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The Vancouver Expedition (1791-1795) was a five-year voyage of exploration and diplomacy, commanded by Captain George Vancouver. The expedition circumnavigated the globe, touched five continents and changed the course of history for several nations. The expedition at various times included between two and four vessels, and up to 153 men, all but six of whom returned home safely.


Several previous voyages of exploration, notably those of James Cook, had established the strategic and commercial value of exploring the Pacific, both for its wealth in whales and furs and as a trade route to the Orient. Britain was especially interested in improving its knowledge of Southern Pacific whale fisheries, and in particular the location of the strategically positioned Australia, New Zealandmarker, the Northwest Passage, and the fictional Isla Grande. A new ship was purchased, fitted out, and named Discovery after one of Cook's ships. Her Captain was Henry Roberts and Vancouver his 1st Lieutenant.

Plans changed when the adventurer John Meares reported that the Spanish had impounded his ship and hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of goods at Nootka Soundmarker. Although it is now known that his claims of loss were somewhat exaggerated, Britain had recently beaten Spain at war and seemed ready for another go; Parliament readied the fleet in the Nootka Crisis. Roberts and Vancouver left Discovery to serve in the Channel Fleet while Discovery became a depot ship for processing victims of the press gang. The Spanish capitulated in the Nootka Sound Convention, whose terms resulted in inconsistent instructions for the British and Spanish officers sent to implement them.

Vancouver returned to Discovery as the expedition's commander. According to his orders, he was "to receive back in form a restitution of the territories on which the Spaniards had seized, and also to make an accurate survey of the coast, from the 30th degree of north latitude northwestward toward Cook's River; and further, to obtain every possible information that could be collected respecting the natural and political state of that country." These explorations were in part to discover water communication into the North American interior (whether a Northwest Passage or, more likely, navigable rivers) and to facilitate the researches of the expedition's politically well-connected botanist, Archibald Menzies.

Following the mutiny on the Bounty, the Admiralty had ordered the precaution that ships not make such long voyages alone; therefore the armed tender HMS Chatham was assigned to the expedition. HMS Daedalus would rendezvous at Nootka Soundmarker a year later with supplies. The expedition was supposed to take two or three years.

The Muster

The Muster of the expedition lists 153 men.Most were naval officers or sailors, many of whom would distinguish themselves in future service, including Peter Puget, Joseph Baker, Joseph Whidbey, William Broughten, Zachary Mudge, and Robert Barrie. There was a large detachment of Marines; whether these were to assist with exploration in hostile territory or to discourage mutiny is not recorded. Two 16-year-old aristocrats, the Honorable Thomas Pitt (nephew of the Prime Minister) and the Honorable Charles Stuart (son of a Marquis), were brought aboard as able seamen; they proved troublesome.

Among the supernumaries were Menzies (who kept a meticulous journal of the expedition) and his servant John Ewin (or Ewing). A Hawaiian man named Towereroo, whom Captain Charles Duncan had brought to England, was put on Discovery that he might return home. Finally, the Muster includes a Widow's Man, rated able seaman, but in fact merely an accounting fiction.


On April 1, 1791 Discovery and Chatham set sail. They reached Santa Cruz in Tenerifemarker on April 28; 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 May 7 the two ships left Tenerife; Chatham arrived at Cape Townmarker on June 6 and Discovery two days later. After more botanizing, socializing, and recruiting replacements for deserters, the ships left on August 17. The surgeon took ill during an outbreak of dysentery (one sailor died); Menzies assumed his duties for the rest of the expedition.

On September 28 they landed in Australia, at what Vancouver promptly named King George Soundmarker. They quickly surveyed the south coast of Australia and landed at Dusky Soundmarker, New Zealand on November 2 for resupplying and botanizing, before moving on on November 21. The ships proceeding separately, both discovered the sub-Antarctic Snares Islands (November 23) which Vancouver considered a severe shipping hazard (hence, the name). On route to Tahiti, the crew of Chatham furthermore discovered the Chatham Islandsmarker before reaching the Polynesian island on November 26; Discovery arrived three days later.

Putting in at Tahiti, Vancouver enforced rigid discipline to avoid the personal connections that had led to Mutiny on the Bounty. Pitt was flogged for exchanging a piece of ship's iron for the romantic favors of a lady. Towareroo, not subject to such discipline, decided he preferred the comforts of Tahiti and had to be forced to leave.


Proceeding to winter in Hawai i, Vancouver arrived in March of 1792.He had been a young midshipman on Cook's fatal landing 13 years earlier, so avoided coming ashore at Kealakekua Baymarker. He was disturbed by the frequent request for firearms, and tried to avoid escalating the on-going civil war, spending the winter in O ahu.He made arrangements for his tiny fleet to winter and re-supply in Hawai i for the duration of the expedition.

