Category Archives: Work-in-progress

The Tanash Mamathi

British mariner George Vancouver led the longest voyage of exploration of his era, with the loss of fewer men (for their numbers and its duration) than any before.1 Yet when it was over and safely returned, its mission accomplished, he was reviled and shunned by his country’s establishment and targeted by a campaign of whispers intended to discredit him and his accomplishments. During the voyage he had made a dangerous and vindictive enemy—the Tanash Mamathi—who made it his relentless mission to stalk, harass and ruin him.


Cook’s ships off Nootka Sound, 1778

Born in Norfolk, the son of a minor customs official, Vancouver first went to sea as a 15-year old on James Cook’s second (1772-75) round-the-world voyage. The young midshipman distinguished himself and served again on Cook’s third (1776-80) voyage. Ten years later, by then a lieutenant, he was given command of his own expedition to explore the north-west coast of the Americas.

Vancouver sailed with two vessels in the spring of 1791 and arrived in the Pacific north-west a year later. His hydrographic mission would take three years and by the time the ships returned home in late 1795 they had voyaged 65,000 miles. Much of the actual survey work was conducted away from the ships in small open boats which covered a further 10,000 miles—most of that under oars. It was arduous, hazardous work, in unknown waters, and Vancouver regularly accompanied his men in the boats and shared in their privations. However, as the survey continued his health deteriorated markedly, to the point where he was rarely well enough to do so.

Discovery and Chatham in Puget Sound, by Steve Mayo

The expedition completed the long-unfinished map of the Americas and proved that a navigable passage did not exist between the Atlantic and the Pacific where it had long been said to exist—within the vast territory lying between Latitudes 30 and 60 North. Thereafter, the search for the north-west passage shifted into the Arctic.


George Vancouver was not a popular captain. He was respected for his capabilities and drive, but feared, perhaps loathed, for his temper; “passionate” was a word often used to describe his character. Contemporary records attest to the resentment with which some of his subordinates seethed. “Captain Vancouver [complained one] has rendered himself universally obnoxious by his orders not only in the present instance to the Young Gentlemen—the poor Kick’d about, abused, despised Midshipmen for whom it is conceived that nothing can be bad enough, neither Language or treatment—but at various times to all ranks of Officers in the two vessels under his command.”2 Another griped that “Good health continues in our little squadron, though I am sorry to add not that good fellowship which ought to subsist with adventurers traversing these distant Seas, owing to the conduct of our Commander in Chief who is grown Haughty Proud Mean and Insolent, which has kept himself and Officers in a continual state of wrangling during the whole of the Voyage.”3

Vancouver ran a tight ship. In this, he was a man of his time and station. A naval captain operated with few practical limitations on his power over subordinates. Most of the specific complaints against him arose over his “intemperate” language and bouts of rage. Historians have retrospectively attributed his irritability to his failing health and the nature of his condition.4 Whatever its cause, it offended many of his subordinates, particularly the gentle-born—men of higher social standing but lower rank.

Vancouver was a hard task master and a severe disciplinarian, but he did not hold grudges. Upon the expedition’s safe return he provided glowing references for his subordinates and applied what influence he had to secure them plum postings and promotion. He himself never again served at sea; his health broken, he focused on completing the charts from the survey and writing a detailed account of the voyage. The charts were published in the spring of 1798 and his exhaustive record of the expedition, A Voyage of Discovery, was published that autumn. He did not live to see its publication. He died on May 12 at the age of forty.

Probably George Vancouver. No confirmed portraits exist.

The Naval Chronicle applauded the book: “We have not of late years perused any voyage so well composed, and throughout arranged in so judicious and able a manner…Both in point of composition and ability, it must always rank high among those works which are considered as naval classics by professional men.”5 Other reviews were less glowing. One of his former midshipmen grumbled that “even though I accompanied him I think it is one of the most tedious books I ever read.”6


Thomas Pitt was one of fifteen midshipmen—officer cadets in today’s parlance—on Vancouver’s ship Discovery. He was the son of Lord Camelford and a scion of the powerful Pitt family—one cousin was prime minister, another foreign secretary, yet another First Lord of the Admiralty. Young Thomas was high-spirited and impulsive and Vancouver initially seemed charmed by him, but as time wore on the boy proved rambunctious and temperamental. “The Conduct of Mr T. Pit,” Vancouver complained in a dispatch to a superior in January 1793, “has been too bad for me to represent in any one respect.”7

