Sunday, October 02, 2016

Madness, Betrayal and the Lash: The Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver

The Pacific Northwest is filled with "Vancouvers". There is a big island, the largest city in British Columbia and a large city in southern Washington. But, who was this person they were named after? I do not recall learning much about him during studies of the age of exploration. It turns out that I am not alone. Vancouver led a voyage that produced detailed maps of the pacific Northwest. However, he also managed to annoy a few members of high-society that were "forced" on his cruise. They led a smear campaign when he returned to Britain, causing him to be all but ignored from the history books. However, his names for many of the features in the region still stick. (Could you guess that there was a Mr. Puget on his voyage?)

Madness, Betrayal and the Lash portrays Vancouver as a dedicated mariner who wants to do everything right, yet lacks the charisma to navigate through difficult people issues. He often relies on following the "letter of the law". This leads him to lash noble crew members and create enemies. However, his attention to duty also led him to complete detailed charts of the Pacific Northwest and to engage in mostly friendly relationships with the residents of the area. (Alas, the friendliness did not necessarily extend to the crew. This book portrays Vancouver as the lonely commander who is isolated from the other officers. He manages to further alienate the crew by prohibiting them from partaking of the "festivities" while they are wintering in Hawaii.)

Vancouver completed his mission, but came home to be ignored and demonized by his countrymen (especially Thomas Pitt). He devoted his time to publishing details of his voyage and died shortly after completing it. Would Vancouver's experience had been different if he hadn't had Thomas Pitt thrust upon his voyage? We may never know. Pitt ended up dead before he was thirty, while Vancouver did live to the ripe old age of 40. His voyage showed us that charisma is perhaps more important than technical merit in establishing the immediate legacy of explorers. (And it makes me wonder what other great explorers had been ignored because they were not in with the proper crowds.)

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