Discovery and Chatham proceeded to North America. On April 16 they made landfall at about 39°N and started a detailed survey northward. On April 28, they encountered the American Captain Gray of the Columbia Rediviva with which they had a fruitful sharing of information; much of what Meares had told them about Gray's explorations, the latter said, was fiction.

In June of 1792, HMS Discovery and Lieutenant Broughton's HMS Chatham lay anchored in a bay they named Birch Bay.

Vancouver had decided to use his fleets' small boats for the detailed exploration and surveying of the region's complex and sometimes shallow waterways. On June 12, Vancouver, along with Puget and some of the crew, sailed north from Birch Bay in Discovery’s two smaller sailing yawls. In four days they found and charted a number of points and inlets, such as Point Robertsmarker, Point Greymarker, Burrard Inletmarker, Howe Soundmarker, and the Jervis Inletmarker. On June 13, near Point Robertsmarker, Chatham encountered the Sutil and Mexicana, of the Spanish exploring expedition.

On June 21, 1792, dealing with poor weather and dwindling food supplies, Vancouver decided to head back to HMS Discovery some 84 miles away; on their return they encountered the Spanish ships under the respective commands of Capt. Malaspina and Galiano (whom Lt. Broughton had already met), near present-day Vancouvermarker, British Columbiamarker. Both were exploring and mapping the Strait of Georgia, seeking a possible Northwest Passage and a determination of whether Vancouver Island was an island or part of the mainland. The two commanders established a friendly relationship and agreed to assist one another by dividing up the surveying work and sharing charts. They worked together in this way until July 13, after which each resumed circumnavigating Vancouver Island separately. Galiano's ships reached Nootka Soundmarker, completing the circuit, on August 31. Vancouver's ships had arrived earlier. Thus Vancouver was the first European to prove the insularity of Vancouver Island (Meares' claims on the matter having been another casualty), while Galiano was the first to circumnavigate it. Vancouver had not set out from Nootka but rather began at the Strait of Juan de Fuca, while Galiano began his circumnavigation at Nootka.

In August, while Vancouver was exploring in small boats to the north, Daedalus arrived in Nootka Sound and dispatched the brig Venus with the news that her Captain, Richard Hergest, and William Gooch, sent as astronomer to the expedition, had been murdered on Oahumarker. Vancouver and Whidbey shared astronomer duties, which later led to friction over pay. On August 11, the expedition sailed south, reaching Nootka Sound on August 28, where they exchanged friendly 13-gun salutes with a Spanish frigate commanded by Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra.

Relations between Quadra and Vancouver were very cordial and even friendly; as per their orders, they cooperated in exploration and supply, but could not reconcile their conflicting instructions before Quadra returned to Monterey, leaving Senor Fidalgo to fortify the Sound. Vancouver sent Lt. Mudge back to England on the tiny Portuguese-flagged trader Fenis and St. Joseph to get further instructions.The captain of the trading ship Jenny asked Vancouver to return two kidnapped girls to Hawai i. Thus enlarged, the expedition moved south; Whidbey in Daedelus surveying Grays Harbormarker while the other two ships dared the bar of the Columbia River. The smaller Chatham made it over the bar and sent small boats upriver. Discovery, whose crew was beginning to suffer from scurvy, proceeded to California, reaching the Golden Gatemarker on November 14 to a friendly and helpful reception from the Spanish. The other ships arrived by the 26th.

Quadra, as eager as Vancouver to resolve their conflicting instructions, offered to facilitate another message via Mexico and the Atlantic; Vancouver sent Lt. Broughton. Puget took his place as Chatham's Commander (angering Menzies, who preferred his friend Johnstone).

After resting and reprovisioning, the expedition returned to Hawai i to winter.


The Discovery sailed around the north side of the Island of Hawai imarker, and the Chatham the south, meeting at Kealakekua Baymarker.He left some cattle, sheep, and more plants that had been picked up in California.He met the British Sailor John Young, who acted as an interpreter and helped negotiate with Kamehameha I. He conducted surveys and impressed Kamehameha I with the reach of British power while Menzies collected specimens.

Over the winter, Vancouver ordered numerous improvements to the small boats that did the detailed survey work, to provide better shelter and supplies for the crew. These improvements enabled the crews to continue their survey of one of the most complex coasts in the world, proceeding to 56°N until weather ended the survey season.

Again, the expedition visited Nootka Sound (where there was no resolution of the conflicting orders), Spanish California, and Hawai i.


During the expedition's final winter in Hawai i, Baker accompanied Menzies, Midshipman George McKenzie and another man whose name is not recorded, on the first recorded ascent of Mauna Loamarker. They summitted on February 16 and, using a barometer, measured its height to within 50 feet of the modernly accepted value.

