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Stephen R. Bown

Stephen R. Bown

August 2012

When Roald Amundsen began his career there were four unmapped corners of the world—the Northwest Passage, the Northeast Passage, the South Pole, and the North Pole. Why had no one reached these places before him? Had many people tried?

Hundreds of people had been trying for centuries to reach either of the two poles, but they had been rebuffed by bitter cold and impregnable ice. In the Arctic they were searching for a Northwest Passage from Europe to the fabled riches of the Orient, while in Antarctica they were searching for a reputedly vast southern continent to counterbalance the landmass of the northern hemisphere. In the early 20th century no one had fully explored either of these destinations. In fact Amundsen’s pioneering flights toward the North Pole were intended to discover what was believed to be the last unknown land on the planet.

Amundsen is known as a great Norwegian explorer. Did he consider his exploratory missions a source of national pride or service, or did he view them as personal undertakings? Did this viewpoint change over time?

Amundsen enjoyed great acclaim in Norway and was naturally proud of his heritage, but his expeditions were mostly privately financed from sources outside Norway. After his initial success sailing the Northwest Passage, he spent far more time living in the United States, where he was revered for his daring exploits and boundless drive. He even considered applying for American citizenship. Later in his life, perhaps as a counterbalance to the politically motivated attacks of one of his expedition partners—Colonel Umberto Nobile, an officer in Mussolini’s Italian armed forces—Amundsen became more patriotic toward his native country and returned there to live.

What were some of the major challenges in the type of arctic travel on which Amundsen embarked during the early 1900s?

The arctic regions were truly unknown places, with no maps, no local guides, and no effective or reliable communication. Nor were there any accessible outposts at which to resupply in case of emergency. By today’s standards the polar regions were inconceivably remote and dangerous, making them all the more difficult to explore and making potential mistakes or misjudgments in the frigid environment all the more life-threatening.

How are the four arctic journeys that Amundsen pioneered different for explorers today? Has technology diminished the dangers associated with them?

Without diminishing the efforts of modern explorers, there is no doubt that in Amundsen’s time the task was staggeringly more difficult. Explorers were challenged by relatively primitive food preservation techniques, less advanced fabrics and clothing designs, poor or non-existent communication, and the fact that the geography and conditions were unknown. Yes, it was exceedingly more challenging a century ago.

What did the way Amundsen responded to adversity tell us about the type of man he was?

Amundsen thrived on adversity. It was at those times that he became the calm, determined, and imaginative leader that gave rise to his towering reputation. He was the type of man who became fully engaged when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles or problems. Of course he was also a magnificent organizer, and it was those two traits—the imaginative leader and the meticulous planner—that enabled his success, and his survival.

What sort of preparation in terms of packing and planning did Amundsen do to increase his likelihood of reaching his destination?

Amundsen spent many months, sometimes years, preparing for his expeditions. He began by thoroughly reading any related literature from other explorers. He counted the meals down to the day, measured travel times under various conditions, and tried to apply his calculations as stringently as possible, allowing great margins for error. He had an incredible imagination for anticipating the type of problems and challenges that could arise and planned solutions to them in advance. Perhaps most unusual for the time, he was not afraid to learn and adopt survival techniques from indigenous peoples, such as food preparation, dog and sled handling, snow house construction, clothing designs, and navigation techniques.

Do you believe that Amundsen’s successes in the polar regions could be credited to the time he spent living and learning from the Inuit people? Were these techniques the edge he needed to beat Scott to the South Pole?

Certainly that is the case. I don’t think Amundsen would have triumphed at the South Pole had he not spent years living with the Netsilingmiut at what is now called Gjoa Haven in the Canadian Arctic. He knew he was there to learn and that became the focus of his time there. If you look at photographs of Amundsen in Antarctica, and from his many later expeditions, you can see the clothing he and his men are wearing is based on Inuit design. It was also at Gjoa Haven that Amundsen learned the most indispensible skill of all: all about Arctic dogs and sleds. He learned how to treat them, resolve disputes between them (they were always fighting), how and what to feed them – what he could expect from them, and what he would have to provide for them. Without the dogs and sleds working so efficiently (being fed on frozen seal that they hunted and stored soon after their arrival in Antarctica) Amundsen could never have completed or survived his incredible dash to the South Pole. Amundsen became a master of Polar exploration only after his education at Gjoa Haven.

