"I cannot possibly believe that any uncultivated country had ever been discovered exhibiting so rich a picture."; -GEORGE VANCOUVER

"It was on the basis of George Vancouver's work that the claim to the Northwest Coast as a British Possession was based." -- M. HUCULAK, HISTORIAN

Captain George Vancouver conducted the longest and arguably greatest survey voyage in maritime history but he remains the second-most renowned mariner of the Pacific Northwest-after his mentor Captain Cook.

Born of Dutch and English stock in King's Lynn, Norfolk, England on June 22, 1757, George Vancouver was the sixth and final child of John Jasper van Coeverden, a former sheriff, who descended from the town of Coevorden in northeast Netherlands. With the family name Jasper or Gaspar, he had arrived in England and married Bridget Berners. According to historian Chuck Davis, John Jasper added van Coeverden ("from Coeverden") to his surname, then changed and shortened its spelling to Vancouver. Coevorden in Dutch can be translated as "cow crossing."

George Vancouver entered the British Navy at age thirteen in 1771 and sailed for the first time on any ship in 1772 under the already famous Captain James Cook. As an untrained midshipman, Vancouver was taught the basics of navigation, mathematics and astronomy by William Wales during Cook's four-year voyage that explored the South Pacific to prove or disprove the existence of Terra Australis, a vast continent imagined to exist by the likes of the armchair Scottish geographer Alexander Dalrymple. Vancouver learned first hand how to control men at sea and the importance of preventing scurvy. Upon his return to England in 1775, Vancouver learn his father had died two years earlier, leaving him parent-less.

For Cook's third and final voyage of discovery that began in 1776, Vancouver was promoted to junior midshipman and served on the Discovery commanded by Charles Clerke. With two ships and 191 men, Cook, as commander of the Resolution, made the first recorded landing by Europeans at Hawaii, initially named the Sandwich Islands after a prominent figure in the British Admiralty. Vancouver first met Maquinna of the Mowachaht at Friendly Cove in Nootka Sound during their expedition's month-long and mostly cordial visit in April of 1778. Both ships continued north through the Bering Strait and into the Arctic Ocean before returning to Hawaii.

Because Vancouver was on the Discovery, he missed witnessing the decline of Cook's health due to an undiagnosed illness. As the great mariner's behavior grew increasingly intemperate, floggings on the Resolution increased. By the time relations with Hawaiian islanders soured in February of 1779, Cook was prone to fits of anger that clouded his judgment. The day before Cook was famously murdered on the beach at Kealakekua Bay after failing to kidnap the Hawaiian king Kalaniopuu, Vancouver had been beaten by Hawaiians in a skirmish over pilfered goods. The day after Hawaiians dismembered Cook's body and sent body parts to various chiefs, Vancouver and Lieutenant King participated in the heavily armoured expedition that went ashore and successfully negotiated the return of Cook's thigh and other body pieces in a bloody sack. By the time Vancouver returned to England via China--where sailors from both ships had learned sea otter pelts could be sold for huge sums--George Vancouver had been at sea for more than eight of his 23 years.

Promoted to lieutenant on the sloop of war Martin in 1780, Vancouver patrolled the North Sea before sailing to the Caribbean in 1782. Based in the rough port of Port Royal in Jamaica, the Martin engaged in a horrific but ultimately victorious battle against a Spanish ship, giving Vancouver his first and only taste of battle at sea. He was promoted to serve as junior lieutenant on the seventy-four gun ship Fame, a particularly noxious vessel beset by typhus, yellow fever and scurvy. Venereal diseases and food poisoning among the press-ganged sailors were also rampant. By the time Fame returned to London in 1783, Vancouver had learned how NOT to run a ship.

As third lieutenant on the Europa, Vancouver returned to Jamaica where Sir Alan Gardner, the new commander-in-chief for the West Indies, chose him to undertake a survey of the Kingston and Port Royal harbours in 1787. Using small boats, Vancouver ended up charting the entire coastline of Jamaica, overcoming a bout of serious illness in the process, and gaining promotions to second lieutenant in 1787 and first lieutenant in 1788. During this productive five-year period in the West Indies, during which he honed his navigational skills and leadership qualities, Vancouver made professional friendships with numerous sailors who would soon prove valuable to him on the West Coast of Canada. Zachary Mudge, Joseph Whidbey, Joseph Baker and Peter Puget. All these men would have places named after them in the Pacific Northwest.

