Vancouver: The Overshadowed Achiever

Innocent King’s Lynn hero attacked with a cane on a London street.

The Caning in Conduit Street

In September 1796 a 39 year old sea captain from King’s Lynn was going about his business when he was attacked with a cane near Oxford Circus on Conduit Street in Central London. What made the incident even more bizarre was that the Lynn man’s attacker was a member of the British aristocracy who had been stalking the victim for some time.

Map showing the location of the attack in Conduit Street, Central London

The victim was Captain George Vancouver who had recently returned from a successful exploration of the Pacific region. He had just retired on half pay to Petersham in 1795.

The attacker, Thomas Pitt (Lord Camelford) was the nephew of the Prime Minister (William Pitt the Younger). He was also related to the First Lord of the Admiralty, John Pitt, and a brother of Lady Grenville, wife of the Foreign Secretary.

The dispute was ostensibly about Vancouver’s failure to accept Lord Camelford’s challenge to a duel over alleged mistreatment of the aristocrat while he served on Vancouver’s ship. In response to Camelford’s letter requesting a duel Vancouver replied that he was unable “in a private capacity to answer for his public conduct in his official duty” and offered instead to submit to formal examination by flag officers.

The two men could not have been more different.

The caneing in Conduit Street. Dedicated to the flag officers of the British Navy. Caricature showing a stout naval officer attacked by Lord Camelford, who says, “Give me satisfaction, rascal! Draw your sword…” Captain Vancouver replies, “Murder! Murder! …” Hand-coloured engraving by James Gillray published by H. Humphrey. British Cartoon Collection (Library of Congress).

The Half-Mad Lord

In 1791 when Vancouver sailed on his Pacific exploration expedition aboard HMS Discovery (and HMS Chatham), Thomas Pitt was appointed to board Chatham. He was 16 years old and very troublesome.

Vancouver had him flogged three times for insubordination and put him ashore on Hawaii. He was later discharged from another ship and involved in many drunken disputes and duels. In 1797 he refused to obey his commanding officer (Charles Peterson) and shot him dead. Camelford was court-martialed for this, but was later acquitted. In 1804 he died in a duel at the age of 29.

Lord Camelford clearly resented being disciplined by the low-born Vancouver. However, despite Camelford’s behaviour before death, his family connections meant that it would have been very difficult for Vancouver ever to successfully defend a case against him. The Prime Minister had already verbally attacked the captain.

When a full-length biography of Thomas Pitt was published in 1978, author Nikolai Tolstoy gave it the title The Half-Mad Lord.

The Overshadowed Achiever

The Beginning

George Vancouver was born in the thriving Georgian port of King’s Lynn on June 22nd in 1757. George’s father, John, was a deputy collector at the Custom House. George grew up in a town dominated by shipping traffic. Along the coast vessels between Lynn and Newcastle carried corn and coal. From further afield, coal, wine, and timber were imported in large quantities and distributed through the river system to seven counties.

At 14 George left school (the Grammar School that met above the Charnel Chapel at St Margaret’s Church until 1779) able to read French and Latin. Through his father’s influence and friendship with the Burney family, Vancouver joined James Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific Ocean in January 1772.

He was a quick learner and in 1776 was expert enough in navigation and seamanship to be promoted to senior midshipman when he joined Cook’s third voyage to see if there was a North West Passage and to chart the North West Coast of America.

The history of the voyage has been dominated by the death of Cook in Hawaii. Unfortunately Vancouver tends to get forgotten, but he was there. In February 1779 Vancouver was on hand when Hawaiians killed Cook at Kealakekua Bay, and he was in charge of the party that tried to recover Cook’s body. Vancouver played an important role in continuing the expedition and in bringing Cook’s ships (Resolution and the Discovery) back to England in 1780.

The Middle Years

On October 19, 1780 Vancouver passed the examination for lieutenant. His eight years’ service with Cook had given him an incomparable opportunity to receive training in seamanship and hydrographic surveying under the greatest navigator of the age.