Were there occurrences in Amundsen’s childhood or early adulthood that predisposed him to a life of arctic exploration?

During Amundsen’s childhood in Norway skiing was just being developed, so he had early exposure to what would prove to be the most efficient and effective means of polar travel. He spent his youth skiing the hinterlands of Oslo. He also came of age at a time when other famous Norwegian explorers such as Fridtjoff Nansen were enjoying enormous fame and celebrity for their exploits, and he imagined the same acclaim for himself.

What sort of training did Amundsen have before his first major arctic journey? Did he take steps to continue building his survival knowledge and skill-set between trips?

According to his own claims, Amundsen devoted most of his life since his teen-age years to learning the skills he thought would prove useful as an explorer. He embarked on a regimen of physical training and toughening, including weight training and always sleeping with his window open in winter, and he devoted years toward obtaining his ship’s masters license so that he could captain a ship as well as be the expedition commander. He also spent a number of years living with the Inuit to learn polar survival techniques.

Who were the other players in the race to map the remaining four corners of the world, and how did their approach differ from Amundsen’s?

Amundsen had many competitors over the years: Shackleton, Scott, Byrne, Peary, Cook, and Nansen are the most famous but there were many others. They were all dedicated, hardened and highly skilled individuals—masters of their craft and certainly tough enough. Amundsen succeeded so frequently at his goals, I believe, because of his willingness, indeed eagerness, to learn from and adopt the travel and survival techniques of indigenous peoples and prior explorers. He truly learned from the success and failure of others. He was always looking to the future, refining and altering his techniques and technology over time, moving from sailing ships to marine diesel engines, from dogs and skis to airplanes and, finally, to a dirigible.

Other explorers pursued Amundsen in an effort to beat him to the four corners, but who pursued him in his personal life?

Amundsen was frequently pursued by young men eager to join his expeditions. He was also pursued by women. An internationally famous man of mystery and danger, he had affairs with a series of married women whom he met during his lecture tours. His last relationship was with a much younger Alaskan beauty who divorced her husband so as to follow Amundsen to Norway as his fiancée.

Amundsen was also dogged by creditors for most of his career, since he was extremely poor at managing his finances. Once, he set sail during a storm to avoid creditors seizing his ship. On another occasion, an expedition launched with no financing for the return voyage. He burned through a small fortune on airplanes and ships, and eventually declared bankruptcy. One of his friends recalled that their conversation in the privacy of Amundsen’s room at the Waldorf Astoria was frequently interrupted by the rustling of demand letters being shoved under the door.

Was Amundsen survived by any children, either in Norway, in the US or in Canada’s Arctic?

Amundsen never married and had no recognized children. However, there are claims that Amundsen fathered at least one child with an Inuit woman in Gjoa Haven. Genetic testing has disproved this one case, but has not shown that any other Inuit are Amundsen’s descendents, or the descendents of the men who sailed with Amundsen through the Northwest Passage. In the 1920s, Amundsen adopted two young girls from Siberia and brought them to Norway where they lived with his brother’s family and were educated for several years. They eventually settled in the lower mainland of British Columbia.

At what point in his life did Amundsen become an international celebrity? How did he react to the attention, and how do you think it affected him in the long run?

Particularly in the United States, Amundsen became so famous by the 1920s that he was a celebrity: famous for being famous. He was frequently in the newspapers and on the lecture circuit; when he appeared at prestigious venues other famous explorers and the political and cultural elite came out to hear him. Amundsen enjoyed the attention but found the routine lectures in lesser venues and cities to be burdensome—something he did to earn money and keep his creditors at bay. Amundsen particularly disliked talking about past adventures and telling old stories. He wanted new adventures and new stories, but this became more difficult as he got older.

Was Amundsen feared by his men or loved by them? What kind of leader was he?

Amundsen was a demanding and occasionally harsh leader. He had no patience for bunglers and no respect for people who couldn’t solve unexpected problems. Except for his final crossing of the Polar Sea in a dirigible in 1926, he was very particular about choosing his crew. Tellingly, it was on this expedition that he encountered his greatest interpersonal problems.

