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George Vancouver (1757–1798)

by Nan Phillips

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George Vancouver (1757-1798), naval officer and hydrographer, was born on 22 June 1757 at King's Lynn, Norfolk, England, the youngest of five children of John Jasper Vancouver (d.1773) and his wife Bridget (d.1768), daughter of William Berners whose forbears included Sir Richard Grenville. At 15 Vancouver joined the navy and spent seven years under Captain James Cook during two voyages to the Pacific. In 1780 he became a lieutenant and in 1781-83 served in the West Indies. Under Sir Alan Gardner at Jamaica in 1784-89 he carried out his first independent surveys. At Gardner's suggestion he was chosen to lead an expedition to the South Seas and in 1790 was promoted commander. Instructed to negotiate with the Spaniards at Nootka Sound and to survey the north-west coast of America and well equipped with 'the latest chronometers and scientific instruments', stores and comforts, he left England in April 1791 in the new sloop Discovery, 340 tons, accompanied by the armed tender Chatham, 135 tons.

Vancouver had been given permission to examine 'that extent of coast of the south-west side of New Holland, which in the present age appears a real blot in geography'. He planned 'to fall in with the S.W. Cape of New Holland, and should I find the shores capable of being navigated without much hazard to range its coast and determine whether it and Van Diemen's Land are joined, which from all information at present extant appears somewhat doubtful'. On 26 September he sighted land near Cape Leeuwin and, sailing south-east, named Capes Chatham and Howe. Two days later the ships entered a spacious harbour which he named King George the Third's Sound. Vancouver also named Oyster Bay and other features, claiming them for Great Britain. He reported on the terrain, animal life and the native inhabitants, and planted watercress, vines, almonds, oranges, lemons and pumpkins 'for the benefit of future visitors'. On 11 October the ships journeyed east, surveying some 300 miles (483 km) of coast, 'in which space we saw no other haven or place of security for shipping than the Sound before mentioned' and, in the westernmost part of the Recherche Archipelago, reached a rocky island which Vancouver called Termination Island.

Adverse winds prevented him from examining the Great Australian Bight, and relinquishing 'with great reluctance' this 'favourite project', he sailed south of Van Diemen's Land. The two ships were separated; off the southern tip of New Zealand Vancouver encountered '7 craggy islands' which he named The Snares, and the Chatham discovered and named Chatham Island. Further east in the Pacific he made detailed surveys of the Tahitian and Hawaiian (Sandwich) Islands and the vast and complex north-west coast of America from a point near San Francisco to the Alaskan Peninsula, most of the work being done in open boats. On his voyage Vancouver checked earlier charts, including some by Cook, correcting them with modesty and without disparagement. At Nootka he met the Spanish representative, Don Juan Quadra, but they could not agree in interpreting their separate instructions so decided without acrimony to refer the dispute over territory to their governments.

New South Wales remained Vancouver's only link with British officials during his three years in the Pacific. Orders had been sent to Governor Arthur Phillip at Port Jackson to replenish Vancouver with supplies and equipment. The storeship Daedalus was sent to him, but her commander and an astronomer were murdered in Hawaii and some of the crew deserted before the ship arrived at Nootka in August 1792. Vancouver provided a new commander and as instructed sent livestock back to Sydney; his friend Don Quadra contributed a few cattle and sheep, and other animals were collected on the way, but most were lost on the voyage. The Daedalus also took back dispatches, a report for Governor Phillip of the survey of the south-west coast of New Holland, charts and an appraisal of the King George Sound area which Vancouver thought 'worthy of some further attention'. Phillip had returned to England but Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose sent the Daedalus back to Vancouver with supplies. By December 1794 Vancouver had completed his surveys and turned homeward by way of Cape Horn and St Helena, where the Chatham left his command. He arrived in London in September 1795 to find he had been promoted post captain on 28 August 1794. He retired to Petersham, Surrey, to prepare a full account of his voyage and all his charts for publication, as requested by the Admiralty. His health failing he had to seek help from his brother John, who by March 1797 was doing all the writing. Five volumes were completed and the sixth was in preparation when Vancouver died. It was finished by John with aid from Lieutenant Puget and A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean … was published in London in 1798; a second edition followed in 1801 and a French translation in 1802.

Vancouver was buried at St Peter's, Petersham, on 18 May 1798. His grave, neglected for many years, is now cared for by the people of British Columbia and a tablet was placed in the church by the Hudson Bay Co.

By 1803 Vancouver was almost forgotten by all except those who used his magnificent charts. In some quarters he had been reputed harsh and difficult, yet he was a dedicated naval officer, hard-working though in poor health, strict and demanding. His concern for the welfare of his crew kept the scurvy rate low in his two cramped ships. As a diplomat he was successful with the Spanish and the natives of the Pacific. His competent hydrography deflated the geographic theorists of the late eighteenth century and his astronomical observations greatly advanced the science of navigation. In these ways he fulfilled his ambition 'to deserve the appellation of being zealous in the service of his king and country'.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 1
  • G. Godwin, Vancouver, a Life, 1757-1798 (Lond, 1930), and for bibliography
  • G. C. Ingleton, Charting a Continent (Syd, 1944)
  • H. M. Cooper, The Unknown Coast (Adel, 1953)
  • T. Dunbabin, ‘How British Columbia Nearly Became a Colony of Australia’, British Columbia Historical Quarterly, vol 15, Jan-Apr 1951, pp 35-46
  • manuscript catalogue under Vancouver (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Menzies journal of Vancouver's voyage, microfilm FM4/16 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Adm 55/13-17, 25-33, 42, 51/2251.

Citation details

Nan Phillips, 'Vancouver, George (1757–1798)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


22 June, 1757
Kings Lynn, Norfolk, England


1798 (aged ~ 40)
London, Middlesex, England

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