Few details survive about the misdeeds that so irritated him. Several of Vancouver’s biographers have noted the disappearance of records, correspondence and journals kept by officers and midshipmen during the expedition; one speculated that they were collected by officials—ostensibly to investigate Pitt’s behaviour, then made to disappear to spare his powerful family embarrassment.8  Pitt’s own biographer Nicholai Tolstoy also noted the disappearance of records from other ships on which he served; he too believed that family influence was brought to bear to contain the damage from the young man’s many scandals.9

The few snippets that survive paint a figure of a dissolute and hot-headed youth. He was found asleep on watch at sea—a serious failing for any seaman, let alone an aspiring officer. While roughhousing on the quarterdeck (something no captain could countenance) he broke the binnacle housing the ship’s compass. And he assumed the role of leader among his fellow midshipmen and objected when Vancouver promoted a deserving crewman and moved him into their mess.

The best known of Pitt’s infractions occurred while the expedition was en route for the Pacific north-west. In Tahiti he was caught bartering for the affections of a native woman with an item pilfered from the ship’s stores. It might have been politic for the captain to consider Pitt’s pedigree before deciding on his punishment, but George Vancouver was not a politic man: he had him flogged. It was the first of at least three lashings administered to Pitt, and he would be detained in irons at least once. The specific circumstances behind these additional punishments are lost to history.

Back to Pitt’s arrested dalliance with that Tahitian woman—let’s call it a transaction instead, for it was certainly of a commercial rather than a romantic nature. Pitt had taken something from the ship to pay the woman and this was technically an act of thievery, but there was more to Vancouver’s severe reaction than that. He had issued orders against any unofficial trade with the natives; he needed to procure supplies for his ships and wanted to prevent inflation and market distortions—a lesson he’d learned from Cook. He had also prohibited shore access for his people for anything other than duty. In this, he drew lessons from the experience of William Bligh. The mutiny on the Bounty, led by Fletcher Christian, had occurred less than three years before. After the hardships of their long voyage from Britain, Bounty’s crew had found paradise in Tahiti. The sexual freedom they enjoyed there (hardly “free”—it was paid for with trinkets, cloth and random bits of metal) was unlike anything they had experienced before. Released in Tahiti from the harsh discipline of a naval ship at sea, Bligh’s men could not accept its re-imposition; they rose up, overthrew Bligh and set him adrift in the Pacific.

Tales of carefree dalliances in first contact environments like Tahiti and Hawaii were legend amongst sailors; visitors (all men) all wanted to experience such exotica, and they sought to do so at every opportunity. Their encounters were almost always of a commercial nature. This was as true in the Pacific north-west as it was in Polynesia.

During the three years it took them to explore the west coast of North America, Vancouver’s vessels used Friendly Cove (Yuquot), at the mouth of Nootka Sound on what is now Vancouver Island, as a base to provision and refit. Yuquot had been James Cook’s first landfall in the region in 1778, and there was extensive and enthusiastic “fraternization” between some of his complement and local Indigenous women during that initial visit. “How agreeable their Company would be to us & how profitable to themselves,” said one of his people. Another deemed the women “Jolly, likely Wenches” and observed seamen stripping and washing them on board ship, for what end seems obvious.10 The documentation on this subject by Cook’s complement is generally wink-wink and waggish but it indicates that these interactions were transactional. The Mowachaht, the local indigenous people (now part of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council), had a strict social hierarchy; there is evidence that in response to their visitors’ interest in procuring women, they provided slaves (generally captives taken in battle or raids) to protect their own women, and received payment in return.

By 1790 the Spanish had an outpost at Yuquot, and British and American fur traders frequented its anchorage. The Mowachaht sold food and timber to them and supplied the traders with furs, acting as middlemen with other indigenous peoples. Much has been written about the marine fur trade centred on Nootka Sound. The sex trade that began with first contact is not well documented but is known to have continued throughout this period.11

Nothing is known of Thomas Pitt’s activities in Yuquot during his port-of-call stops there. However, evidence I have discovered suggests his behaviour on the west coast was consistent with that documented in Tahiti.

