The Vancouver / Camelford Affair
On September 21, 1796 Captain George Vancouver and his brother Charles were walking up Conduit Street in London. They were on their way to an urgent meeting with Lord Loughborough, the Lord Chancellor of England. Captain Vancouver had been abused and threatened by a member of the House of Lords. Since the assailant was a peer, Vancouver needed help from the Lord Chancellor himself. Suddenly a young man came dashing across the street, and began striking the brothers with his cane. They fought back, and passersby pulled the men apart. The young man continued to utter threats of violence as he was pulled away. The young man was Lord Camelford, who had recently inherited a seat in the House of Lords. It was he who had threatened Vancouver.
To understand this strange encounter we must go back many years, to the early lives of both men. Thomas Pitt, the future Lord Camelford, was born in 1775. His family was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in Britain. His uncle, William Pitt, was Prime Minister 1766-1768, and later became the Earl of Chatham. William’s younger son, also named William Pitt and Thomas Pitt’s cousin, was Prime Minister 1783-1801, and 1804-1806. Other relatives held positions of power. Pitt’s father was not as prominent politically, but was a very rich man. So the Pitt family was a power to be reckoned with.
An elevated social status, though, did not lead to happiness for young Thomas. His family virtually abandoned him, and he grew up on a lonely Cornish estate. At age eleven he was sent to a school in Switzerland, where a kind headmaster gave him three happy years. Then at fourteen he was sent to Charterhouse School, from which he soon ran away. He had had enough of school, and wanted a naval career.
With his father’s permission he soon got it. In 1789 he was appointed a midshipman on the sloop Guardian. This ship was taking a load of plants, passengers and convicts to Australia. Somewhere in the Indian Ocean it hit a giant iceberg. Many fled the ship, but some, including Pitt and the captain, remained on board. Eventually they managed to bring the crippled ship back to Capetown. Pitt returned to Britain, a hero in the eyes of his family.
The iceberg incident only whetted Pitt’s taste for adventure. As it happened, an expedition was being formed. On account of a dispute with Spain, the government needed a negotiator at Nootka Sound on the northwest coast of North America. At the same time, to fully establish the British presence on that coast, the government wanted a survey done by the Royal Navy from 30° N to north of 61° N (the northern limit on the Spanish claims of sovereignty). This survey would also determine whether or not there was a northwest passage. This, then, was a major expedition.
For an ambitious young midshipman, this could be the trip of a lifetime. The northwest coast of North America was probably the last major area that still needed to be explored. Everyone was aware of the great renown of Captain Cook’s voyages. This trip was to be led by one of Cook’s leading students, Captain George Vancouver. The learning opportunities for a naval career were enormous, and Pitt jumped at the chance. Through his father’s influence he secured a place on the ship. And Vancouver was pleased. Meeting the young midshipman, he was convinced that Pitt had great potential as an officer.
George Vancouver was born in 1757, to a more modest level of society. His father had connections though: he was Deputy Collector of Customs in the town of King’s Lynn. It was probably those connections that enabled Vancouver to sign on, in 1772, to Captain Cook’s second expedition. Vancouver was looking for a naval career. For someone who wanted to learn the trade, he couldn’t have picked a better voyage. On Cook’s ships the young seamen were given a thorough training in seamanship and navigation. Vancouver was able and diligent, and Cook signed him onto his third voyage. Leaving England in 1776, this was a pioneering exploration of the northwest coast of North America.
The purpose of this voyage was to search for a northwest passage to Europe. No passage was found, but only some of the coast was explored. Much remained to be surveyed. Cook could not be faulted, as this was (and is) a long and complex coastline. But until it was done there was no answer to the question.
Tragedy struck this voyage. In an altercation with the Sandwich (now Hawaiian) Islands natives, Captain Cook was murdered. Vancouver narrowly survived, and learnt an important lesson. He could see the overwhelming necessity of sensitive dealings with native peoples, and establishing good relations. If this led to restrictions on contact with the natives, so be it. Such a policy, though, was bound to be unpopular. It later led to trouble with Pitt and other members of his crew.
Vancouver’s career continued to advance. He was promoted to lieutenant, and spent most of the next decade in the West Indies. He spent much of his time doing survey work, and became a favourite of the commander, Commodore Gardner. Gardner later went onto the Admiralty Board, and helped advance Vancouver’s career. In 1790 the decision was made to send an exploring expedition to the Northwest Coast. Vancouver was appointed captain in charge, undoubtedly through Gardner’s influence.
The expedition was comprised of two ships, HMS Discovery and HMS Chatham. Vancouver, as well as being in charge overall, was captain of the Discovery. William Broughton was captain of the Chatham. They left England on April 1st, 1791, bound for the Cape of Good Hope. Vancouver had elected to go via the Indian Ocean, as he wished to visit New Holland (now Australia). They stopped for repairs and provisions at the Cape of Good Hope, and at Cape Chatham (the southwest tip of New Holland). They headed over to New Zealand, and then on to Tahiti. They anchored off Tahiti on December 27, 1791.
