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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
6 Ibid, pp. 243-4
7 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).
9 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.
This post is adapted from my article “George Vancouver and the Tanash Mamathi” published in the periodical Burney Letter (Spring 2011).