HMS Discovery in Nootka Sound


By the end of the second survey season, Captain Vancouver had had enough of the troublesome Midshipman Pitt. In February 1794 he dismissed him and put him aboard a supply ship bound for Port Jackson (today’s Sydney). Upon arrival there Pitt learned that his father had died; as heir, he had inherited his father’s considerable wealth and title. Now Baron Camelford, he returned to England. En route he secured a temporary commission on board HMS Resistance and performed commendably during the British navy’s campaign in the Dutch East Indies.12

Camelford harboured a seething resentment towards George Vancouver for his treatment and dismissal. When he arrived in England in September 1796 he sought out and demanded “satisfaction” from the ailing captain, challenging him repeatedly to a duel. Vancouver refused, defending his actions as entirely legitimate for a commander and officer of the Crown. If Camelford wished to file a formal grievance, he said, he would accept judgement on his own conduct from any flag officer in the navy.

In a rage, Camelford travelled to Vancouver’s home in Surrey, where he harangued and threatened him face-to-face. Vancouver endured Camelford’s threats and remained firm in his refusal to duel. Still, he worried that his refusal might be construed as dishonourable, and consulted Lord Grenville, the influential foreign minister who was also Camelford’s second cousin and brother-in-law (having married his sister). Grenville, and everyone else he spoke to, supported his stand.

Camelford continued issuing threats and insults and publically proclaimed Vancouver a poltroon for refusing to “provide satisfaction”. If Vancouver would not meet him in a duel, he declared, then he would seek him out, insult him publicly and fight to determine “which was the better man.” At this, Grenville intervened to admonish him, and Camelford seemed to cool down, claiming “the whole of the affair to be now concluded.” This proved patently false. Whether by design or chance, he encountered Vancouver and his brother on Conduit Street, London—ironically, they were on their way to arrange an injunction against Camelford. The young baron flew into a rage and beat them both with his walking stick. 

The Caning in Conduit Street, by James Gillray, 1796

Physical injuries aside, the indignity caused Vancouver great public embarrassment. Camelford was subsequently required to post recognizance to keep the peace, but Vancouver’s request for an official public enquiry into his own conduct, which he felt would vindicate him and shed light on Camelford’s behaviour, was never approved. He lacked the influence to secure it. Pitt, meanwhile, had many influential friends among London’s privileged whispering classes who were ready and willing to disparage and ridicule Vancouver. James Gillray, the great political cartoonist, caricatured him. The redoubtable Sir Joseph Banks—made famous by his role as botanist on Cook’s first voyage and later head of the Royal Society—took it upon himself to collect evidence on Camelford’s mistreatment by Vancouver. No one came to Vancouver’s defence. As a result, the public standing of this remarkable, difficult, irascible, driven and accomplished man was irreparably damaged. When he died, he was still fighting for back pay from his voyage.


Although little is known about Thomas Pitt’s specific misdeeds on Discovery much is known of Camelford’s tempestuous life after his vendetta against his former captain. In 1797, through family influence (and despite his previous dismissal from the navy), he secured both a lieutenant’s commission and command of the sloop Favourite (irony abounds in the name). Not long after taking command, he shot and killed the commander of a sister vessel who declined to obey his orders; he was vindicated by a court martial, but returned to England to wait out the ensuing scandal. While waiting for a new command to be arranged, he was arrested trying to enter France, and implicated in a plot to assassinate Napoleon. That scandal finally ended his naval career. For the rest of his life he deeply resented Britain’s establishment, believing they had destroyed his prospects. In 1800, he publicly threatened the life of the prime minister, his cousin William Pitt, if he did not receive a new command. He neither received command nor suffered consequence. Toleration had its limits. The navy was through with him.

Camelford was forced to retire to the life of a fashionable (if eccentric) Georgian gentleman. He took his seat in the House of Lords, where he backed the privileges of class then veered erratically into radical politics. He was a rake, a patron of boxers, no mean pugilist himself; a frequenter of cock and dog fights, a bully who picked fights at random. Warm and generous to his friends, he bridled at slights to his honour. (Biographer Tolstoy suggests he was the model for Lord Chiltern in Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn13). He desperately desired glory and to prove himself on his own terms. This led him into further intrigue. He was again arrested and expelled from France, implicated in another plot against Napoleon. Rumour had it he had intended to take the First Consul’s life himself.