Amundsen demonstrated great loyalty to the men who joined him on his expeditions, finding employment for them, lending them money, or ensuring they received full credit for their participation, but when he felt they had betrayed him or abandoned him he cut off contact and in a sense disowned them. Many complained about how hard he could be, but then signed on for future expeditions or remained friends with him for their entire lives.

In his journals, Amundsen wrote many detailed accounts of the activities of his sled dogs. Were these dogs merely necessary equipment for polar exploration or were they important companions for him as well?

They were both. And I’m sure keeping the distinction separate was a difficult task, particularly on his South Pole expedition where many of the dogs died – in fact several were eaten by Amundsen and his men or fed to the other dogs. Amundsen’s love of the dogs is palpable in his writing. He clearly appreciated their unique personalities and reveled in their antics. The dogs provided an entertaining break from the tedium of the expeditions for all the men.

How did Amundsen die, and do you think it was the type of death he would have wanted?

As far as we know, Amundsen’s airplane crashed into the sea north of Norway on a rescue mission for a rival explorer whom he hated; only the wrecked pontoons were ever found. It was the type of death Amundsen claimed to have wanted: in action, in the frozen regions. While there are many who would profess a desire to die in action while secretly hoping for a comfortable end at home surrounded by family and friends, I think Amundsen truly did want a glorious and frightening death in the Arctic. Throughout his life he had repeatedly put himself in these situations and claimed that he wanted to die in action. I doubt that this was the case with the other young men who were with him in the doomed airplane.

What drew you to Amundsen as a subject, and in what way is he “The Last Viking?”

I was drawn to Amundsen because I had read conflicting assessments of his character. I knew of Amundsen as the first person to navigate the Northwest Passage, where he lived for several years (and is still respected by the Inuit there) and where he learned polar survival techniques that helped him attain the South Pole. In most accounts of the race to the South Pole between Amundsen and Scott, however, he is presented as a dour, ruthless, unforgiving taskmaster who cared about nothing other than defeating his enemies—a un-admirable character who may have reached the South Pole first but didn`t deserve to have done so. As a biographer, I sensed that these were incompatible views and set out to determine the truth.

What new information did your research reveal about Amundsen’s life and career?

When I did my initial research I discovered hundreds of previously unknown newspaper articles about Amundsen, particularly from the New York Times, which revealed a completely new side of Amundsen`s character and life: that he was an American celebrity who spent far more time in New York than in his native Norway and that he was a charming eccentric with a self-deprecating and amusing sense of humor, a great spinner of yarns. My research revealed an unknown side to the personality of the polar explorer and also revealed that his greatest fame and popularity in the United States began nearly a decade after he had raced to the South Pole.

Amundsen did not fade into obscurity after the South Pole as is often claimed. He achieved the pinnacle of his success and fame using airplanes and dirigibles, working out of Alaska. His later success was in the United States and Norway, not in Britain where he wasn’t very respected. It has been primarily British writers who have defined Amundsen to date, usually in relation to Scott and the South Pole. But they have missed a huge part of his life and career by focusing on this single event.

Do you think Amundsen has gotten the credit he deserves for his contribution to arctic exploration?

In a word, no. While he was at one time a household name, justifiably known as the greatest of polar explorers, his star has dimmed over the past century so that now he is known mostly as a dastardly, and perhaps unscrupulous, foil to Scott. It is very satisfying to bring to light all this new information that overturns prior assessments of his character and tells the incredible story of his overlooked adventures and achievements.

D&M Marketing, Aug 21, 2012
Read more about Stephen R. Bown >>
Stephen R. Bown

Stephen R. Bown

July 2011

We sat down with maritime history expert - "Canada's Simon Winchester" - Stephen Bown to talk about his newest volume, 1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half. The first order of business was pinpointing the notorious Pope Alexander, recently made popular by Jeremy Irons in the current television series The Borgias.

Can you draw a connection between your book and the Borgias TV show that’s just become popular?

The obvious link is that The Borgias and 1494 feature the same character: the notorious Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI (played by Jeremy Irons in the TV show). In my book 1494 he is the man who divided the world in half by drawing a north-south line through the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and proclaimed all newly discovered lands to the east of the line to be under the sovereignty of Portugal and all newly discovered lands to the west to belong to Spain. The punishment for violating his decree was excommunication. While the division of the world was certainly his most important historical action, Borgia was an incredibly interesting person, a rogue of the highest order known to history variously for poisonings, a string of mistresses and illegitimate children, lewd and wild orgies and parties at his opulent palace, nepotism and corruption. Apparently he was also a competent administrator, but that’s not why people find him intriguing or repulsive (or both).

