Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Jan 4, 2010 - 5 comments


Part Seven

The stage was now set for the arrival of Captain George Vancouver.

Vancouver comes down to us through history with a dual reputation. On the one hand, his survey of the coast is acknowledged to have been thorough and meticulous. During three long summer seasons of work, he added thousands of kilometres of North American shoreline to the map of the world, at the same time keeping his men and ship safe and healthy. On the other hand, his temperament made him an unpleasant leader to serve under. "Haughty, proud and insolent" were the terms used by one officer to describe him. He believed in the liberal use of corporal punishment; at least sixty of his sailors were flogged during the voyage, some more than once, excessive even by the standards of his time. He was given to outbursts of temper and hyperactivity, which intensified as his health deteriorated during the voyage.

In his own day Vancouver suffered from comparison to his predecessor, James Cook. He served as a young midshipman on two of Cook's Pacific voyages and to some degree he lived, and died, in the shadow of the older man. Vancouver never achieved the public celebrity of Cook; nor did he have the advantage of dying a heroic death. His accomplishments, while notable, were less dramatic. Cook was the first to discover so many things; Vancouver's task was the close examination of what had already been discovered.

Furthermore, Vancouver's timing was bad. He returned from his great voyage to an England preoccupied by the rise of Napoleon and war with France and a public more interested in naval victories than world exploration. Finally, near the end of his life, he was involved in a notorious legal wrangle that left his reputation under a cloud.

Vancouver's expedition had two objectives. The first was imperial: to negotiate with the Spanish the handover of Nootka Sound. The second was geographic: to carry out a survey of the coast either to determine the location of the Northwest Passage or to put to rest the notion that it existed at all. To carry out his objectives, Vancouver had two ships under his command. His own vessel, aptly named Discovery, was a converted merchant ship, 29 metres long, with a crew of 84 sailors, plus sixteen marines. The second vessel was the sixteen-metre Chatham, commanded by Lieutenant William Broughton, with a crew of 37, plus eight marines.

Being smaller, the Chatham was intended for inshore surveying but both were too bulky to get very close to shore and in practice they acted as mother ships for the expedition, remaining at a protected anchorate while the meticulous inlet-by-inlet survey was carried out by the men in longboats. These boats, six to 7.5 metres in length, were away on the surveys for ten days to three weeks at a time. They were equipped with sails, but mostly they were rowed, from before sunup until dusk. One of Vancouver's biographers estimates that the boats travelled a total of 16,000 kilometres during the expedition.

During the first summer the men had no protection from the elements; they were drenched with rain, bitten by insects, baked by the hot sun. In subsequent summers awnings were erected that made the work slightly less uncomfortable. At night the crews made camp on shore where observations were made and a short night's sleep gratefully taken. Boats were supplied with trade goods for exchange with the local people and weapons in case of attack, though relations between Vancouver's men and coastal First Nations were amicable enough. The only violence that occurred was with Tlingit groups during the survey of the Alaskan panhandle.

After a twelve-month voyage from England, Discovery and Chatham arrived off Cape Mendocino in northern California in mid-April 1792. Keeping a safe distance offshore, Vancouver conducted the initial stages of his survey from the ships, but once they rounded into Juan de Fuca Strait he anchored at Discovery Bay on Washington's Olympic Peninsula and began to work from the boats.

After completing a reconnaisance of Puget Sound, the vessels sailed north to a second anchorage in Birch Bay, just south of the present Canada-US border, where the boats again set off. Vancouver led one party himself and on June 12 his two boats rounded Point Grey and entered Burrard Inlet. Crossing to the northern shore, they located and entered the narrow opening that leads to the inner harbour that is now the Port of Vancouver, becoming the first Europeans to visit the site of the future city.

From a village near the mouth of the Capilano River, some Squamish people came out to the boats in canoes. Trading took place, and Vancouver theorized that he and his sailors were the first white people the Squamish had ever seen. After camping for the night near the head of the harbour, Vancouver returned to the outer inlet the next day, then continued his survey around Point Atkinson into Howe Sound.

Camped near the head of Howe Sound, Vancouver's party was visited by a group of about forty Squamish. Two centuries later, Chief Philip Joe of the Squamish Nation related the story of this encounter as it was passed down among his people.

"As my elders tell the story, early one morning in the month called Tim-Kwis-KWAS,
('hot time') an old man living near the mouth of the Squamish River had gone
down to wash. As he raised his head, he saw an 'island' where no island had been
before. The old man was alarmed and ran back to his house to wake his
relatives. 'There is an island in the south -- a floating island,' he told them.
The old man knew it was an island for it had skeletons of trees thrusting
skyward. But it was like no island he had ever seen. Word was sent up
the Squamish River for the people to come and see the mysterious
floating island.
It was decided that the men would go out in their canoes to see the island.
As they grew near, they saw that it wasn't a floating island at all, but a
very large canoe, a strange canoe. Soon, men appeared and walked around
the canoe. But what strange men they were! Every part of their body was
covered except for their faces, which were white. My people scrutinized them.
Finally, some of the elders came up with an explanation -- these people
are from the land of the dead. And they came wrapped up in their burial

Eventually the Squamish went aboard the boats, discovered that the strangers were very much alive, and struck up an active trade in iron goods.

Next time: The survey continues