Initially Vancouver got along very well with Pitt. While the expedition was still in the South Atlantic he promoted him to master’s mate. The first sign of trouble occurred in Tahiti. Tahiti was famous throughout the navy for its beautiful women, who were notoriously free with their favours. The men couldn’t wait to get there. But Vancouver put the brakes on their ideas. He banned all contact with the women. Vancouver was very aware of the mutiny on the HMS Bounty, which had occurred a few years before. That mutiny had been attributed to the men becoming too infatuated with the local ladies, to the point of being unwilling to resume their duties. Vancouver was determined to prevent this.
Whatever the reason, the decision was highly unpopular. Pitt, in particular, was not used to being denied his pleasures. One day, while on board the ship, he spotted a young lady nearby. Knowing how much the Tahitians wanted iron, he tossed her a barrel hoop. But he was caught in the act. Vancouver had seen the action, and was determined to punish him. He was given twenty-four lashes, a harsh but not unusual punishment for the day. But for Pitt it was a burning humiliation. Intensely proud of his aristocratic background, he could not bear the degradation of a common flogging. The seeds of revenge were born.
The expedition spent the winter in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, and in the spring of 1792 sailed to the North American coast. On April 17, 1792, they spotted land near 40° N. They sailed north, and thus began perhaps the greatest of all exploration surveys. For the next three years Vancouver and his crew worked relentlessly to survey the complex mainland coast. Up to the Strait of Juan de Fuca the job was deceptively easy; but once they hit the mazes of Puget Sound the difficulties began.
Vancouver was respected by his crew, and they were willing to work hard for him. He was not well-liked, though, especially by the young midshipmen. Vancouver was a stern disciplinarian, but not unusually harsh. But the young midshipmen were often upper class, and not used to the strict life of the navy. This was especially true of Thomas Pitt. Even as a child it was he who had given the orders, and had grown up completely undisciplined. Moreover, he had a wild, vengeful nature, nursing grievances against any who offended him. He was not willing to forgive and forget.
Vancouver gave him more opportunity to stoke his grievances. Documentation is scanty, but there appears to be at least two more occasions when he was flogged. During the first survey season Pitt was horsing around with his ship mates, and broke the binnacle glass for the compass. This occasioned the second flogging. Why the third occurred is not known. It is possibly linked, though, to a skirmish Vancouver had with some natives of the northwest coast. It was after this skirmish that Vancouver stripped Pitt of his “master’s mate” rank. Vancouver also named the place where the skirmish took place “Traitor’s Cove”. Since he was unlikely to be referring to natives with the term “traitor”, did this refer to some malfeasance on the part of Pitt? Pure speculation, but certainly a possibility.
A final incident occurred at the end of the second survey season, when the ships had gone to the Sandwich Islands. Vancouver caught Pitt sleeping on deck, when he was supposed to be on duty. He was locked in chains for two weeks, and then completely released from duty. He was put onto the supply ship Daedalus, sailing to Port Jackson, Australia. From there he would have to make his own way home. Vancouver was rid of him at last. Or so he thought.
In the fall of 1794 Vancouver finally finished his great survey. For three years he and his men had driven themselves to map the coast, and they had done a magnificent job. In this relentless drive, though, Vancouver had become a very sick man. They headed home, and he arrived back in London in September, 1795. He still had to prepare his journal for publication, along with a portfolio of maps. Vancouver well remembered the adulation Cook had received when he came home. He certainly hoped for a measure of the same.
But if he was expecting to be well treated, he was in for a disappointment. He was courteously but coldly received, and was not offered any special favours. Even his back pay, for five and a half years at sea, was not forthcoming. In fact he wasn’t paid until November 1797, and then not very generously. In retrospect this is not surprising. The government would have been well aware of Vancouver’s dealings with Thomas Pitt. And since key members of the government were relatives of Pitt, they were hardly willing to help Vancouver. Poor Vancouver seems to have been politically naïve. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that flogging Pitt would be asking for trouble.
But whatever they thought of him, it was still in the Admiralty’s interest to publish Vancouver’s journal. They stood to make a good profit from its sale. Vancouver began the work of preparing it in the spring of 1796. But soon all hell broke loose. In September 1796, Pitt (now Lord Camelford) returned to England. Thirsting for vengeance, Pitt had earlier sent Vancouver a challenge for a duel. It had arrived in mid-August. Vancouver had then prepared a reply, which essentially said he was not personally responsible for actions committed as part of his official duties. It would have to be investigated by a naval board of inquiry, to which he was willing to submit. This only enraged Camelford. He went to Vancouver’s house, and verbally attacked him in person. Vancouver was frightened and in a quandary; what should he do next?