Upon his return to England in 1789, Vancouver soon expected to sail as second lieutenant on a return scientific expedition of discovery to the South Pacific, this time under his former shipmate Captain Henry Roberts. But as news was received of the so-called Nootka Incident involving the seizure of British trading vessels by Esteban José Martínez at Friendly Cove, Vancouver's future took a radical turn towards the North Pacific. Having once more proven himself capable during a relatively brief stint in the English Channel on the Courageous for Sir Alan Gardner, Vancouver was recommended by Gardner to the Admiralty Board as the man to take charge of the newly built Discovery for a demanding journey of international importance to Nootka Sound.

Vancouver not only received orders in December of 1790 to sail as a diplomatic envoy entrusted to resolve Britain's simmering territorial conflicts with Spain, as well as survey the coast from Baja California (30 degrees) to Cook Inlet, Alaska (60 degress). He was also burdened with the presence of an independent-minded protege of Sir Joseph Banks, a Scottish botanist named Archibald Menzies, who had his own agenda to collect specimens, much to the consternation of Vancouver. Vancouver resented the arrogant meddling of Banks in British navy operations, just as he had seen Captain Cook resent Banks, but he lacked the stature of Cook to override the intrusions of Banks' scientific agendae.

Vancouver was also instructed to judiciously distribute presents to native peoples "to conciliate their friendship and confidence," and to search for the imagined Strait of Anian located somewhere between 48 degrees and 498 degrees north (ie. the Strait of Juan de Fuca). By in April of 1792 he had found the opening of the strait and set about surveying the mainland coast, reaching the site of the city that bears his name. In June of 1792, he met two Spanish vessels off Point Grey in Vancouver harbour, giving rise to the name Spanish Banks. The Spanish captains were Galiano and Cayetano Valdés.

Vancouver then sailed to Nootka Sound in August where he once again met Maquinna, the chief of the Mowachaht, and famously befriended the commander Bodega y Quadra. Despite the official differences of their countries, the sea captains became warm friends. An international crisis was diffused.

Vancouver wrote: "The politenes, hospitality, and friendship, shown on all ocassions by Senor Quadra, induced Mr. Broughton and myself, with several of the officers and gentlemen of both vessels to dine at his table almost every day, which was not less pleasant than salubrious, as it was constantly furnished with a variety of refreshments to most of which we had long been entire strangers....

"In our conversation whilst on this little excursion, Senor Quadra had very earnestly requested that I would name some port or island after us both, to commemorate our meeting and the very friendly intercourse that had taken place and subsisted between us. Conceiving no spot so proper for this denomination as the place where we had first met, which was nearly in the centre of a tract of land that had first been circumnavigated by us, forming the south-western sides of the southern sides of Johnstone's Straits and Queen Charlotte's sound, I named the Island of Quadra and Vancouver; with which compliment he seemed highly pleased."

The Island of Quadra and Vancouver appeared on early admiralty maps until Hudson's Bay Company traders abbreviated the name to Vancouver's Island. It later became known as Vancouver Island.

Vancouver continued his meticulous surveys of the West Coast in the summers of 1793 and 1794, wintering in Hawaii. He is commonly credited as being the first mariner to circumnavigate Vancouver Island when in fact he was the first European to prove it was an island with his various surveys.

Nine Spanish maps, better described as harbour views, were provided to George Vancouver after he arrived on the coast in the summer of 1792, including charts made by Alejandro Malaspina while anchored at Nootka. According to Vancouver expert John E. Roberts [see entry] the Spanish provided Vancouver with details of their survey of Loughborough Inlet which he added to James Johnstone's survey "and which only served to complicate the mutual error of the charting of this area."

