Britain increased its interest in the Pacific Northwest following a growing awareness of its potential resources and the British loss of the east-coast American colonies. Vancouver was originally selected as first lieutenant for an expedition to seek out a Northwest Passage, commissioned on January 1, 1790 under Captain Henry Roberts. However, Roberts was called to duty in the West Indies. Soon after, news that a Spanish officer had confiscated British vessels reached Britain, sparking the Nootka Crisis. Vancouver took command of the Pacific expedition, with the added duty of overseeing the articles of the Nootka Convention and the restitution of what they believed to be British claims seized by the Spanish.
Vancouver reached Nootka Sound on August 28, 1792, to meet with Spanish representative and fellow expedition leader Captain Juan Fransisco de la Bodega y Quadra. The two men became good friends, but faced challenges in their diplomatic task of addressing the Nootka Convention. Both sides preferred to follow decisions made by their respective governments, but correspondence between Europe and the Pacific was slow, and their instructions were no longer relevant to the situation at hand. In August of 1794, Vancouver returned to Nootka Sound, holding in the harbour and refitting while he waited for a British envoy. No further instructions arrived, and Vancouver sailed for Monterey, leaving the Nootka Convention items with European signatures but without resolution in the Pacific Northwest.
Vancouver was also charged with completing coastal surveys started by Cook. In April of 1792, Discovery and Chatham began working their way up the coast from northern California to the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Vancouver’s survey continued until 1794, wintering in the Sandwich Islands and working north towards the Russian claims in the summers. Unlike many contemporary expeditions, Vancouver’s crew did not include scientists and artists, with the exception of naturalist and surgeon Archibald Menzies. And unlike Cook’s expedition to search for the Northwest Passage, on which Vancouver had sailed as a teenager, Vancouver held no expectations of finding the entrance to a route to the Atlantic: he expected only to disprove its existence. In August of 1794, Vancouver wrote in his journal: “I trust the precision with which the survey of the coast of North West America has been carried into effect, will remove every doubt, and set aside every opinion of a north-west passage”. Vancouver’s charts remained the major source on the Pacific Northwest well into the 19th century.