The idea that the world could be divided in half and shared between two nations seems amazing and shocking from a modern point of view. What gave the pope the idea to do such a thing?

It’s fairly basic actually: Rodrigo Borgia was corrupt, and he needed the financial and military support of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile and Aragon. They had sent him a note requesting this division of the world when Columbus returned from his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Ferdinand and Isabella had supported Columbus, but the king of Portugal, Joao II (son of Afonso V), was threatening to send his own ships across the Atlantic to claim the new lands for Portugal. Ferdinand, Isabella and Joao II hated each other and had been at war a decade earlier. Columbus’s discoveries were threatening to bring about another war. So Borgia split the world between Spain and Portugal by drawing a line down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The dividing line was meant to keep the two nations apart directing their energies in opposite directions. It was a good idea at the time – prevent a war and pay back a debt to Ferdinand and Isabella – except Columbus hadn’t reached China or India. He had discovered entirely new continents which no-one had foreseen, which Borgia had now given exclusively to Spain.

What happened once these new continents were discovered? How did Europe react?

Once the extent of the new discoveries became known throughout Europe the problems started. For example, the famous voyage of Ferdinand Magellan, the first circumnavigation of the world, was undertaken to determine where the dividing line was located on the far side of the world and determine who would have exclusive access to the Spice Islands. Much of the piracy in the Caribbean was an attempt by Britain and France and the Dutch Republic to engage in commerce “beyond the line” in the Spanish half of the world. It’s also not entirely coincidental that the Protestant Reformation split the nations of Western Europe based upon whether or not they were beneficiaries of the pope’s division of the world.

There is another human element to this story, one that is arguably just as intriguing as Borgia. Can you elaborate on the role of the eloping princess?

When Isabella was a teenager in the 1460s, her older half-brother Enrique was the king of Castile. Known derisively as “the impotent” he had no officially recognized children. He did have a daughter Juana, but she was widely claimed to be the offspring of one of his nobles, the dashing Beltran de la Cueva. Enrique wanted “la Beltraneja,” as she was known, to inherit his crown. So he was planning to marry young Isabella off to the aging king of Portugal, Afonso V, who already had an adult son who would inherit the kingship. Afonso, coincidentally, was Enrique’s brother-in-law, and “la Beltraneja” was Afonso’s niece. If Enrique could marry Isabella off to Afonso, it would neutralize her political potential and perhaps open the way for “la Beltraneja” to assume the crown of Castile, paving the way for an Iberian empire by uniting the crowns of Castile and Portugal within Enrique’s own family.

Yet Enrique’s plan did not come to pass. Why?

Isabella, not surprisingly, had little interest in this arrangement, in which she stood to lose everything and gain nothing. She flatly refused to marry King Afonso, causing a great scandal. Enrique threatened to imprison her if she persisted in her defiance – it was humiliating to be thwarted in his kingly role. When Isabella’s spy returned a positive report on the attributes of the sixteen-year-old heir to the neighbouring kingdom of Aragon, Ferdinand, she was eager for a match with him. Isabella defied the king and eloped from the castle to meet and marry Ferdinand. It wasn’t an impulsive act, Isabella was well aware of Enrique’s depressing marriage ambitions for her, but it was certainly brave. Isabella and Ferdinand’s secret marriage caused a civil war and a Portuguese invasion. They emerged victorious after several years of battles, but the enmity remained between them and the Portuguese monarchy.

How does Isabella’s and Borgia’s story feature into the development of international law?

Isabella and Ferdinand disliked King Joao II of Portugal and he disliked them – as we have seen they had been at war over the succession to the Castilian throne. Columbus’s discoveries across the Atlantic, and his bragging about them to Joao II, who had turned Columbus down, threatened to reignite the smouldering conflict between the two nations. Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, was trying to prevent the Portuguese/Spanish war from restarting when he divided the world. His division led in 1494 to the Treaty of Tordesillas between Portugal and Spain, which in turn led to warfare, piracy, smuggling and international intrigue . . . and eventually to the development of international law as other European nations formed intellectual arguments against the Treaty to legitimize their own voyages of discovery and commerce. Yet at the root of all this conflict, it was the personal story of Isabella, Ferdinand, Joao II and Borgia and their combined actions that started this intellectual process.