In 1792 an excellent map of southwestern B.C. waters was made by Dionisio Alcalá Galiano (the first European to find the mouth of the Fraser River) but Britain published Captain Vancouver's charts four years before Spain released Galiano's charts in 1802. Vancouver is sometimes criticized for missing the mouths of the Fraser, Skeena and Stikine Rivers, and he overlooked the 50-km-long Seymour Inlet, but Roberts contends Vancouver's chart clearly shows the mouth of the Fraser ending in a delta in a similar manner to the Spanish map of the area. As well, it was Vancouver's subordinate Joseph Whidbey who missed the Skeena and his other subordinate Johnstone who missed the Stikine.

Vancouver provided the permanent names for many places along the coast, as well as some toponyms that did not stick. For instance, he named northern Washington as New Georgia, and successive northerly regions as New Hanover, New Cornwall and New Norfolk. Other locations were named for his officers Zachary Mudge, Peter Puget, Joseph Baker, Joseph Whidbey, William Broughton and James Johnstone. Vancouver also provided names for Point Couverden at the entrance to Lynn Canal, named "after the seat of my ancestors," as well as Couverden Island and Couverden Rock.

The H.M. Sloop-of-War Discovery returned to England in October of 1795. In the wake of Vancouver's remarkably accurate survey work, competing British and Spanish sea captains were less prone to search for the Northwest Passage. A sea route connecting the two oceans was eventually found by Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1903-1906 when he sailed from Oslo with six others in the 47-ton sloop Gjoa in 1903 and reached Nome, Alaska on August 31, 1906.

George Vancouver's downfall was his flogging of sixteen-year-old Thomas Pitt, an obnoxious member of the leading political family in Britain. As Vancouver had been a shipmate with Captain Bligh on Captain James Cook's third voyage, it's tempting to suggest Vancouver might have been counselled by Bligh not to spare the rod on his crew following the famous "mutiny on the Bounty."; Roberts contends, "Vancouver did not need lessons from anyone on how to run a tight ship with his experience as First Lieutenant of the Europa. Vancouver, a stern disciplinarian, was within his rights to order four severe punishments of Pitt--he was put in bilboes, twice whipped and once given a flogging--because Pitt was strongly suspected of thievery, but Vancouver was never vindicated in his lifetime. After Vancouver sent Pitt home in disgrace on the supply ship Daedalus in 1794, Pitt maligned Vancouver in upper-class society. When Pitt later became 2nd Baron of Camelford, he challenged Vancouver to a duel. Already ailing, Vancouver wouldn't oblige him, whereupon Pitt attacked him in the street, leading to a front-page scandal.

Vancouver had trouble collecting his back pay and his achievements were never adequately recognized. He spent his declining years in ill health, preparing his journals for publication with his brother John. Shortly after George Vancouver's death at age forty on May 12, 1798, his adventures were published and proved extremely popular.

A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World is one of the first books to describe the B.C. coast at length. A first edition set of the original three-volume Voyage of Discovery, valued at $25,000, was purchased and donated to the Vancouver Maritime Museum by Alcan in 1997. The National Library of Canada also retains a copy.

In 1999, The Friends of Vancouver Society initiated a proclamation signed by the Lt. Governor of British Columbia to formally exonerate Vancouver ("whereas his reputation has been unjustly maligned";). This proclamation declared that May 12, the date of Vancouver's death, would be George Vancouver Day in British Columbia in perpetuity.

An anchor placed at Spanish Banks suggests the Spanish pilot José Maria Narváez preceded Vancouver to the entrance to English Bay within the Canadian city that now bears Vancouver's name, but John E. (Ted) Roberts contends Narváez only reached the northern bank of the Fraser River (off present-day Musqueam territory). "No Spaniard entered Vancouver Harbour proper," he writes, "until Galiano sent Vernacci and Salamanca, at Vancouver's request, to survey Indian Arm." Former Vancouver Maritime Museum director James Delgado has credited Narváez with being the first European known to have reached English Bay and cites Vancouver as the first European known to have entered Burrard Inlet.