In March 1804, 29-year old Camelford squabbled with a drinking companion over a woman. He issued a challenge, and despite appeals to reason by his friends, refused to back down. It was a matter of honour, he said, and demanded satisfaction. The duellists met at dawn in a meadow near Holland House in Kensington. Camelford was mortally wounded in the exchange of shots. He lingered in pain for two days, his friends sitting grim vigil at his bedside. He showed courage and awareness in the face of death. According to Tolstoy, as the young lord lay dying, he expressed hope that his “suffering, coupled with what good he had managed to achieve in his life among all the ill, might operate in his favour in the next world.”14

His dying words, spoken to a former shipmate from the voyage, were reported to be “Tanash Mamathi”, which Tolstoy explained were “…the words used by the Indians of Nootka to signify the soul, which they pictured in the form of a little bird. In his dying hours Camelford’s mind had dwelt much on his boyhood and youth; now he had flown back in his thoughts to those stirring days when two young midshipmen had spent a long summer surveying creeks and promontories along the North American coast.”15

These are strange final words for an English peer. Thomas Pitt had spent a grand total of 50 days in Nootka Sound during the 1792 and 1793 survey seasons. When I read Tolstoy’s translation and explanation, something did not add up.


In August 2004, I visited Yuquot (Friendly Cove) to research The Wind From All Directions, which is set during the tense summit between George Vancouver and Spanish commodore Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra in the autumn of 1792. I had the privilege of meeting members of the modern Mowachaht First Nation, and I took the opportunity to pose a rather odd question to several of them. What, I asked, does “Tanash Mamathi” mean? 

Few modern Mowachaht speak their ancestral language. Generations of their people had it beaten out of them in residential schools. However those I asked instantly recognized the word “Mamathi” and provided its meaning. No one recognized the word “Tanash”. They all referred me to Ray Williams, one of the few Mowachaht elders who speak the language of their ancestors.

I approached Mr Williams who, with great dignity and tolerance, invited me into his home and listened to my query. He confirmed the definition of “Mamathi” that others had provided, and clarified my pronunciation. But at first he too was stumped by “Tanash”. 

As he thought about it, he thought about the circumstances. If a man were dying, he’d be prone to miss a syllable; and those gathered around wouldn’t recognize the mistake. Anyone in that company who had heard the words before probably never heard them right in the first place. “Tanash”, he said, was likely “Wikhtinish”. And he explained what “Wikhtinish” meant.

“Mamathnhi” is the Moachaht word for white man. And “Wikhtinish Mamathnhi” means “crazy white man”. Was Thomas Pitt, Lord Camelford, crazy? His biographer Tolstoy called him “the half-mad lord”—which is what Trollope called his fictional Lord Chiltern. And now we know that two centuries ago, someone in Nootka Sound, obviously a Mowachaht, called him a “crazy white man.” We will never know why. All we can say is that the man who stalked, hounded and humiliated George Vancouver, who tarnished a good man’s reputation, was up to some mischief in Nootka Sound—and someone called him on it.  


1  For a comparative discussion of conditions (and discipline) on British naval vessels in the central Pacific between 1764 and 1795, see Greg Dening, Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power, and Theatre on the Bounty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

2  Edward Bell, clerk of HMS Chatham, dated 28 Feb 1793; see W. Kaye Lamb, “Introduction” in George Vancouver, A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World 1791-1795, 4 vols., ed. W. Kaye Lamb (London: Hakluyt Society, 1984), vol. 1, pp. 212-13.

3  Thomas Manby¸ master’s mate on Discovery, in 1793; see Vancouver, vol.4, pp. 1640-1. Thomas Manby was later master on Chatham and Third Lieutenant on Discovery. Manby was once reprimanded by Vancouver and said of his captain’s scolding “…his salutation I can never forget, and his language I will never forgive…” See Vancouver, vol. 2, p. 594n.

4  See John M. Naish, The Interwoven Lives of George Vancouver, Archibald Menzies, Joseph Whidbey and Peter Puget, Exploring the Pacific Northwest Coast, vol. 17 of the Canadian Studies Series (Queenston and Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press,1996). Naish is a physician and on pp. 364-73 discusses Vancouver’s personality and symptoms.

5  Vancouver, vol. 2, p. 243

Ibid, pp. 243-4

Ibid, vol. 4, pp. 1581

8  Bern Anderson, The Life and Voyages of Captain George Vancouver, Surveyor of the Sea (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960).

Ibid, p. 229

10  See Elliot Fox-Povey, “How Agreeable Their Company Would Be,” British Columbia Historical News, 36, no. 3 (Summer 2003), p. 3 and n. 23. 