Vancouver continued to negotiate with Kamehameha; on February 25, the King made a formal proclamation of accession, declaring that they were "Tanata no Britanee" (People of Britain). Precisely what Kamehameha meant by this may not be entirely clear since Britain exerted no sovereignty over the islands during his reign. However, Vancouver's assistance to the King was helpful, particularly in lending tools and skilled workers for building him an armed 36-foot craft, the Britannia. The armaments may have aided Kamehameha's decisive win at Battle of Nu'uanu.

The expedition left Hawai i for the final time on March 15, 1794 and started surveying around Cook's River at 60°N, working south. The weather was often freezing, as a result of which not only their store of live turtles (kept for meat) but Menzies' quarterdeck greenhouse froze, killing all his plants. As before, Discovery and Chatham sent out small boat parties to conduct detailed surveys of the complex coast. The expedition traded with Russian settlements, Esquimo, Tlingits and others living there. In mid-August, the expedition reached its area of work from the prior year and, according to the diaries of several officers, felt great joy at realizing they could return home. Unfortunately, as they set out for Nootka, Isaac Wooden was lost in a boating accident off Cape Ommaney, one of the few to die on the expedition. The treacherous rocks off the Cape were accordingly named Wooden Rocks.

Vancouver advanced to post rank on August 28, 1794. Four days later, Discovery and Chatham put into Nootka; all were saddened to learn that Quadra had suddenly died. Brigadier General Don Jose Alava, the new Governor of Nootka, was cooperative and friendly, but no instructions had arrived to enable the commanders to resolve the situation. Alava and Vancouver were on friendly terms, jointly conducting local explorations, including a large celebration with Maquinna. On October 6, the survey ships departed for Monterey. Daedelus was sent back to England with the troublesome Mr. Pitt, who had worn out his welcome with multiple disciplinary infractions.

On November 6, Discovery put into Monterey, to learn that while negotiations had most likely been concluded in Europe, there were still no instructions. The expedition left on December 2, reached the Tres Maria Islands on December 17 for provisions and botanizing, and spent Christmas at sea.


Returning home, the expedition put in at the Cocos Islandsmarker, Galapagos Islandsmarker and the Juan Fernández Islandsmarker, reprovisioning whenever possible but beginning to suffer from scurvy.

Although they had orders to avoid Spanish possessions in the Pacific, necessity required some refitting and they had, in addition, orders to survey as much of the coast as possible. Vancouver therefore put into Valparaiso on March 25 for five weeks of repairs with the help of the Spanish. The expedition's officers enjoyed an official visit to the Captain General, Senor Don Ambrosio O'Higgins de Vallenar at his capital St. Iagomarker.

On May 5, Discovery and Chatham sailed from Valparaiso, planning to reunite at St. Helena should weather separate them. The onset of Southern Hemisphere's winter and the badly worn condition of the ships made further survey of the Chilean coast impractical and passage for Cape Hornmarker hazardous. Nonetheless, Vancouver spent much time searching for the island of Isla Grande, previously reported at 46.40.S, and confirmed its nonexistence.

About this time, Lt. Broughton and Lt. Mudge left England in to assist Vancouver; they reached Monterey long after the expedition made its final departure. Deciding (correctly) that Vancouver would not have left his surveying task unfinished, they departed to chart the coast of east Asia.

On July 2, Discovery and Chatham put in at St. Helena and learned that the nation was at war; their battered ships were nearly the weakest vessels in the Atlantic. However, they captured a Dutch East Indiaman by surprise. This proved a mixed blessing; putting a prize crew on the prize required Vancouver to get additional hands where he could. During a storm, he ordered Menzies' servant aloft, leaving Menzies' plants to be damaged; this further angered Menzies.

Off the Cape Verde Islandsmarker, Discovery caught up with a British convey escorted by HMS Sceptre and, in relative safety, arrived at Shannon. Vancouver departed the ship to report; Baker brought Discovery safely home to Long Reach on the Thames, completing her five-year mission on October 20, 1795.


The expedition returned to a Britain more interested in its ongoing war than in Pacific explorations. Vancouver was attacked by the politically well-connected Menzies for various slights. Pitt challenged Vancouver to a duel and attempted to beat him on a London streetcorner. Vancouver was no match for the powers ranged against him, and he was dying besides. His massive cartographical work was a few hundred pages short of completion at his death on May 10, 1798, but finished by Puget.

Geopolitically, the expedition helped remove Spain as a power in the North Pacific and to define the boundaries of the Anglo-American conflict there. It also assisted the unification of the Kingdom of Hawai'i and further established British domination of Australia-New Zealand. The expedition left the world hundreds, perhaps thousands, of place-names and species names.

See also


  • The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia, by Robson, John. London: Chatham Publishing, 2004. 1861762259. GBP 30.00. From Chatham Publishing

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