Remembering George Vancouver

With a good bit of attention focused on Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics perhaps it’s time to ponder the man for whom the city is named.

George Vancouver was a British naval officer who led a five-year expedition of the Northwest coast of North America, from Oregon all the way north to Alaska.

His 1791-95 voyage (which began when he was just 33 years old) circumnavigated the globe, touched five continents and changed the course of history for several nations, according to Wikipedia.

Most of the work was done from small boats powered by both oars and sail because maneuvering larger sail-powered vessels in uncharted waters was impractical and dangerous.

Vancouver, who years before had been a member of two of James Cook’s explorations, is noted as the first European to enter Burrard Inlet, the main harbor area of the present day city of Vancouver.

However, Vancouver received little fame or recognition in his time.

Upon his return to England, he was attacked politically by Archibald Menzies, the expedition’s politically connected botanist, and Thomas Pitt, the troublesome nephew of the prime minister who had joined the voyage as a 16-year-old.

Pitt actually challenged Vancouver to a duel and attempted to beat him on a London street corner.

Vancouver was no match for the powers ranged against him. Attacked in the newspapers, his career was effectively at an end. He died in obscurity in 1798 at the age of 40, less than three years after completing his famed voyage.

However, Vancouver’s legacy today is impressive. Besides having one of Canada’s largest and most beautiful cities named for him, there is also Vancouver Island and Mount Vancouver in Canada, and the city of Vancouver, Wash. Puget Sound is named for one of the officers on his expedition, as is Whidbey Island.

Also, the charts that Vancouver and his crew made of the North American northwest coast were so accurate that they served as the key reference for coastal navigation for generations.