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Madness, Betrayal and the Lash

The Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver

Excerpt 1


There are no people in view. I'm standing on a small pebble-strewn beach bounded at each end by giant rock outcroppings and hemmed in by a wall of mighty cedar trees inland. It is cold and raining. Mist clings to the treetops and obscures the surrounding mountains. The waves gently curl in toward my boots, so I step back, leaving a boot print in the pebbles. The beach is deserted and unremarkable, indistinguishable from thousands of other tiny, stone beaches along the rugged coast of the Pacific Northwest. I turn and walk through the drizzle, scramble over the rock outcropping and return toward the larger beach and the grassy clearing above it. The clearing is the only level ground on this narrow spit of land that juts south from Nootka Island.

From my vantage point in the clearing I now see two very different aspects of the same ocean. On one side of this narrow finger of land lies the open Pacific, its wild waves rumbling ominously with whitecaps before they crash into the shore. The other side is as calm and placid as a lake, the finger of land subduing the rough weather and creating a snug shelter. The boat I arrived on is moored here on the calm side, in Yuquot or Friendly Cove, where dozens of ships once sought shelter. For a brief period in the late 18th century this remote and lonely spot on the southern tip of the largest island west of Vancouver Island was one of the most important and talked-about places in the world: more than a thousand people lived here. The deserted beach I strolled on so recently had commercial storage sheds and workshops that, although primitive, serviced activities that changed the course of empires. The grassy clearing supported at one time dozens of enormous cedar long houses of the Mowachaht people and, during another, briefer time, a Spanish settlement and garrison - the northernmost outpost of Spain's vast American empire.

In the late 1800's, after centuries of European naval exploration and particularly after the three great voyages of Captain James Cook, most of the world's coastline, apart from its Arctic and Antarctic coasts, was reasonably well charted. The other remaining blank spot was the Pacific coast of North America. In the wake of Cook's hasty voyage along this coast in 1778 came the discovery of something that would dramatically and quickly change the course of history: sea otter pelts, which were worth a fortune in China. Within a few years, dozens of American and British ships were cruising the coast in search of the velvet booty. It was also somewhere along this vast unexplored coast that armchair geographers had decided to place the elusive western end of a northwest passage connecting the Pacific Ocean to Hudson Bay or to a great inland sea in the uncharted continental interior. Pacific North America was a wild card in the game of empire, a tectonic struggle for global supremacy between the nations of western Europe. Controlling the Pacific coast, or at least preventing others from controlling it, was suddenly very important. Spain claimed the territory outright as part of its New World empire and forbade any trespassing, a claim based on the historical precedent of the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494. Britain maintained that the seas should be open to every nation for trade and commerce. These two views were of course incompatible.

The stakes were dramatically upped in the summer of 1789, in Friendly Cove in Nootka Sound, when a Spanish captain captured several "trespassing" British trading ships and sent their officers and crews to Mexico as prisoner. The Spanish seizure of British ships and property incited a patriotic outcry in England - after Captain Cook's glorious navigation and charting in the Pacific, people asked, how could the Spanish dictate where British ships could sail and trade? Slogans were chanted, rhetoric escalated, troops and war ships mobilized. The clash brought two great empires to the brink of war. The reluctant and temporary peace inspired one of the great 18th century voyages of exploration, an epic adventure that was to last nearly five years and change the histories and geographies of Spain, Russia, Britain, Hawaii, the new republic of the United States of America, the yet-to-exist country of Canada and dozens of indigenous First Nations.

In 1790 the British government commissioned two small ships, Discovery and Chatham, to circumnavigate the world, sail to Friendly Cove and meet with a Spanish representative to solidify the terms of a boundary agreement between the two empires. The British leader of the expedition was also commissioned to do something far more daunting, and ultimately far more important: complete detailed nautical survey of the uncharted coast from California to Alaska, settling the issue of the legendary east-west passage south of the Arctic, and compile a detailed report on the region, it peoples and resources. What was its potential as an outpost of the British Empire?

Mapping a place is the first step to controlling it. For Britain, staking a claim to this distant but strategically important region, the unknown western coast of its sole remaining North American colony, was vital. If ignored, this coast was likely to fall under the control of potentially hostile foreign powers. For a commander, completing the exploring and charting of Pacific North America was a prized commission, a chance to make one's mark as an explorer and navigator. But the young captain chosen for the plum appointment, although experienced, had inherited a major prejudice: a deep scepticism about the existence of a northwest passage, variously known as the legendary Great River of the West, the Strait of Juan de Fuca or the Strait of Anian. He felt that the fabled sea route was a mere chimera for hopeful but deluded traders. The young captain also harboured within himself the kernels of an illness, not yet evident but growing daily like a cancer - an illness that would drive him into uncontrollable rages that left him humbled, shamed, exhausted and bedridden. The captain's fraying temper left him ill-equipped to deal with a belligerent and obnoxious midshipman and led to a violent conflict that had terrible repercussions.

The leader of that incredible voyage was a 33 year old upper middle-class Royal Navy officer, a protégé of James Cook and one of the finest hydrographic surveyors of his time. His life would end not long after he returned to London, after being humiliated, professionally blacklisted and lampooned in the press for his alleged misdeeds on the far side of the world. He should have returned a hero, for he was one of the great mariners of all time, but instead he died in obscurity. The details of his epic voyage were lost amidst the slander and innuendo propagated by his aristocratic enemies and the din of cannon fire: Napoleon had begun ten years of military adventuring, and Britain was suddenly overtaken by patriotic - and military - fervour. The young captain, George Vancouver, could neither defeat his enemies at home nor compete with Napoleon's exploits. But he, in the end, have earned a more honourable place in history.