So the longstanding feud between Spain and Portugal, which led Borgia to declare the Treaty of Tordesillas, spurred other European nations into challenging his decree and creating new laws?

Yes, it was the opposition from other European nations to Borgia’s papal bulls that led first to defiance in the form of piracy, and then to legal and philosophical arguments against the right of any individual to control international common spaces. The Dutch lawyer and philosopher Hugo Grotius wrote his definitive Mare Liberum in the early 17th century as a direct attack against the right of the pope, or anyone, to divide and control the global waterways. He began the intellectual process that led to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. He so thoroughly undermined the foundation for anyone claiming exclusive use of the world’s oceans that the concept now seems absurd – imagine a similar arrangement for air travel, where Spain or Portugal proclaimed it illegal for airplanes to fly between New York and London because the pope gave them a prior monopoly.

You’ve written a series of books about maritime history, yet you live in landlocked Alberta. Some of your readers might find this curious. What is it about these maritime stories that keep drawing you in?

I live in the Rocky Mountains but my family is from the east coast, so I grew up hearing tales of the sea from grandparents – hacking ice from the rigging in November to prevent a ship from capsizing, cutting loose a new car off the deck during a storm, hiding bootleg rum from the inspectors using salt cakes as buoys – things like that. So the sea has always been something I heard about and associated with adventure. But I was born in Ottawa and I am a confirmed landlubber, preferring a hiking trail to a fishing boat or even a canoe.

What fascinates me about the Age of Sail is that, at that time, most of the world was a vast unexplored frontier. In that age we are always dealing with firsts – the first crossing of the Atlantic to unknown shores, the first circumnavigation of the world, the first voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, and countless others. Everything was new and extremely dangerous, not to mention entirely unknown. The setting alone provides the background for incredible tales of human drama, bravery, determination, foolhardy optimism, the struggle against nature, etc. To me it all represents something intriguing in the human spirit – humanity’s enduring curiosity to keep going and see what’s beyond the horizon.

We started as a species in Africa and in a mighty exodus starting tens of thousands of years ago we have found our way to every habitable place on the planet. The Age of Sail represents the final phase of that epic journey, where the dimensions and coastlines of the entire planet were explored and mapped, brought together in a way the world hadn’t been before. And being relatively recent history, it is well documented so we have a window into the lives and motivations of the intriguing, complex characters engaged in this voyaging and exploring. What draws me to them is that it is the small, domestic and personal actions and decisions of these people that has changed the world. In 1494, it is a family feud between two maritime nations on the cusp of great voyages of discovery and a young woman defiantly refusing to do as she was told and instead eloping to marry someone she had never met before, that set in motion cataclysmic events that have had a profound influence on the historical and intellectual development of western society.

Historians often comment about what we can learn from our past. What does the tumultuous history in 1494 tell us about humanity today?

Most importantly, that history is about people. Dates, statistics and chronologies are just ways we have of ordering, positioning, and explaining the relationships between people, understanding how society has changed and developed over time. You can’t understand history if you don’t understand people, and you can’t understand people if you don’t appreciate history – or phrased another way, story and backstory. The present is merely people dealing with the past and dreaming of the future. In history we get to see the beginning and the end of a person’s life, to see how their decisions changed things, how it all turned out for themselves and for the people who shared their life.

Also, through history we can see how purely personal decisions and choices can expand into larger things: The world being divided began with a woman defying authority and running away to choose her own husband; and key concepts of international law stemmed from the arguments arising from the division of the world. It’s all connected. We all make decisions – about our careers, our spouses, our children – really basic foundation-of-life type decisions. Sometimes these seemingly small choices spiral out of control and result in enormous, often unintended consequences. Unintended consequences and change over time is something that has inspired many of my books.

