George Vancouver was a British officer of the Royal Navy best known for his 1791–95 expedition, to lay formal British claim and start colonization of North America’s northwestern Pacific Coast regions previously mapped by James Cook.
George Vancouver was born in the seaport town of King’s Lynn, Norfolk on 22 June 1757, as the sixth and youngest child of John Jasper Vancouver, a Dutch-born deputy collector of customs, and Bridget Berners. In 1771, at the age of 13, Vancouver entered the Royal Navy as a “young gentleman,” a future candidate for midshipman. He was selected to serve aboard HMS Resolution, on James Cook’s second voyage (1772–1775) searching for Terra Australis. He also accompanied Cook’s third voyage (1776–1780), this time aboard Resolution’s companion ship, HMS Discovery, and was present during the first European sighting and exploration of the Hawaiian Islands. On 7 May 1782, he was appointed fourth lieutenant of the 74-gun ship of the line HMS Fame, which was at the time part of the British West Indies Fleet, and assigned to patrolling the French-held Leeward Islands. He subsequently saw action at the Battle of the Saintes, wherein he distinguished himself, returning to England in June 1783.
In the late 1780s the Spanish Empire commissioned a Pacific Northwest colony out of Mexico Viceroyalty. In 1789, Spain and Britain came close to war over the Nootka Crisis, ownership of the Nootka Sound on contemporary Vancouver Island, and of greater importance, the right to colonise and settle the Pacific Northwest coast. When the first Nootka Convention ended the crisis in 1790, Vancouver was given command of HMS Discovery to take possession of Nootka Sound and to survey the coasts.
On 1 April 1791, Discovery and Chatham set sail. They reached Tenerife on 28 April; this was intended as a rest stop and opportunity to botanize, but ended in a drunken brawl in which several officers were thrown into the bay or beaten. On 7 May, the two ships left Tenerife; Chatham arrived at Cape Town on 6 June and Discovery two days later. After more botanizing, socializing, and recruiting replacements for deserters, the ships left on 17 August. The surgeon took ill during an outbreak of dysentery (one sailor died); Menzies assumed his duties for the rest of the expedition.
On 29 September they landed in Australia, at what Vancouver promptly named 1 King George III’s Sound.
Proceeding to winter in Hawaii, Vancouver arrived in March 1792. He had been a young midshipman on Cook’s fatal landing 13 years earlier, so avoided coming ashore at Kealakekua Bay. He made arrangements for his tiny fleet to winter and re-supply in Hawaii for the duration of the expedition. Discovery and Chatham proceeded to North America.