Around the World in 1,663 Days: Vancouver's Expedition

16 November 2018

Empire and Globalism | History

Over the past eighteen months, I have had the privilege of working on three of the five modules of the Colonial America project, which has digitised the CO 5 series of Colonial Office files held at The National Archives in London. A treasure trove of documents covering topics ranging from inter-governmental disputes to terror on the high seas, when one sits down to work on CO 5, one never quite knows what to expect.

A highlight from the forthcoming Module V: Growth, Trade and Development is the despatches of a certain Captain George Vancouver, from his ship, HMS Discovery, during his expedition to the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver's expedition was commissioned by the British government in response to the threat of Spanish expansion along the north-western coast of America. Consisting of the Discovery and a second ship, HMS Chatham, the expedition set sail on 1 April 1791; by the time Vancouver and his crew returned on 20 October 1795, they had circumnavigated the globe and visited five continents.

A model of HMS Discovery. Image reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.

The despatches (CO 5/187) cover the period immediately before the expedition's departure to 18 June 1793, and record Vancouver's requests for supplies for the first eighteen months of the expedition. These offer a fascinating insight into the material cost of supporting two ships and over 150 men for a long sea voyage. One list notes that an amount of sugar and cocoa has been requested “in lieu of butter and cheese”, which, to those of us with a sweet tooth, doesn't sound like a terrible trade-off.

Vancouver's list of supplies required for his expedition. Image © The National Archives.

In the expedition's first year, Discovery and Chatham travelled to Cape Town, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii, gathering botanical samples and discovering uncharted islands, before sailing to the present-day British Columbia, where they encountered the Spanish captain, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. Despite the conflicting instructions from their governments with regard to territorial claims, Vancouver and Bodega y Quadra enjoyed a friendly relationship, as is attested by the exchanges between them recorded in the despatches.

George Vancouver, unknown artist. Image reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.

The expedition is remembered as a success, contributing significantly to the charting of the Pacific as well as reducing Spanish influence in the area. Sadly, it took its toll on Vancouver, who endured the complaints of several of his more well-connected crew members against him, allegations which would continue long after their return. Impoverished and isolated, he died at the age of 40 in May 1798, less than three years after his return.

Colonial America Module V: Growth, Trade and Development will be published in 2019. Modules I-IV are available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Jade Bailey

Jade Bailey

I joined Adam Matthew's Editorial team in January 2017 and have since had the opportunity to work on projects including Trade Catalogues and the American Home, Colonial America and Service Newspapers of World War II. My academic background is in medieval manuscripts, French literature and the history of language.