Captain George Vancouver is honoured by the names of Vancouver, British Columbia; Vancouver, Washington; and Vancouver Island. His meticulous surveys produced charts used by mariners one hundred years after the expedition that created them. He commanded a vessel 99 feet in length with 99 crewmembers, only five of whom died in four and a half years at sea. Amid some controversy, a golden statue of Vancouver sits atop the provincial legislature in Victoria, British Columbia.
His great accomplishments and respect from future admirers did not save him from the controversy that seemed to plague expedition captains (if they even survived their journeys to return home). Vancouver had a reputation for strictness, a required characteristic in a leader of young men of mixed social classes in an age when mutiny was a growing problem. (William Bligh, captain during the famous Bounty mutiny, had sailed with Vancouver on Cook’s third voyage.)
Vancouver, frustrated with the behaviour of midshipman Thomas Pitt, discharged the young sailor in Hawaii in February of 1794. Pitt returned to Britain aboard the store ship Daedalus because of his transgressions. In the time between Vancouver’s return from expedition and Pitt’s arrival, Pitt’s anger increased, and his standing rose when he was made Baron of Camelford following his father’s death. Cousin to British Prime Minister William Pitt, relation of the First Lord of the Admiralty John Pitt, and brother-in-law of Foreign Secretary Lord Grenville, Pitt had power and connections. He set about making accusations of flogging and poor treatment against Vancouver, physically attacked his former captain, and challenged him to a duel.
Pitt continued his aggressive behaviour, shooting his senior officer while stationed in Antigua. He ended his naval career aboard the appropriately named vessel Terror and was killed in a duel at age 29. Pitt’s accusations against Vancouver were investigated, and although a heated debate about Vancouver’s character continues among maritime historians today, the captain’s reputation did suffer in his own lifetime. In poor health, Vancouver retired from the navy on half-pay and focused on preparing his publication.