Cliff and I have recently returned from a 3 week holiday which started by flying to Vancouver and continued by cruise boat along the 'Inside Passage' between Vancover Island and the mainland and meandering through narrow channels along the South-East Alaskan coast and across the Gulf of Alaska to Prince William sound and the port of Whitier; before we explored a small part of 'the great land' by car.
It was while gazing out at the ever-changing coastal scenery, that my mind wandered to thinking "who was Vancouver?". I had a vague memory that he was from King's Lynn in Norfolk . . . and Vancouver city and Vancouver Island are named after him.
George Vancouver was born on 22 June 1757, the 6th and youngest child of the deputy collector of customs at the port of King's Lynn in Norfolk.
In 1771 aged 13 he joined the Royal Navy as a trainee midshipman. Within a year he was serving aboard HMS Resolution on Captain Cook's 2nd great voyage around the world. This was the start of George Vancouver's adventures, in 1776 he joined the crew on Captain Cook's 3rd voyage arriving home safely in 1780 after Cook's tragic death in Hawaii.
George Vancouver then served as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, spending the next 5 years on warships keeping the peace in disputes with the Spanish fleet around the West Indies and then along the American North Pacific coast.
So in 1791 he was well qualified to take command of a voyage of exploration, The Vancouver Expedition consisted of two ships and the mission was to survey the coastlines of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and China. Then on to the West coast of North America - what is now Oregon - and north following the inside passage East of Vancouver Island, all along the coast to Alaska.
The coast of British Columbia and Alaska is scattered with places named after East Anglian villages that George Vancouver would have known as a child, and the names of his close friends and relatives.
The maps and charts that he made were so accurate that they are still in use today.
In September 1795 George Vancouver returned to England, he was 38 years old and had probably travelled further than any any other living person. He chose Petersham in South London for his retirement because he liked the view from Richmond Hill, but unfortunately there were people determined to make his life back home a misery . . . commanding an expedition lasting years, thousands of miles from home must have required determination and strong management skills, it seems George Vancouver upset one or two people with friends and relatives in high places. One was Thomas Pitt, a relative of the Prime Minister, who Vancouver had disciplined and sent back home in disgrace; Thomas Pitt hounded his former Commander, stalking him in the street and once actually attacking him in public.
'The Caneing in Conduit Street' (1796) by James Gillray
A caricature of Thomas Pitt's streetcorner assault on George Vancouver.
Tired and ill from a life sailing the oceans and now from verbal and physical attacks by his well connected enemies, George Vancouver died on 10 May 1798 aged 40. He is buried in St Peter's churchyard, Petersham, nr Richmond on Thames, London.
What an amazing life George Vancouver led, sailing uncharted oceans and stepping onto unknown shores, not knowing what would be around the next headland. And having the skill and knowledge to survey and record every island and bay along thousands of miles of coastline.
The modern ship we were on, steered its course using all sorts of navigating aids, satellites and GPS . . . way beyond the dreams of George Vancouver; but I suspect the misty bays and islands, the pods of orcas, the sea otters and sea lions swimming alongside and the eagles in the trees along the beaches look much the same today as they did when he sailed to Alaska.