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

By Stephen Bown

Review By Brian Richardson

October 29, 2013

BC Studies no. 163 Autumn 2009  | p. 135-6

Madness, Betrayal and the Lash is an accessible, succinct narrative of George Vancouver’s life, focusing on the voyage he led into the Pacific in the late 18th century. Bown’s stated goal is to give Vancouver “a more honourable place in history” (4) by rehabilitating his reputation, which was ruthlessly attacked after the voyage. There are well-chosen illustrations and interesting quotes, although unfortunately the author does not include a timeline, a map of the voyage, or references.

There are some unfortunate and errors and distracting tendencies in the book. Bown confuses Thomas Hobbes with John Locke (16). He states that Cook’s journals were published “several months” after the voyage was completed (8) when it fact it took roughly two years. He also claims that Vancouver’s voyage, covering 65,000 miles, was the “longest circumnavigation ever by sailing ship and a significantly greater distance than Cook’s second voyage” (232). Beaglehole, in contrast, notes that Cook’s second voyage was roughly 70,000 miles (Exploration of the Pacific, 286). Finally, Bown tries to include too much titillating detail. The constant reference to Manby’s description of “native maidens” and “bewitching girls” becomes annoying. At one point the author laments that “unfortunately no record of [Manby’s] survives of this second visit to Hawaii” (186), as if these passages are a significant part of the narrative. Instead, they add little, and reinforce the peep show that was so important to 18th-century European imperialism.

Personal conflicts dominate Bown’s narrative, and with the exception of Bodega y Quadra, no one is likeable. The most despicable character is Thomas Pitt, the arrogant son of nobility and persistent troublemaker on the voyage. The conflict between the his claims to privilege and the discipline of the Royal Navy was a constant problem for Vancouver, and in this case that conflict became very personal. Bown’s description of Pitt’s vendetta against Vancouver is a highlight of the book.

Another highlight was the description of Vancouver’s second powerful enemy: Joseph Banks. Both Cook and Vancouver had conflicts with Banks, but the conflict with Cook occurred when Banks had not achieved significant power. Vancouver, on the other hand, faced a well-connected Banks capable of forcing his plans and associates on Vancouver and of seeking revenge when Vancouver resisted. As with Pitt, the description of Banks’s vengeance offers a glimpse into English society. Yet Banks not only tried to vilify Vancouver, he tried to write Vancouver out of the country’s history, and the details of Banks’s efforts are fascinating.

For a book that attempts to rehabilitate Vancouver, the account of his character is surprising negative. Vancouver’s anger is described throughout the book. He frequently overreacts, his outbursts are “disgraceful” (134), and he is constantly impatient, annoyed, autocratic, and even cruel. Vancouver’s commitment to naval regulations, led him to “always adhered to the letter of his instructions, fearing that leniency would bring him censure or reprimand” (117). He alienated most of the crew and his behavior was a key reason why morale on the ship was so poor (119). He was even described as going slowly insane (204).  But rather than believing that Vancouver was largely responsible for his fate, Bown sticks to the belief that Vancouver has been wrongly vilified, even if the details work against his conclusion.

As with Vancouver’s character, Bown also tries to improve the status of Vancouver’s voyage. Yet the same tension with the details arises. Bown claims that the voyage was monumental but describes how the voyage was ultimately inconsequential. Bown claims that Vancouver’s “epic voyage to unknown Pacific America is one of a handful of truly incredible voyages in the history of seafaring, on par in its own way with the voyages of Columbus, Magellan, Drake, Bougainville and Cook” (237). But such a description is unsupported. At best, without Vancouver, Canada would not have a Pacific coast (223) and Hawaii may have fallen under American influence a little faster. The political issues surrounding Nootka Sound were resolved in Europe after the voyage ended. The agreement between Vancouver and Kamehameha, which would have increased the British presence in Hawaii, was ignored by the British government. Vancouver’s voyage likewise comes up short when compared to Cook’s: Vancouver’s voyage had little anthropological detail (137), his voyage has no drama, the printed journals are tedious, and his relationship to the crew was dysfunctional if not outright abusive. Not the makings of a monumental voyage or of an heroic captain.

Overall, Bown’s account of Vancouver’s life and voyages is interesting and accessible. Rather than rehabilitating Vancouver’s character, however, he ends up reinforcing the negative reputation Vancouver already has. Vancouver appears better than how he was portrayed by Pitt and Banks, but only because the people around him, including Pitt and Banks, were so despicable. There are many reasons why Vancouver failed, including his government, his crew, Pitt, Banks, and his own deteriorating health and character. But explaining why he failed does not mean that he succeeded.

Perhaps a more compelling narrative structure, which the book hints at, is that Vancouver is a tragic figure. If he had not had such powerful enemies, and if his voyages had not been overshadowed by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, he might have joined Cook in the pantheon of important navigators. In the end, the strongest reaction that the author elicits for Vancouver is pity.

BC Studies, no. 163, Autumn 2009.