Douglas & McIntyre

Interview Details

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 Admiraltyís history books. Itís remarkable that a biography wasnít 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.

Youíve mentioned that Vancouverís 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. Itís 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 Ė 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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