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George Vancouver is largely forgotten but for his eponymous Canadian city

Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles, History on Friday, 10 August 2012

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This edited article about George Vancouver originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1975.

Vancouver, picture, image, illustration

Vancouver from the harbour by Harold Copping

At the Admiralty offices in London, a naval commander was receiving a series of orders that would have startled a more imaginative man. Commander George Vancouver was appointed to His Majesty’s sloop Discovery. He was to proceed, by way of the Cape of Good Hope, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and the Hawaiian Islands to the north-west coast of North America, carrying out various surveying and map-making tasks as he went. Then, having reached North America, he would make for Nootka Sound and settle a dispute that had arisen between English and Spanish settlers over the possession of a trading post. Finally, the commander was required to seek out the passage to Hudson’s Bay that was rumoured to exist in those latitudes.

Even to the stolid, humourless George Vancouver, such an ambitious programme of exploration must have seemed exactly what it was, a tremendous gesture of confidence, a mark of official approval. It was particularly welcome, because Vancouver had not always been an officer. In fact he had done what very few men managed in the 18th century British navy, and had worked his way up from the lower deck.

Born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, round about the year 1757, Vancouver had joined the navy at the age of 13 and sailed as an ordinary seaman with Captain Cook on his second voyage round the world, an amazing experience for a boy. He had so impressed the great explorer with his careful work that he had been chosen to accompany Cook’s third voyage as a midshipman. After that, he had seen service in the West Indies, and now, at the age of 33, he was already a commander and so well thought of that he had been entrusted with a voyage that would almost certainly take several years and during which he would be entirely his own master. No officer could ask for a better compliment to his professional skill than that.

George Vancouver was fully to justify the Admiralty’s faith in him. He not only settled the dispute with Spain and meticulously surveyed hundreds of miles of previously uncharted coastline, but he even annexed the islands of Hawaii for Britain, although this claim was never to be formally recognized. He explored what was, in fact, the largest island off the west coast of North America, a feat for which the Spaniards honoured him by naming the place Vancouver Island. Ever hopeful of finding a key to the elusive North West Passage, he set off on a day in 1792 to investigate an inlet of the American mainland, accompanied by one of his officers, Lieutenant Peter Puget.

Three miles up the inlet, the explorers stopped for the night, and Vancouver’s men rolled themselves in their blankets and went to sleep on the sandy beach. Too tired to check the high water mark, they were all drenched when the incoming tide rolled over them. It was the sort of incident that made them remember the place they had named Burrard Inlet. But it is doubtful if even Vancouver himself imagined that such a remote spot would ever be the site of even the smallest town.

When the commander returned to Britain after four and a half years he had a record of solid achievement behind him and had lost only one man through sickness. But his reception was by no means a riotous one. Naturally modest and retiring, he made little of what would later be described as one of the most arduous surveys ever undertaken, and consequently Vancouver received no honours other than promotion to captain’s rank. Before long he fell ill and died without even finishing his report, and the magnificent deep waters of Burrard Inlet remained undisturbed by white men for almost another century. Then a few huts were built around an outcrop of coal at a point on the south shore, where the inlet opened to the sea, and people spoke of the place as Coal Harbour. Coal Harbour is probably all that would have grown on that coast, had it not been for the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

It was in 1885 that it was decided that the western terminus of the great railway spanning Canada should be at that spot, and it seemed natural to use the name of the long island that formed a natural breakwater just off-shore. And the site of the terminus of Vancouver could hardly have been bettered, for Burrard Inlet and the nearby Fraser River would make links with shipping a simple matter. As if by magic, railway and shipping staff began to pour into the area, and within a year, Vancouver had a population of 2000 and was officially designated a city. Then, without warning, disaster struck.

The fire that in 1886 swept through the first, wooden Vancouver, destroyed no less than 800 buildings, but such was the drive and determination of the early settlers that they not only rebuilt their ruined city, but within two years had trebled its population. Within 20 years there were 45,000 people living in Vancouver, which by that time boasted seven banks, eight churches, a college and an opera house. When the Panama Canal was completed in 1915, Vancouver’s importance as a seaport was assured, because it meant that Canadian grain and timber could at last be shipped direct to Europe.

Today, with a population of 800,000, Vancouver is the largest city in British Columbia and the third largest in Canada as a whole. Firmly established on both banks of Burrard Inlet and with a magnificent mountain setting, it must be one of the finest looking cities in the world. Nature has been exceptionally kind to British Columbia in general, and the region’s dramatic development is largely due to a wonderful climate. Lots of summer sun, mild winters and enough, but not too much, rain, have combined to make prosperous farmlands everywhere in the Fraser River valley, and the port of Vancouver never suffers from ice in winter. The area has its own supplies of natural gas, there is local oil and almost limitless hydro-electric power.

Vancouver has always been known as the most English of Canadian cities, because settlers from Britain have preferred the weather of British Columbia to that of the Eastern part of the country, which is notorious for blistering hot summers and winters of savage severity. But today Vancouver is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, as people are drawn to this beautiful city from all parts of the world. There is plenty of work for them to do, because business is booming. Local timber accounts for a huge range of wood-based industries, and there are steel plants, oil refineries, food processing plants and chemical factories. Nevertheless, Vancouver remains at heart a transport centre, for rail, sea and air.

Prosperous the place undoubtedly is, but Vancouverites will tell you that, first and foremost, their city is a wonderful place in which to live, thanks again to the climate. Tennis is played all the year round, there are three busy ski areas on the mountain slopes just a few miles from the city, while it is estimated that there are at least 40,000 private motor and sailing boats for cruising along the coast and exploring the waters of Burrard Inlet. If you enjoy river fishing, it is even possible to catch a trout only four miles from the centre of a city which has so much land that it has only recently found it necessary to build its first skyscrapers. And if you are newly arrived from England and feel homesick, Vancouver has a wonderful surprise in store. You can walk out on to Government Street and catch a bright red, double-decker, London-type bus!

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