11  Ibid., pp. 8-9.  Fox-Povey’s article is one of the few to examine this issue.

12  Nikolai Tolstoy, The Half-Mad Lord: Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford (1775-1804) (London: Jonathan Cape, 1978), p. 28.

13  Tolstoy, pp. 142-9.

14  Ibid., p. 186.

15  Ibid.

This post is adapted from my article “George Vancouver and the Tanash Mamathi” published in the periodical Burney Letter (Spring 2011).

George Vancouver and The War That Nearly Was

Cook’s vessels HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery approaching Nootka Sound, 1778

In these COVID times it’s good—no, necessary—to escape the headlines now and then, and the best way to escape modern times is to journey into history. I do that more than most: for some time I’ve been working on an historical novel set on Canada’s west coast. Its working title is The Wind From All Directions.

I’ve posted previously about the project, it’s locale, and some of its themes. Today I’ll set the true historical context for George Vancouver’s encounter with a Spanish commodore in remote Nootka Sound in 1792. What follows is adapted from a piece I wrote more than a decade ago. (Yes, this project has been around for a while.) It was originally published in the Spring 2010 edition of The Burney Letter.

I’ll post more historical context, and more about the fictional story set within that context, in the future. In the meantime, here’s the straight goods. No Fake News here.


In 1493, via a Papal Bull, Pope Alexander VI awarded the Spanish Crown titular sovereignty over a vast swath of territory that included the entire west coast of the Americas. Alexander was a Spaniard himself and the non-Catholic world paid no attention to his bull. For three hundred years the Spaniards busied themselves pillaging Mexico and Peru and did little to assert their claim to the area north of California. They made few voyages of exploration into the area and no attempts at settlement. But a few bold foreigners traversed the region. The English corsair Francis Drake was the first, in 1588, during his extended, round-the-world raid on Spanish dominions. (To this day Drake is considered a swashbuckling hero by the British, a vicious pirate by Latin Americans and Spaniards.) Then a succession of Russian adventurers probed south from the Aleutians. And, in 1778, Britain’s James Cook became the first European to land in present day British Columbia, when he anchored in Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island to make repairs to his ships Resolution and Discovery. Accompanying Cook on the voyage was a 20-year old midshipman named George Vancouver.

Cook’s brief sojourn in what he called Friendly Cove would provide Britain with grounds for a territorial claim to the region. His expedition returned home to tell of the plentiful sea otter population in the Pacific northwest, and the two thousand percent profit their furs fetched in China. This latter tidbit spawned a veritable gold rush. Adventurers and traders—mostly Britons and newly-independent Americans—set out on the long and arduous voyage to cash-in on the bounty.

Mowachaht village, Yuquot (Friendly Cove), 1784

One of them was a former Royal Navy officer named John Meares. In 1788 he built a trading post at Friendly Cove. Meares claimed he bought the site from Maquinna, chief of the local Mowachaht nation, for two pistols; one of his men said it cost ten sheets of copper and some trinkets. It was not the only inconsistency in Meares’s tale. Maquinna later called Meares a liar and denied there’d been any sale at all. Whatever the truth, Meares traded from his post all that summer, abandoned it in the fall and sailed for China, intending to return the following spring to resume operations.

Spain had learned of the presence of foreign traders in the area it called Neuva California. In early 1789 the Viceroy of New Spain dispatched two warships under Estevan Jose Martinez to establish a fortified post in Nootka Sound as a show of Spanish might. Martinez was a veteran of the few Spanish voyages into the region, an experienced mariner, but he was temperamental and volatile and had a liking for drink that impaired his judgement.

Martinez arrived in Friendly Cove in May 1789. He found no evidence of prior European activity (i.e. Meares’s trading post) upon the land. There were, however, several British, American and Portuguese trading vessels present in the area.

Martinez boarded and inspected these traders, questioned their captains about their activities, closely examined their papers. In short order he seized a Portuguese-flagged vessel whose captain’s papers were not up to snuff. Next he interviewed a British captain named James Colnett. At first Colnett declined to present his papers (which would not have withstood close scrutiny) and was evasive as to his plans. Later, in the great cabin of Martinez’s flagship Princesa, the two men had a violent argument. Colnett stomped on the deck, swore, called Martinez a “Goddam Spaniard,” and drew his sword. Colnett, it seems, was as hot-headed as Martinez, who arrested him at gunpoint, seized both his ships and detained their crews.

