Book of the month: November – George Vancouver

I didn’t have any particular idea about what I wanted to read in November, but at some point I was back to North America – eastern Canada, originally, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to know about – and then I remembered Vancouver and the west coast. So this was a spur of the moment buy for the content, rather than a book or author that particularly appealed to me.

Vancouver first comes into history as an officer’s servant and then midshipman on Cook’s voyages – first to the Antarctic circle, where he was briefly the most southerly person in the world, and then to the Pacific coast of America to search for a Northwest Passage. Returning from this voyage, he passed his lieutenants exam and spent time first in the Channel and then in the West Indies, where he gained experience of surveying.

Early 1791 saw him setting off for North West America again (via the Cape of Good Hope and New Zealand) as commander of the Discovery (not Cook’s ship but a successor), both to carry out the coastal surveys which Cook’s voyage had not had time for, and to settle Spanish claims to land in the region. Although many of his officers proved themselves and went on to successful future careers, two in particular were to cause him problems – Archibald Menzies, appointed as botanist to the expedition with orders to report back to Sir Joseph Banks any ‘obstructions’ to his researches, who later became Discovery‘s surgeon, and midshipman Thomas Pitt (later Lord Camelford), who had already been refused a certificate of service from his last ship, but seemed to feel that his birth counted for more than his actions.

Most of the book is a straightforward (and very chronological) account of the coastal surveys, and the various events and encounters which took place during them – meetings with local natives, with Spaniards and with whalers, and various accidents with the ships. The surveys went well in spite of this, but other things were not so successful – Vancouver was ill for a large part of the voyage, found himself turned away from Spanish ports on the west coast of America when refitting one winter, and eventually found himself superceded in the negotiations over Nootka Sound – at which point he decided to head for home, war having now broken out with France.

Sadly, things weren’t any better for him at home – not only were Menzies and Banks causing trouble, but Pitt (now Lord Camelford), who had eventually been sent home in disgrace, was causing even more, attempting to call Vancouver out over the discipline he had been subject to as a midshipman, and stirring up the press in his ownfavour. Worn out by illness and his other troubles, Vancouver died aged 40 in 1798, just after finishing his account of his voyage.

As a book, I found it a bit uneven – written by someone to obviously knew a great deal about Vancouver’s life, but without that sense of deep background knowledge that you get from a real expert. But as a story it was fascinating.

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