Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Vancouver, George

VANCOUVER, GEORGE (1758–1798), captain in the navy, born in 1758, entered the navy as a boy of thirteen, with the rating of ‘able seaman,’ on board the Resolution, with Captain James Cook [q. v.], for Cook's second voyage. He continued with Cook as A.B., and afterwards midshipman of the Discovery in the last voyage, returning in her in October 1780. On 19 Oct. he passed his examination, and on 9 Dec. was made lieutenant into the Martin sloop. From her he was moved into the Fame, one of the ships that sailed with Rodney for the West Indies in December 1781, and took part in the battle of 12 April 1782; she returned to England in the summer of 1783, and in the following year Vancouver was appointed to the Europa, which, in 1786, went out to Jamaica with the broad pennant of Commodore Alan (afterwards Lord) Gardner [q. v.] From her he was paid off in September 1789, and he was then, at Gardner's suggestion, appointed to go out with Captain Roberts as second in command of an exploring expedition in the South Sea. For this purpose a ship, then building by Messrs. Randall, was bought, named the Discovery at her launch, and fitted out under Vancouver's superintendence. She was nearly ready, when the dispute about Nootka Sound [see Meares, John] caused the organisation of the fleet known as ‘the Spanish armament;’ the Discovery's men and officers were distributed in the fleet, and the exploring expedition was necessarily postponed. Vancouver himself was appointed to the Courageux, commanded by Gardner, and on her being paid off was promoted to the rank of commander on 15 Dec. 1790.

It was then judged expedient that an officer should be sent out to Nootka Sound ‘to receive back in form the territory on which the Spaniards had seized,’ and also to make an accurate survey of the coast northwards from the 30th degree of north latitude. Vancouver was selected for this duty, and, as the Discovery was ready fitted, he was at once appointed to her. His instructions were dated 8 March 1791, and the Discovery finally sailed from Falmouth on 1 April, having in company the Chatham tender, commanded by Lieutenant William Robert Broughton [q. v.] As the route was left to his own judgment, he followed Cook's teaching and went westward, touching at the Cape of Good Hope, surveying the south-west coast of Australia, where he discovered and named King George's Sound, Mount Gardner, Cape Hood, and other points in that neighbourhood. Then passing on to New Zealand, he examined the recesses of Dusky Bay, and where Cook had marked on the chart ‘Nobody knows what,’ he substituted a correct coast-line and the name ‘Somebody knows what.’ He reached Tahiti on 30 Dec. 1791, and in the following year, after the necessary formalities at Nootka, he examined the strait of San Juan de Fuca, discovered the gulf of Georgia, and, passing on, circumnavigated the large island which has since borne his name. The two following years he continued his examination of the coast from San Francisco, northwards, which, for the first time he accurately delineated. In 1795 he returned to England by Valparaiso, Cape Horn, and St. Helena, falling in, off the Cape Verd Islands, with the Sceptre and the St. Helena convoy, and so being conducted home in safety—for, contrary to international usage, no order to consider the scientific expedition as neutral had been issued by the French Directory on the outbreak of war between France and England. The Discovery arrived in the Thames on 20 Oct. 1795, and was paid off a few weeks later. Vancouver, who had been advanced to post rank on 28 Aug. 1794, now devoted himself to preparing his journals for publication. This occupied the whole of his time. He had corrected the proofs of all but the few last pages, when he died at Petersham, on 10 May 1798. The work was finished off by his brother John, assisted by Captain Puget, who had sailed from England as a lieutenant of the Discovery, and had succeeded Broughton in command of the Chatham. It was published a few months after the author's death, as ‘A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and round the World in the Years 1790–1795 in the Discovery Sloop of War and Armed Tender Chatham, under the Command of Captain George Vancouver’ (3 vols. 4to, 1798, with atlas of plates, fol.).

A portrait of Vancouver, ‘painted probably by Lemuel F. Abbott,’ was purchased in 1878 by the trustees of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

It has been said, and recorded by Sir Joseph Banks on what he considered sufficient evidence, that Vancouver's discipline during his voyage was harsh in the extreme; and Lord Camelford—whom he flogged three times, put in the bilboes, and finally discharged to the shore—bitterly resented the treatment [see Pitt, Thomas, second Baron Camelford]. But even according to the favourable statement given by Banks, Camelford's conduct appears to have been irregular, insubordinate, and insolent; and Vancouver, thrown entirely on his own resources, without possibility of support, may have honestly thought strong measures to be necessary, as in fact several of our most distinguished explorers have done—from Drake to McClure.

[Passing Certificate, and Commission and Warrant Books in the Public Record Office; Voyage of Discovery, especially the introduction and editor's advertisement; manuscript note by Sir Joseph Banks, by favour of Sir Clements Markham; Gent. Mag. 1798, i. 447.]

J. K. L.