The arrest of Colnett, 1789

Their quarrel, in remote Nootka Sound, brought their two countries to the brink of war.

The impounded ships belonged to none other than John Meares and his partners. Meares had chosen not to return to the northwest that year, but to remain in China. Colnett, he thought, was eminently capable to lead the trading mission among the natives. He had not contemplated an encounter with the Spanish Empire.

Months later, when word of the seizures reached him in China, Meares realized he was facing financial ruin. He saw a single option and took it. He set off for England, where he arrived in April 1790 and lodged a complaint with the British government, claiming substantial losses from the seizure of his shore establishment and his two ships. Whatever the legitimacy of his claim to property on shore, his trading losses were real, and his case of British commerce unfairly restrained by an arrogant foreign power was received sympathetically. It happened to be timely, for the government, led by William Pitt, perceived its long-time foe Spain to be weak and saw an opportunity to weaken it further.

Public sentiment against Spain was quietly stoked. Angry speeches soon resounded in parliament and the press piled on. On April 30—just weeks after Meares first made his case—Cabinet responded to the furor by ordering mobilization of the fleet. Britain, it appeared, was ready to go to war over an argument between two hotheads in far off Nootka Sound.

John Bull was bluffing. Pitt and his ministers knew that Spain could not afford war. It was isolated diplomatically and militarily; its traditional ally France was in the early stages of a revolution and would not come to its aid.

As Pitt had calculated, the Spanish acceded to negotiations to avoid conflict. By late October an agreement was concluded. The Nootka Convention provided for full restitution of the ships, property and tracts of land seized by Martinez. The Spanish Armament (as the mobilization came to be known) ended with Britain winning all its diplomatic objectives, not least being recognition of the existence of British property on the northwest coast of America. This alone would undermine Spain’s claim to exclusive possession and sovereignty over the Pacific coast.

The outcome was sweet for Britain, given the support Spain had afforded the American revolutionaries not so long before. The loss of the American colonies still stung.

Even before the Convention was inked the Spaniards had released the impounded British ships and their crews. But an item of diplomacy remained to be transacted: the return of British-owned buildings and tracts of land on shore at Friendly Cove. George Vancouver, only 33 but a veteran of two of Cook’s voyages, had already been assigned command of a voyage of exploration to the region. He was now given an additional task: to satisfy the terms of the Convention, he would rendezvous with a Spanish counterpart in Nootka Sound to formally receive the British lands and territories seized by Martinez.

George Vancouver

Vancouver’s expedition, comprising the sloop Discovery (his first command) and the brig Chatham, sailed from England in April 1791.

HMS Discovery and HMS Chatham, painting by Steve Mayo

His original mission was ambitious enough. He was to chart an area spanning more than thirty degrees of latitude, thereby placing an immense tract of territory on the map of the known world. It is tempting to consider his diplomatic role an afterthought to that demanding goal—as the killing of two birds with one stone. But consider the inflamed passions of the period: his diplomatic mission was clearly as important to Britain’s interests as his survey mission.

Despite George Vancouver’s relative youth, he had already served 20 years in the Royal Navy, most of them at sea. He was an accomplished officer and hydrographer, intelligent, capable, dutiful—but completely unprepared for the role of diplomat. He was the son of a minor customs official—not high born but middle-class: definitely without pedigree. His ascension to command, like that of his mentor James Cook, and William Bligh, another of Cook’s officers, mirrored the slow evolution of British society and its institutions, to the point where men of capability could rise to command men of privilege. Common seamen had to put up and shut up with their captain’s authority. Officers, though, operated within a milieu of class distinction, and well-bred gentlemen bridled at the orders of social inferiors elevated over them—and there was no shortage of well-bred gentlemen on Vancouver’s Discovery. An extended voyage was considered a leg-up for the ambitious young sons of the elite, and strings were pulled to secure a goodly number berths on Vancouver’s vessels. In some cases pedigree trumped talent. It was ever thus.

Vancouver’s orders regarding his diplomatic role at Nootka were vague and incomplete. He was told that en route for the northwest the transport Daedalus would meet him in Hawaii to resupply his ships and deliver detailed instructions for completing his diplomatic mission.