Vancouver discussed the matter with friends, and particularly with Lord Grenville. Grenville was the Foreign Secretary and Camelford’s brother-in-law. He was also very fair in his dealings with both men. The friends and Lord Grenville both agreed that Vancouver had made the correct reply to Camelford. They also said that although Camelford had committed criminal offences, it would be difficult to charge a peer. Civil action would also be difficult. Encouraged that he had done the right thing, Vancouver again wrote to Camelford, reiterating his position. Vancouver had his brother Charles personally deliver the letter. For his efforts Charles Vancouver was verbally attacked and abused.
It now became obvious that Vancouver could only get help from the Lord Chancellor. Vancouver therefore made an appointment with Lord Loughborough. He and his brother Charles were walking up Conduit Street, on their way to the appointment, when they were spotted by Lord Camelford. Camelford dashed across the street, and the previously mentioned fight ensued. It only ended when passersby pulled them apart.
Vancouver carried on, and had his appointment with Lord Loughborough. Loughborough agreed this could not continue, and arranged a meeting with Camelford. Camelford, calmer now, met with Loughborough. He respected a senior peer like Loughborough, and was willing to agree to a peace bond for one year. But he wasn’t through yet. A few days later a horrible cartoon appeared in a newspaper. Titled “The Caneing in Conduit Street”, it was a drawing of the encounter between Pitt and Vancouver. It made Vancouver look like a quavering coward, and had some written asides attacking his character. James Gillray, a friend of Camelford’s, had done the drawing. It was of course slanderously untrue. But its effect was worse than that. It turned Vancouver, who had accomplished nearly as much as Captain Cook, into the near laughingstock of England. Since Vancouver was a very sick man, it’s a wonder that he survived at all.
But survive he did, for another year and a half, as he continued to work on his journal. He knew better than anyone else that it would be his validation. Camelford continued to cause some trouble, but the worst was over. Vancouver lived to almost finish the journal. He died in May 1798, and his brother John completed it. It was published in the fall of 1798, in three large volumes with a portfolio of maps. It won instant acclaim, and quickly sold out. Another edition was issued in 1801, and there were numerous foreign language editions. There have been other English language editions since, including the definitive scholarly one by W. Kaye Lamb in 1984. Vancouver’s star has continued to rise, and he is now recognized for what he was, one of the greatest explorers and map-makers of history. His Journal is a classic of exploration literature.
A less noble fate befell Lord Camelford. With much family effort he received the rank of lieutenant, and the possibility of a naval career. But he was his own worst enemy. On October 25, 1797 he was commanding a ship near Grenada in the West Indies. He attacked, at night, what he thought was an enemy fort. It turned out to be an English fort. Luckily the commander beat him off. A few days later he did something worse. In Barbados, he attempted to press some seamen into service. This was quite legal, since Britain was at war. However, such men often resist. When Camelford encountered resistance, he killed a seaman and a merchant captain. His family and his rank protected him.
His bursts of violence, though, got worse. He shot and killed a fellow officer who was not being sufficiently deferential. He horsewhipped a naval storekeeper who was slow at his job. Still his connections protected him. But the Commanding Officer of the West Indies Fleet had had enough. He shipped his lordship home, not wanting any more of his men killed or his forts attacked.
Over the next few years there was more wild and violent behavior. He was dubbed in the press the “half-mad lord”. The end came in 1804. He had a quarrel with a friend over a high-class prostitute, and challenged the friend to a duel. The friend came off best: he shot Camelford dead.
Beyond his family, few mourned Camelford’s passing. By the age of twenty- nine he had acquired more enemies than most people do in a lifetime. But his attacks on Vancouver had a lasting effect. Scholarship on Vancouver was affected by the bad press caused by Camelford. This could, perhaps, have been offset by access to Vancouver’s personal papers. Unfortunately most of those have disappeared. The result has been an inadequate assessment of Vancouver’s achievement. Only with the scholarship of recent times, especially the work of W. Kaye Lamb, has this started to change.
Vancouver may not always have been an easy person to work with. He was a demanding perfectionist, and mapping the northwest coast was extremely difficult. But it is striking how loyal most of his men were. They knew he was capable and fair, and they could see the goal they were attempting to accomplish. Completing this voyage, and telling the story, was punishingly hard. Camelford’s harassment made it much worse. But complete it he did. And it is his star, not Camelford’s, which shines in the world today.
For further reading:
A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World, 1791-1795 (4 Volumes) by George Vancouver; edited by W. Kaye Lamb.
Call number: 910.9 VAN
The Half-Mad Lord: Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford (1775-1804) by Nikolai Tolstoy.
Call number: 359.32 TOL
On Stormy Seas: The Triumphs and Torments of Captain George Vancouver by B. Guild Gillespie.
Call number: 923.941 VAN
The Interwoven Lives of George Vancouver, Archibald Menzies, Joseph Whidbey and Peter Puget: Exploring the Pacific Northwest Coast by John M. Naish.
Call number: 917.95042 NAI
Stephen Ruttan, Local History Librarian