The city of Vancouver is not named after Vancouver, but rather after Vancouver Island. Intent on establishing a transportation link from the West Coast of Canada to the Orient, in keeping with Canadian Pacific Railway's global shipping plans, CPR general manager William Van Horne visited the West Coast in August of 1884 and decided tiny Granville should become the western terminus for the CPR instead of Port Moody (mainly because the eastern end of Burrard Inlet was too shallow for large ships). A month later the CPR's board of directors validated Van Horne's preference. The provincial government soon secretly agreed to provide 6,000 acres of land on the Burrard peninsula to the CPR if the CPR extended its railway line from Port Moody to the vicinity of English Bay. Van Horne was delighted with the prospects of expanding the village of Granville--especially given that the CPR controlled so much of the surrounding land--but he worried that precious few people in the world had heard of Granville. With its 30 buildings in 1882, Granville had once been divided into lots for a city to be called Liverpool. Van Horne decided Granville should instead be changed to Vancouver because Vancouver Island already appeared on most maps of the late 19th century. People already knew approximately where Vancouver Island was--so Vancouver was incorporated on April 6, 1886. The first CPR passenger train reached Port Moody on July 4, 1886. The link all the way to Vancouver for CPR passengers was first realized in May, 1887. The S.S. Abyssinia arrived from Japan the following month with cargo bound for London via the new transcontinental railway.


A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean [...] in Which the Coast of North-West America Has Been Carefully Examined and Accurately Surveyed [...] and Performed in the Years 1790, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1794, and 1795 [...]. (London: G.G. and J. Robinson, and J. Edwards, 1798).

A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean [...] in Which the Coast of North-West America Has Been Carefully Examined and Accurately Surveyed [...] and Performed in the Years 1790, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1794, and 1795 [...]. (London: John Stockdale, 1801). This edition contains corrections to the first as well as beautiful engravings of Mount Rainier, Friendly Cove, Monterey and Mount St. Elias.

Journal of the Voyages of the H.M.S. Discovery and Chatham (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1992). Edited by Thomas Manby


Newcombe, C.F. The First Circumnavigation of Vancouver Island (British Columbia Archives, 1914).

Meany, Edmond S. (editor). A New Vancouver Journal on the Discovery of Puget Sound, By [Edward Bell] a Member of Chatham's Crew (Seattle: University of Washington, 1915).

Anderson, George Howard. Vancouver and his Great Voyage; The Story of a Norfolk Sailor, Captain Geo. Vancouver, R.N., 1757-1798 (King's Lynn, Thew & Son, 1923).

Godwin, George. Vancouver: A Life 1757-1798 (London: Philip Allan, 1930).

Marshall, J. Stirrat & C. Marshall. Adventure in Two Hemispheres including Captain Vancouver's Voyage (Vancouver: Talex Printing, 1955). Republished as Vancouver's Voyage (Mitchell Press, 1967).

Meany, E. S. Vancouver's Discovery of Puget Sound (Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1957).

Anderson, Bern. Surveyor of the Sea: The Life and Voyages of Captain George Vancouver (University of Washington, 1960).

Smye, Ronald. Vancouver: Explorer of the Pacific Coast (Morrow, 1970).

Fisher, Robin. Vancouver's Voyage: Charting the Northwest Coast, 1791-1795 (Douglas & McIntrye, 1992). [It contains the drawings and engravings of John Sykes and the 16-year-old midshipman Henry Humphreys, plus contemporary photos of sites by Gary Fiegehen and extracts from Vancouver's journals. Through the generosity of SFU benefactor William Anderson, copies of the book were provided to every public and secondary school in British Columbia.]

Gillespie, Brenda Guild. On Stormy Seas: The Triumphs and Torments of George Vancouver (Horsdal & Schubart, 1992). [A work of fiction told from the perspective of Vancouver's older brother.]

Fisher, Robin & Hugh Johnston. From Maps to Metaphors: The Pacific World of George Vancouver (UBC Press, 1993).

Roberts, John E. (Ted). A Discovery Journal (s.p., 1997).

McKinney, Sam. Sailing with Vancouver: A Modern Sea Dog, Antique Charts and a Voyage Through Time (Touchwood, 2004).

Bown, Stephen R. Madness, Betrayal and the Lash: The Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver (D&M 2008).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2008] "1700-1800" "Maritime" "English" "George Vancouver" "Place Names"