But Daedalus missed the rendezvous. When it finally joined him at Friendly Cove in August 1792, just as he himself arrived from his first season of survey work, it delivered no additional instructions. George Vancouver, Master and Commander of Discovery, discovered he was on his own; and unbeknownst to him, the Spanish had resolved to win back their losses under the Nootka Convention. They had dispatched a seasoned officer, a Peruvian-born commodore named Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra to the northwest to finesse their strategy and achieve their goals. Vancouver arrived in Nootka Sound to find a Spanish settlement, a garrison of troops and a fleet of Spanish men-of-war under Quadra’s command.

Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra


More to come when I have time! In the meantime stay safe and have a great summer.

Finding the Voice and Finding the Time

RGT + James Cook I’ve felt this man’s eyes on me for years. His and George Vancouver’s.

On a recent trip to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich I discovered the famous 1775 portrait of the great mariner James Cook by Nathaniel Dance-Holland. I’ve done a lot of research on Cook and his era, and I’d seen this picture many times before, so it was a delight to discover the original there on the wall. So: selfie time. The resulting photo surprised me. I wonder if George Vancouver also felt Cook looking over his shoulder.

Vancouver was a midshipman on Cook’s last two voyages. With Cook, he twice circumnavigated the globe, spending more than eight years at sea. Thirteen years after Cook’s death, still only thirty-four, Vancouver was assigned to lead his own ambitious voyage of exploration. He was to complete the mapping of the northwest coast of North America, in the course of which he was to find or refute the existence of a navigable North West Passage.

My work-in-progress is set in Nootka Sound in 1792, during that epic voyage. I’ve long faced the challenge of how to tell an historical story with authenticity, how to be true to the characters and the age without losing contemporary readers. My initial effort produced a manuscript that veritably creaked with authenticity. Authenticity, good. Creaky, bad. I rethought it and eventually found a narrative voice that could accomplish what I wanted to do. It is omniscient, perhaps unreliable, egotistical, and it’s got attitude, which makes it fun, in a dangerous (though not Travis Bickle-dangerous) way. By dangerous, I mean unconventional.

My path to this approach was long and winding. Years ago, my daughter Kaitlin introduced me to a book she was reading at school: Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, in which the narrator is Death. I loved that book and drew inspiration from it in solving my narration conundrum, though I haven’t gone as far as Zusak in using Death’s voice. Not quite, though my narrator has a unique perspective and plenty of character. I’ve also been inspired by the German writer W.G. Sebald, whose novel The Rings of Saturn is unlike any I’ve ever encountered. In the course of his story Sebald’s solitary, nameless narrator digresses into history, biography, literature and architecture. His narrative arc winds, not aimlessly, but delightfully. A friend gave me the book and said I’d like it, and I did, though perhaps not for the reasons he anticipated.

I’m pleased to say the narrative voice in my novel-in-progress (working title: The Wind From All Directions, “TWFAD”) works. I’m making good progress on the manuscript and am happy with it. I’m taking risks with voice, perspective, and story-telling in general. I’m painting outside the lines and don’t give a damn about breaking literary convention. The way I see it, if you’re painting within the lines—if you can see lines—well, you’re working on someone else’s painting. What about your own? This is my last novel. I see no need to hold back now. What do I have to lose?

Now back to Greenwich. It was a pleasurable working visit, the best kind. I did some research there for TWFAD that I could do nowhere else. I was there to investigate time and ogle the chronometers housed at the Maritime Museum and up the hill at the Royal Observatory.

John Harrison’s famous “sea watch,” known as H4, and its predecessors H1, H2 and H3 (all of which are still in working order), are on exhibit at the Observatory, where there is a very thorough, very accessible audible tour. If you’ve read Dava Sobel’s Longitude (nerd alert: Yes, of course I have.) you’ll know the significance of these chronometers. H4 was the timepiece that solved the great conundrum of marine navigators, the problem of determining longitude at sea, a problem that had preoccupied astronomers, mathematicians, horologists and instrument-makers for decades.

H4 was a masterpiece, a work of genius, a breakthrough for science and instrumentation, but a one-off. It was so expensive that it was impractical as a day-to-day solution for ships at sea. The navy could not afford to equip all its vessels with such a piece, and it was completely out of reach for the owners of merchant vessels.

