When George Vancouver crossed the bay
There met the Spaniards, Galiano and Valdes
Names that leap from my Atlas pages
Were present on that day…
- Spanish Banks, by Tiller’s Folly
We live in a time in which knowledge regarding Canada’s history, her important figures, and the monumental events that shaped her place in the world, is entirely absent in a way that has never been suffered by an unconquered people. As a country, we are undergoing an epidemic of ignorance, and a necessary part of the remedy is to write about the men who left us this treasure, our ark between the seas that we have the privilege to call home. We begin with someone close to home, most relevant to us on the west coast, the man whose name is borne by our largest metropolis.
Captain George Vancouver lived a life, albeit a short one, full of adventure, service, and achievement. In his time on this earth, he left an indelible mark on this land and its history. From the Georgia Strait to the Queen Charlotte Islands, and beyond our coast into Alaska, his influence permeates time, if only noticed by a few who care to look.
Captain Vancouver’s life began in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. He was the son of a wealthy Dutch merchant and an English woman of high status, themselves both the progeny of old and well-known families. In his teenage years he joined the Royal Navy, being granted the privilege to serve under Captain James Cook as a midshipman-in-training aboard the Resolution during his second Pacific voyage. On this voyage they searched for the coast of Australia. Vancouver joined Cook once again for his third voyage on the Discovery during the exploration of Hawaii.
British mapping of what would become Canada’s western coast began in early 1778, when the aforementioned Captain Cook, renowned explorer and cartographer of New Zealand, Australia and Antarctica, arrived at Nootka Sound. He was sent on a mission from the British Government to find an entrance to the Northwest Passage. Upon anchoring at Nootka and interacting with the local people, he discovered that he was not the first European to grace these shores. In trading with them, he acquired the pelts of sea otters, and some silver Spanish cutlery. Unfortunately, his search for a passage connecting Europe to the Orient would be in vain, as by the end of the year he had found no sign of it, and decided to winter in Hawaii, where he met his end.
After these expeditions Vancouver would serve in the West Indies for nine years, at first as a lieutenant on the sloop Martin patrolling the Caribbean. One year in, he proved himself in battle as 4th Lieutenant aboard the Fame in the Battle of the Saintes, known as the most significant victory over the French during the American Revolutionary War. Soon after, he would be appointed to the Europa under Admiral Innes, having spent over a year on half-pay in England. He would spend five more years in the Caribbean, rising through the ranks aboard the Europa, eventually reaching 1st Lieutenant under Alan Gardner.
Upon his return home in 1789, English interest in the Pacific began to peak as the whaling industry took off and settlement of Australia began. Most lucrative of all was the maritime fur trade of primarily those sea otter pelts. They were sought by Han and Manchu nobility for hefty prices from various European traders, mainly the Russians and Spaniards until Cook’s expeditions opened the trade to English merchants. To capitalise on these financial opportunities, it was decided that another expedition should be sent in search of a western entrance to the Northwest Passage.
To this end, a new ship was purchased, christened the Discovery, and helmed by Captain Henry Roberts. Vancouver’s good friend Alan Gardner, soon to count himself among the ranks of the Admiralty, used his influence to get him a position aboard the vessel as second-in-command. While the Discovery was being outfitted, news came that Spanish activity had greatly increased in Nootka Sound, viewed then as the key to controlling the whole of the Northwest. This included the beginnings of the construction of a fort (this would be abandoned by summer’s end for reasons unknown), and the seizing of British trade shipping. As a result, helped along by some embellishment by a trouble-making trader named John Meares, the British Parliament would be roused to war with Spain.
Each country’s claims to the Northwest were centred somewhat around Captain James Cook’s voyage, with the Spanish suggesting that Cook’s discovery of Spanish silverware among the local peoples indicated the first discovery. The British asserted that his maps gave them the first genuine claim on the area. Despite these disagreements, a deal was struck known as the Nootka Convention, which would render the territory a neutral trade zone for any and all Europeans.
These compromises would take several years to implement and over this time both nations would undertake explorations of the coast, with the Spanish also resuming construction of their fort at Nootka. It became a race to acquire as precise a knowledge of the Northwest as possible, in order to strengthen their respective positions.
Each nation selected an envoy to represent their interests. The Spanish chose Bodega y Quadra, head of the San Blas naval department, a man well familiar with the territory. The British chose our own Captain Vancouver and tasked him with determining what land needed to be returned to Mr. Meares, as well as surveying the coast of the continent’s mainland north of Baja California. He would arrive in the Northwest in April of 1792 with the ships Discovery and Chatham, where he would spend months anchored on the coastline, sending out small boats to sail in and map every minute nook he could find. At the place we now call Spanish Banks, he would eventually encounter ships captained by Dionisio Alcalá Galiano, whom Vancouver would quickly befriend. The captains decided to explore together for a while, sharing their charts and maps as each surveyed a different coast. The British would survey the mainland, and the Spanish would take Vancouver Island, which they had named after Quadra.
Not long after this, the negotiations between Vancouver and Quadra at Nootka Sound would begin somewhat disfavourably for the British. As it turned out, John Meares had lied to Parliament, having never been sold any land. This was compounded by the fact that the Spanish fort had drawn a settled population. Nonetheless, Vancouver insisted that this land must be given up as ordered by his government. Quadra agreed on the condition that the Spanish could build a new base to the south in Juan de Fuca, which would cement Spain’s northern boundary. Vancouver asserted that Spain’s most northern colony at the time the conflict began was in San Francisco, rendering the Nootka settlement moot. Seeing that an agreement could not be reached there both captains decided to bring this information back to their governments to be settled later.
Vancouver would continue his detailed mapping of the Northwest for the next two years, reaching all the way into Alaska. By the end of this endeavour he had completed one of the most impressive surveys ever recorded. While the attempt to find a river passage from the Pacific to the Hudson’s Bay was ultimately a failure, Vancouver’s charting of the Northwest would prove invaluable for a century afterwards. It was used to grant legitimacy to Britain’s claim, as well as aid in the settlement and exploitation of the land in the coming decades. His fame would come only after his death at the age of forty, when his works were published posthumously.
Of all the explorers brought by tides of providence to this far-flung corner, George Vancouver remains among the greatest. His contributions to this place, and the Empire as a whole, will never be forgotten. Not while his statue stands traced in gold atop our Victorian Parliament, or even after; as with Cook and Macdonald, the winds of change cast his visage into the sea.