The decisions and actions of the handful of powerful people in Iberia in the late 15th century are examples of the behaviour that has driven history around the world for thousands of years. They form the basis of politics, commerce, literature and theatre, and similar behaviour is happening in the halls of any high school or college or office today, in every small town and in the hugest of cities. The veneer of culture – customs, dress codes, ceremonies, religious and other beliefs – that we use to structure our lives and differentiate ourselves from each other serve to mask the underlying similarities between people, whether around the world or throughout history. The human story in 1494 is not all that different, in its scope of passion and anger and pride, than other famous apocryphal stories from mythology and history, such as Helen and the Trojan War, the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere, Henry VIII and his many wives, or indeed nearly anything from a Shakespeare play. It brings to mind the old saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

D&M Marketing, Jul 26, 2011
Read more about Stephen R. Bown >>
Stephen R. Bown

Stephen R. Bown

January 2008

A Conversation with Stephen Bown

I was astounded to hear that Captain Vancouver had been written out of the Admiralty’s history books. It’s remarkable that a biography wasn’t written about Vancouver until 1906. Have I got that date right? Is Captain Vancouver celebrated by the Brits today?

That's right. Vancouver made the terrible mistake of ordering the lash several times to punish a belligerent young midshipman named Thomas Pitt. He then sent Pitt home in disgrace on a supply ship. Arrogant, swaggering, impulsive and violent, the young man, in his own words "thirsted for [Vancouver's] blood" and devoted his life to Vancouver's ruin. Pitt's father, the Baron Camelford, had died during the voyage and the young midshipman had become a powerful lord, a peer of the realm - without knowing it middle class Vancouver had lashed a titled aristocrat, one of the most wealthy and powerful men in the country. Vancouver's superiors in the Royal Navy were also aristocrats with close ties to the youth's family. They closed ranks and effectively ended Vancouver's career.

But that's not all. The young lord, who was unstable and deranged, challenged Vancouver to a duel and attacked him on a London street. The press then hounded Vancouver, with vicious lampoons, mockery and charges of cowardice. The Admiralty also withheld over four years of his pay for officially unknown, though obviously politically motivated, reasons, so he suffered financial hardship as well. The public humiliation and harassment undoubtedly contributed to Vancouver's early death at the age of 40.

Vancouver is only now starting to get some of the recognition that he deserves, both for his personal triumph of, against all odds, creating the first map of western North America and disproving the existence of a great inland sea and a northwest passage south of the arctic, and for his imperial political accomplishments for his nation.

You’ve mentioned that Vancouver’s voyage is the reason for Canada having a west coast instead of it belonging to the US. I think I know why but in a nutshell, can you explain this?

All of the North American coast from California to Alaska was claimed by Spain as part of their global empire - notwithstanding the fact that they had no map of the coast and that tens of thousands of indigenous peoples lived there. By firmly negotiating with Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra at Friendly Cove for the interests of British maritime traders, Vancouver effectively checked Spanish claims to sovereignty over the coast north of California and established a historical precedent for Britain. When the US acquired California from the Spanish they had no claim to territory north of California and it became a jointly occupied no-man's land. Eventually Britain and the US agreed on the present border along the 49th parallel with Vancouver Island, first circumnavigated by Vancouver in 1792, also going to Britain.

Without George Vancouver, British Columbia might be called American Columbia. I'm joking, but the historical significance of Vancouver's voyage shouldn't be understated. When American and British representatives sat down at the negotiating table to haggle over the border in 1846, the only maps of the coast of present day Oregon, Washington and B.C. were those created by Vancouver and his men in the 1790s.

And he was deathly ill for a good part of the voyage, was he not? That must have made his job more difficult?

For much of the voyage Vancouver was struggling with the illness that would kill him a few years after his return to London. Historians have suggested various possibilities for his illness, but the most persuasive, to me at any rate, is that he suffered from kidney failure resulting from complications from the malaria he contracted in the Caribbean. Today this ailment is known as Bright's Disease.

It undoubtedly made his job more difficult - sometimes he was so ill he couldn't leave his cabin aboard the Discovery. It also caused headaches, nausea and physical weakness and was the likely cause of his violent temper and periodic lack of patience. The disobedience and insubordination of certain of his crew, constant irritations that distracted him from his important duties and responsibilities, were like a cloud of flies constantly buzzing around his head. Every now and then he lashed out to swat them. His men probably thought he was going mad - he was a pendulum swinging wildly back and forth between listless torpor and furious activity - with unpredictable outbursts of anger thrown in too. The disease and the public attack on his character, the incredible stress of trying to get his manuscript completed before he died, his one chance to set the record strait and redeem his character, killed him at the age of 40 a few years after he returned from Pacific America - much of remaining time he was too ill to travel and even too ill to get out of bed.

