological causes ranging from tuberculosis to an untreated hyperthyroid condition.
Upon reaching England in 1795 he spent his first months home decommissioning his ships. He succeeded in having several of his men confirmed in promotions, surely an indication of his concern for his crews. The expense accounts for the voyage had to be settled in detail, including such matters as justifying extra grog rations for the crews who labored in the surveying boats. Once all this was done, he turned to the work of preparing his journals for publication.
It was at this point that he became involved in the unpleasantness with Thomas Pitt, now Baron Camelford, which was going to cast such a long shadow over Vancouver's reputation. Camelford charged Vancouver with unwarranted cruelty, and challenged him to a duel in September, 1796. Vancouver offered to refer the matter to an official naval investigation, stating that he would accept the challenge if the navy ruled his punishment of Camelford to be unjustified. This was unsatisfactory to the hot-tempered young nobleman who waylaid his former commander in a London street and hit him several times with a cane. Shortly after this a cartoon by James Gillray was distributed throughout England and Europe depicting the incident and portraying the unfortunate Vancouver as a cowardly bully guilty of mistreating his crew and degrading his officers.
Subsequently, an investigation of Camelford's charges was undertaken (it was for this that passages from many of the journals kept on the voyage seem to have been requisitioned), but no official record of the inquiry has survived, and no charges were ever filed against Vancouver. The Admiralty Lords must have found no reason to criticize him, but his reputation was clouded.
Sir Joseph Banks and others in the scientific community either ignored Vancouver's work or compared him unfavorably to their hero, Captain Cook. Nor did the English public pay a great deal of attention to his expedition. It has been suggested plausibly that the excitement over the war with France which developed into the Napoleonic Wars, caused a loss of interest in distant lands and primitive peoples. The illness which had discomfited Vancouver on his journey did not improve in the climate of home. In fact his health steadily deteriorated, and the Camelford Affair could well have contributed to the decline. He settled in the beautiful little village of Petersham a few miles up the Thames River from London to finish his account of the voyage. He was able to complete five of the six planned volumes, but on May 12, 1798 at the age of forty-one, he died with his work unfinished. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Peter's Church, Petersham, where a simple headstone bearing the inscription, "Captain George Vancouver died in the year 1798," marks the grave. Since his family could have afforded a more impressive memorial, it is presumed he chose the simple one, not mentioning his naval career, his accomplishments, or even the date of his death. After his death his brother John completed the work on A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World.
Residents of the Pacific Northwest are probably more aware of George Vancouver and his activities than most people, if for no other reason than the abundance of place names which he distributed around the region. There are also museum displays in the area which commemorate his expedition. The British Columbia Provincial Museum in Victoria, B.C. has an exact replica of the stern of the Discovery, featuring Vancouver's cabin. Recorded seagull cries and the smell of creosote greet the visitor to the scene where a Georgian table is set with pewter mugs and plates. There is also a sea chest, said to be Vancouver's own, which he used on his voyage with Cook. At the Maritime Museum of British Columbia on Bastian Square in Victoria there are models and displays relevant to the voyage and a reproduction of the Vancouver portrait, the authenticity of which some have questioned because the subject is not in naval uniform. Perhaps, as with the gravestone, by the time the portrait was painted Vancouver did not feel inclined to associate himself with the navy.
In assessing the accomplishments and character of George Vancouver, it is important to view his expedition in its proper perspective. The voyage was long and demanding and setting aside the personal vendettas which may have distorted the picture at the time, it is difficult to see his work as anything but a success. He can scarcely be blamed for the indecisiveness of the Spanish negotiations, and his surveys and descriptions were remarkable for their painstaking accuracy. His occasional asperity - perhaps iIIness-induced - makes him less appealing than men of a more congenial nature, but it should not be allowed to cloud over his concern for his crews' health and well-being or the warmth of which he was also capable. Furthermore, much of the behavior which might seem like callousness or even brutality today was considered merely necessary discipline at that time. It should be remembered that the eighteenth was also the century of Captain Bligh and the Bounty.