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Sharing the Australian and Polynesian Findings of the Vancouver Expedition

Fine set of inset charts of the coasts of Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, and other Polynesian islands from the French edition of Vancouver’s official account of his expedition (1791-1795).

New Holland was the first significant stopping point for Vancouver’s crew during their four-year circumnavigation.

This print is presented as a series of insets. The top half shows King George III Sound in southwestern Australia; Vancouver named the feature for his monarch on September 29, 1791. The tracks of the Discovery and the Chatham, Vancouver’s ships, zig-zag near shore, marked with sounding depths.

Vancouver and his crew were the first Europeans to visit this stretch of coast, making it a significant outcome for the expedition. Later, its name was shortened to King George’s Sound. This was the first draft chart made on the voyage. The tracks of the ships veer off the inset at Termination Island, which was part of an archipelago Vancouver visited before heading to Aotearoa/New Zealand.

The bottom of the chart contains the outcome of that visit. It shows Dusky Bay with Pickersgill Harbor; Anchor Island, and Facile Harbor. Vancouver anchored in Dusky Bay on October 26, 1791, having visited it before on Cook’s second voyage. Before they could get ashore, however, a storm blew up, causing Discovery to moor at Anchor Island and Chatham at Facile Harbor. The details seen here are from that visit.

Curious inscriptions await at the innermost point on the outline of Dusky Bay, the head of Breaksea Sound (although it is not called that here). This section of the sound breaks into two. When Cook surveyed it, he could not proceed and added the note, “Nobody knows what.” Vancouver’s small boats explored the area, finding the waterway split into two before dead-ending on both sides. While the branches would eventually be called Vancouver and Broughton Arms for the captain and his lieutenant, Vancouver could not help clapping back at the famous Cook with the note, “Somebody knows what.”

The ships left Dusky Bay in late November and ran into a storm. If this happened, the ships were to sail separately for Tahiti, where they would rendezvous. En route, while rounding the south of the South Island of Aotearoa/New Zealand, Vancouver passed islets he called the Snares, seen here. The Chatham soon followed, hence the track on that inset.

Lieutenant Broughton, in command of the Chatham, found an island to the east of Aotearoa/New Zealand. He and a landing party went ashore to meet with the local Moriori people. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding arose and the British killed at least one Indigenous person. Broughton named the island for the Earl of Chatham, interestingly, rather than after his ship.

The final inset shows Oparo Island, or Rapa Iti, in the Bass Islands of French Polynesia. Vancouver was the first European to visit the island on December 22, 1791. He gave it the designation Oparo, a phonetic rendering of a local word. Vancouver met with several people in canoes but did not stay long, as he wanted to press on to Tahiti.   

The Vancouver Expedition (1791-1795)

George Vancouver (1757-1798) was born in Norfolk and joined the Royal Navy in 1771. Only a year later, he sailed with Captain James Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific. Vancouver would also sail on Cook’s third, and last, voyage, the expedition during which Cook was killed in Hawai’i. Although he most likely made rough sketches while with Cook, Vancouver completed his first independent surveys while serving in the West Indies in the mid-1780s. Thanks to this work, his previous Pacific service, and the influence of a powerful patron, Vancouver was selected to lead a new expedition into the South Seas, one of the last large-scale exploratory voyages to the region.

Vancouver was ordered to sail under dual purposes. On the one hand, he was to represent the British at negotiations with the Spanish at Nootka Sound in the Pacific Northwest. The Sound was the subject of a territorial dispute between the empires that threatened to erupt into a larger conflict. Vancouver’s other, and main, purpose was to survey the southwest corner of Australia, Pacific islands, and the Northwest Coast of America. If possible, he was also to find a Northwest Passage.

Vancouver sailed in the Discovery, with the Chatham as escort, in April 1791. First, he made the Australian coast near Cape Leeuwin and surveyed a considerable extent of the southern coast. Next, he sailed to Tahiti and the Sandwich Islands. Then, Vancouver and his crew charted the coast from near San Francisco all the way to Alaska. En route, at Nootka, Vancouver met with his Spanish counterpart, Bodega y Quadra; the island where they negotiated was initially named Quadra and Vancouver Island, for both men. They decided they could not interpret the instructions they had been given and referred the matter back to diplomats in Europe for further study. He then completed three surveying seasons on the Pacific Northwest Coast, with winters in Hawai'i. 

Vancouver returned to England via Cape Horn in September 1795, over four years after he had led one of the longest surveying voyages in history. He was promoted to the rank of post captain but the voyage ruined his health and he retired upon return to shore.

He turned his energies instead to producing an authoritative account of his voyage, complete with detailed charts, as the Admiralty had ordered. Vancouver died in May of 1798. He had completed nearly all of the account, half a million words in length, but it still lacked roughly 100 pages. After George’s death, his brother, John, along with Lieutenant Peter Puget, for whom Puget Sound is named, and Lieutenant Baker finished the work. It was published in 1798 in three quarto volumes and accompanied by a folio atlas. A French edition followed in 1799-1800, with another English edition in 1801.

George Vancouver Biography

George Vancouver (1757­–1798), a naval officer and explorer, grew up in King’s Lynn, England, the youngest of six children. After entering the Royal Navy in 1771, he served in both the second and third great exploratory voyages of James Cook. During Cook’s second voyage, a three-year quest to find a legendary southern continent, Vancouver received instruction from the astronomer William Wales. During Cook’s third voyage, to the Pacific Northwest, Vancouver was part of the first known group of Europeans to land on the coast of present-day British Columbia.

Vancouver gained valuable navigational, surveying, and mapping experience in the Pacific Northwest during his time with Cook. After returning from Cook’s third voyage in 1780, Vancouver was promoted to lieutenant and spent the following nine years serving on fighting ships, primarily in the Caribbean.  

In 1790, Vancouver was chosen to captain the Discovery and charged with a mission to discover and chart the vast areas of the Pacific that were still unknown, in part to locate a Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This four-year voyage of discovery circumnavigated the globe and eliminated the possibility of an inland Northwest Passage. During many months of surveying, Vancouver produced detailed regional maps of the Northwest Coast, as far north as Alaska. He also established several hundred place-names for physical features in the areas surveyed.

Upon returning to England in 1795, Vancouver’s voyage received little recognition, and he faced personal and political attacks from colleagues and crew members alleging abuse of power. With his health failing, Vancouver spent his remaining years in retirement, revising his journal for publication. His Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World was first published in 1798, which was also the year of his death. It contained a multi-volume account of his voyage as well as an atlas of his maps. His exploration and mapmaking activities greatly increased knowledge of the North American coast.