Madness, Betrayal and the Lash

The Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver


The tragic story of Captain Vancouver, a great explorer whose triumphs were overshadowed by public humiliation. From 1792 to 1795, George Vancouver sailed the Pacific waters as captain of a major expedition of discovery and imperial ambition. Britain had its eyes on Pacific North America, and Vancouver valiantly charted four thousand miles of coastline from California to Alaska. His voyage was one of history’s greatest feats of maritime daring, scientific discovery, marine cartography and international diplomacy. Vancouver’s triumph, however, was overshadowed by bitter smear campaigns initiated by enemies he made on board, in particular Archibald Menzies, the ship’s naturalist, and Thomas Pitt, a well-connected midshipman whom Vancouver flogged and sent home. Both men were members of the governing elite and, once back in London, they destroyed Vancouver’s reputation. Pitt publicly challenged Vancouver to several duels and then beat him in a London street with a cane when he declined. The ailing Vancouver was lampooned in the press as a coward and a bully. Unable to collect back pay, he was left impoverished and ill. He died just after finishing the manuscript of his voyage, scrawling out the final pages on his death bed. In this gripping tale of maritime daring and betrayal, Stephen Bown offers a long-overdue re-evaluation of one of the greatest explorers of the Age of Discovery.


"Bown's book is, however, a good rallying point for native claims and if one was to read this book for that purpose only they would be well rewarded. ..this is a book all Vancouverites, native or converts, and indeed all British Columbians, should read. "

- The Tyee

"In Bown's popularly written and accessible retelling, Vancouver is erratic but brave; he is reproving but not vindictive; he remains slightly opaque (he left no frank diary to mine), but glimmers of fallibility endear. If Bown's task is to better place him in our collective memory, then he has ably done so. "

- Canadian Geographic

"It's obvious that [Bown's] ambition is to elevate Vancouver to the pantheon occupied by his contemporaries James Cook and Horatio Nelson. And he makes a good case, especially given that Vancouver completed a four-year circumnavigation of the globe without losing a man to scurvy, the curse of the mariners during that era. ..Nonetheless, the explorer is well served by this Alberta-based historian's clear-eyed, respectful charting of his life and times. "

- Georgia Straight

"Bown's account makes an excellent case for the pressure that isolation and perfectionism can exert on a high-strung, seemingly compulsive individual. "

- Quill & Quire

"Bown reviews the captain's early career and ably sketches out the diplomatic and cartographic context of the final expedition. Well written and well paced, the book will please readers who like their history presented as old-fashioned narrative. ..Madness, Betrayal and the Lash is an entertaining and fair-minded presentation of the events of George Vancouver's life. "

- Literary Review of Canada

"Canadian historian Stephen Bown has raised Vancouver above the tide of ignominy with a sympathetic but balanced account of this much-maligned mariner. It's a fascinating adventure story with vivid descriptions of 18th-century geopolitics and native and British societies. Most of all, it makes you want to hop into a kayak or sailboat and explore the BC coast yourself. ..Stephen Bown. emerging as Canada's Simon Winchester. "

- Globe & Mail

"[Bown] reminds us that our knowledge isn't always entirely accurate. Often, the people who get credit in history aren't the ones who deserve it. Such mistakes need to be corrected. ..Thanks to him, we learn that George Vancouver was 'at heart, a good man. He accomplished great things and, as our historical and cultural ancestor, he deserves a greater place in our collective memory. '"

- Vancouver Sun

"Any fan of the Great Age of Sail, the history of the Royal Navy or European voyages of exploration will enjoy rediscovering this almost-forgotten hero. "

- Publishers Weekly

"This is no pure high seas adventure. Just as engaging is Bown's account of the scourging Vancouver received back in England at the hands of higher-class shipmates who had endured his onboard discipline. "

- Toronto Star

"Bown does a fine job not only narrating this journey but also describing those who would destroy the captain's reputation post-voyage. ..In addition to Vancouver's tale, readers familiar with the Pacific Northwest will find fascinating the stories behind the region's place names. Bown has crafted a very readable account that will appeal to anyone curious about the little-celebrated man whose name is a daily utterance for many western Canadians. "

- Alberta Views Magazine

"Stephen R. Bown's look at Vancouver, builds a premise of fundamental learning on the master sailor's [Captain Cook's] part and culminates with him using all he has learned -- and some he has not -- in his legendary explorations of British Columbia's oft treacherous coastal region. "

- Daily Herald Tribune