The effort began to simplify the clock’s movement and cut costs. Britain’s Board of Longitude commissioned watchmaker Larcum Kendall to copy H4 with those objectives in mind. In 1770 he produced a timepiece called K1, which James Cook tested on his second voyage—George Vancouver’s first. K1 worked superbly—Cook referred to it as “our trusty friend the Watch.” It proved that H4’s success was no fluke. Kendall went on to produce K2 in 1772, and K3 in 1774, both cheaper, though inferior to K1. Cook took both K1 and K3 on his third and final voyage. K3 remained in service for many years. It was assigned to George Vancouver for his great expedition in 1791. It proved erratic in its running rate, although it was superior to other chronometers he was provided with. K2, by the way, was assigned to William Bligh (who was on Cook’s fateful third voyage with Vancouver) in 1787 for his voyage to Tahiti on HMS Bounty. It remained on the ship when Bligh was set adrift in the Pacific by Fletcher Christian. Christian took it to Pitcairn Island where he scuttled Bounty. Years later the last surviving mutineer on Pitcairn gave K2 to the captain of a visiting ship. It was eventually returned to Britain. It is exhibited in the Maritime Museum alongside K1 and K3.

These historic timepieces are awe-inspiring for anyone (such as yours truly) who finds inspiration in the long and ultimately successful quest for a solution to the vexing problem of longitude.

Here are some pictures of these historic timepieces and other eighteenth century navigational equipment housed at the National Maritime Museum or the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

Progress on “The Wind From All Directions”

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I hope your summer was wonderful. Mine was.  It’s almost a year since Poplar Lake was released, and I haven’t posted here for months, at least on the subject of writing. I’m no longer New Release but Back List, and I’m writing again. The project I’m working on is one I’ve been working on, on and off, for fifteen years. It’s an historical novel set in the Pacific Northwest in 1792. That year, British mariner George Vancouver, on a voyage to chart the last unknown stretches of the North American coast, met Spanish commodore Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra in Yuquot (Friendly Cove), in remote Nootka Sound. For a month that autumn, they wined and dined and played gunboat diplomacy while trying to convince the other to withdraw and cede his country’s territorial claims within the region. Neither asked the local Indigenous people what they thought. “Yuquot,” by the way, in the language of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht who lived there (and still do) means “the winds blow from many directions.” During those weeks of genteel pageantry and tense negotiations, the name of the places was particularly apt. And as the discussions became deadlocked, there was a murder, a murder that was never solved.

True story, so far. When I came across that nugget, buried in footnotes to primary sources, I knew there was a great story there and that I had to tell it. I went to work, researching and imagining the place, the time, life aboard a ship, life on the coast, the characters, the fraternization, the conflicts. I wrote a novel, which I called The Wind From All Directions. The first version didn’t work; it was historically authentic but it wasn’t alive. It didn’t breathe as it had to do. So I wrote it again.  TWFAD v2 worked well enough to convince an agent to take it (and me) on. While he circulated the manuscript to publishers in Canada, the US, and the UK, I worked on other projects, projects which crystallized into A Person of Letters (published in 2015) and Poplar Lake (2018).

The Wind From All Directions never found a home with a publisher, and I didn’t look at it again until 2017, after I’d signed a publishing contract for Poplar Lake and was wondering what I’d work on next. I blew the dust off my now-ancient manuscript and read it cover to cover. I saw immediately that it needed work, that my initial reach had exceeded my grasp. Readers want a good story, well told. In TWFAD, I had the former, not the latter.  This was a humbling realization.

I decided to rewrite Wind. I started from scratch, re-imagining the story, re-inventing its characters. I spent a lot of time puzzling over what I see as the central challenge, which I failed to solve in TWFAD v2: that is, of how to relate a story about a time so far removed from the modern, one that has British, Spanish, and Indigenous characters, and that captures their drivers, their motivations, their truths, while connecting with modern readers who know nothing about the period. The key, I realized, lay in the narrative voice, and I came up with a novel (so to speak) solution for that; and I’ve finally worked my way  through the story from start to finish and produced a first draft. Call it TWFAD v3 d1. Now I begin the process of kicking the crap out of d1 to produce d2. That’s what the writing process entails—at least my writing process. I’ll say more about the narrative challenges and the voice I’ve chosen and the project in general in future posts. Meanwhile, it’s back to the drawing board.

Yuquot remains a beautiful and unspoiled place, not much changed from the place where high drama and diplomacy played out in 1792. I’ve included photos of it as it was and as it is as a teaser for those interested.

Image result for friendly cove nootka sound henry humphreys
Yuquot, or Friendly Cove, in Nootka Sound, as it appeared in 1792. The buildings are part of the Spanish settlement.  Source: BC Archives at the Royal BC Museum, Item PDP02047