In the years between 1780 and 1787 Vancouver spent most of his time on various ships in the Caribbean. Deaths from Yellow Fever meant that there were plenty of opportunities for promotion. By 1787 Vancouver was a Second Lieutenant.

The Great Voyage

The North American Pacific shore was one of the few in the Americas that was still relatively unknown to Europeans, and where the Native inhabitants had likely never encountered them. In 1789 it was decided to send another expedition to see if there was a North West Passage. Interest in a possible fur trade was growing, and Britain was unwilling to accept that Spain had the sole rights to trade along the whole of the North American West Coast.

George Vancouver Looking for the North West Passage
Photo © James Rye 2021

A suitable ship of 340 tons was purchased, named Discovery, and commissioned on 1 January 1790. Vancouver was put in command of the surveying expedition.

The main purpose of the voyage was to examine the coast between 30° and 60°N and to acquire “accurate information with respect to the nature and extent of any water-communication” which might “in any considerable degree” serve as a northwest passage “for the purposes of commerce.” The Discovery, accompanied by the small armed tender Chatham (131 tons), sailed from Falmouth, on 1 April 1791.

As commissioner, Vancouver was also charged with meeting Francisco de Bodega y Quadra at Nootka Bay to delineate England’s and Spain’s trading rights.

The boats returned from the last exploring expedition on 19 August, 1794 and the completion of the survey was celebrated by “such an additional allowance of grog as was fully sufficient to answer every purpose of festivity on the occasion.”

The Discovery returned home and reached Ireland on 13 September 1795. It was the longest surveying expedition in history – over four and a half years. The distance sailed was approximately 65,000 miles, to which the boat excursions are estimated to have added 10,000 miles. It was the longest deep-water sailing voyage on record.

Later Vancouver was to write in his Voyage of discovery to the north Pacific ocean: “I trust the precision with which the survey . . . has been carried into effect, will remove every doubt, and set aside every opinion of a north-west passage, or any water communication navigable for shipping, existing between the north pacific, and the interior of the American continent, within the limits of our researches.”

Undervalued Achiever

Although Vancouver failed to discover the North West Passage, his survey work was carried out with considerable accuracy and his latitudes vary little from modern values. It was comparable to the accuracy of Cook’s work. Vancouver produced the world’s most detailed maps and charts of the Northwest Coast. Those maps were used by all nineteenth-century mariners sailing from present-day Oregon to the Aleutians, and they were consulted during the Oregon Treaty negotiations in 1846.

Given the distances involved and the time away from home, it was important for him to have a tight grip of command on his ship. During the whole time he only lost four crew members (one from disease, one from poisoning, and two from drowning). He helped avoid scurvy on board by encouraging his crew to drink spruce beer and by landing every six weeks to pick up fresh supplies of meat and vegetables.

In 1793 one ship’s mate wrote complaining of Vancouver’s haughtiness. In addition to his trouble with Lord Camelford he also had disputes with the botanist and surgeon, Archibald Menzies. It is evident that illness (probably some hyperthyroid condition) had made Vancouver irritable and subject to outbursts of temper, but he was not a brutal commander.  Cook had to warn his crews against mutiny, and Bligh lost three ships through mutiny, but Vancouver never faced that problem.

Vancouver had various ailments, possibly linked to malaria contracted in the West Indies twenty years earlier, and he died in May 1798 when he was only forty years old. While Vancouver died with little acclaim, today he is recognized as one of Britain’s greatest mariners.

Vancouver’s expedition was the first to produce detailed charts of the waters around the City of Vancouver and the city was named after him. He has several places and mountains named after him, including Vancouver Island, as well as Vancouver, Washington in the United States.

Foot note

The statue of George Vancouver was commissioned at a cost of £23,000 and was unveiled
by Prince Philip. The original intention was that the statue would have been twice as big and
would have cost £46,000 but this was felt to be too expensive.

For some other sailors with a King’s Lynn connection see here.

See also: Did the King’s Lynn sailor witness cannibalism?

© James Rye 2021



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