What else did Vancouver accomplish on his four-and-a-half year voyage that we should know about?

Well, apart from the things that interest us as Canadians, he also changed the course of history in Hawaii. His ships stopped there three times, and two of those visits were for a few months in duration. It was time enough for him to not only create the first chart of the island group, first discovered to Europeans by James Cook, but also to establish good relations with the famous Hawaiian king Kamehameha. Vancouver's aid helped Kamehameha to conquer all of the islands and consolidate them under his rule. As well, Vancouver then persuaded Kamehameha and the other most important chiefs to join their nation to Great Britain as a sort of protectorate. Britain never followed up on Vancouver's diplomatic work in Hawaii, but it is interesting that the Hawaiian state flag contains a small Union Jack, stemming from Vancouver's and Kamehameha's friendly relations.

Vancouver's is an amazing story on so many levels - personal, political, scientific - why don't we know more about Vancouver and his voyage?

I think it all dates back to the smear campaign by his aristocratic enemies. The, I believe, unjust accusations that he was a vicious martinet lashing his men while slowly going mad don't him make seem a sympathetic or honourable person, which is exactly what his enemies wanted all along, to make people think that while he was an officer, he certainly wasn't a gentleman. Why write a book about such a man?

Vancouver has been overlooked for so long it is now just part of a pattern. It’s so easy for us to say "Vancouver made a map and here is the picture of it, now let's go on to the next topic." Much has been written about Vancouver and his voyage from an academic perspective, but it has been quite a number of years, decades, since a biographical and narrative book has been written that covers his entire career and all his accomplishments, including his activities outside British Columbia and the scandal that ended his career, shattered his reputation and prematurely ended his life.

I think people will be as amazed with Vancouver's story as I was when I first started looking into it. He should have returned a hero, for he was certainly one of the great mariners of the 18th century, perhaps in the history of seafaring. Vancouver's story is not only of national historical significance, but it is also one of our greatest adventure stories - it has everything you could ask for, really - adventure, science, mystery, betrayal, international intrigue, scandal, violent conflict, and a very personal struggle against illness and the isolation of command. I think interest in Vancouver is set to rise now that historians have pierced the veil of mistruths that have blackened his character for so many years. If I can be a part of that process, I'll consider my book a success.

"Vancouver made a map, let's move on." Wait! We've covered the political implications but I'm also interested in the sciences of that time. Can you describe the tools and techniques for mapmaking at that time? In this age of satellite imaging it's interesting to consider what it would take to map uncharted territory in the 18th century.

I guess I shouldn't dismiss the map so quickly. It was actually a monumental achievement. He and his men navigated the coast of Pacific America and the Hawaiian Islands, voyaging over 10,000 miles in small boats while charting over 1,700 miles of coastline. He gave a shape to North America and disproved the existence of the mythical Strait of Anian, a Northwest Passage south of the arctic. The large ships couldn't sail too close to land so most of the work was done by teams of fifteen or so men rowing smaller boats the length of every major inlet, circling every significant island. They worked through days of the famous west coast rain, making a miserable camp on shore each evening. They made numerous shore landings throughout the day's rowing to calculate latitude and longitude using telescopes, sextants and other instruments. It was painstaking work done under primitive conditions – they had to be accomplished mathematicians, and there was no room for error. They had chronometers, which would have made their job easier, but they were too large and delicate to be taken in the small boats. When the small boats returned to the Discovery after ten days or so, the painstakingly acquired geographical information was brought to the great cabin where it was transposed onto a massive master chart. The outline of the coast between the fixed "peg points" was estimated and sketched in based on the observations of the boat crews. I explain how this was done in detail in the book, but I think its fair to say that for Vancouver and his men to have created from nothing this map of a mostly unexplored coastline, which incidentally just happens to be one of the most intricate and mazelike in the world, is nothing short of astonishing. The fact that it was so accurate that it was still in use over a century later makes it even more so.

Douglas & McIntyre Marketing, Jan 4, 2008
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