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Research Guides

Exploration & Discovery: 1770–1840

John Sykes, Harry Humphrys, Thomas Heddington, and Zachary Mudge
Voyage of George Vancouver, British (1791-1795)

“…the primary design of the undertaking was to obtain useful knowledge, so it became an indispensable duty, on my part, to use my utmost exertions and abilities in doing justice to the original intention; by detailing the information that arose from the execution of it, in a way calculated to instruct, even though it should fail to entertain.” [17]

Introduction

George Vancouver’s voyage in 1792 in the ships Discovery and Chatham was primarily to search for the still-elusive Northwest Passage and to secure Britain’s territorial hold on the Northwest Coast. Vancouver notably surveyed the coastline of this region accurately, investigated the mouth of the Columbia River, circumnavigated Vancouver Island (which was named in honor of him), and charted Puget Sound. Many topographical features in the Northwest were named for crew aboard Vancouver’s ships including: Puget Sound (after Lt. Peter Puget), Mount Baker (after Lt. Joseph Baker), and Whidbey Island (after Lt. Joseph Whidbey).

Vancouver began his maritime career as a crewmember under James Cook, and traveled with him to the Pacific Northwest on the third voyage. But Vancouver never acquired the reverential following that Cook had, in part because of a medical condition that severely affected his behavior and mood which eventually killed him while he assembled his account for publication.

Original Publication

The original 1798 publication of Vancouver’s travels was entitled A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World; in which the Coast of North-west America has been Carefully Examined and Accurately Surveyed. Undertaken His Majesty's Command, Principally with a View to Ascertain the Existence of any Navigable Communication between the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans; and Performed in the years 1790, 1791, 1792, 1793, and 1795, in the Discovery Sloop of War, and Armed Tender Chatham, Under the Command of Captain George Vancouver. It consisted of 3 volumes plus a folio atlas, and was printed in London for G. G. and J. Robinson.

In this instance, illustrations relating to the Pacific Northwest scenery, Native American villages, and the grounding of Discovery in Queen Charlotte’s Sound are bound into Volume 1, rather than being located separately in the accompanying folio atlas. Instead, the folio atlas contains 16 plates of coastal views and surveys, the bulk of which pertain to the Pacific Northwest.

Biographies of artists

A gross oversight in Vancouver's voyage was the lack of an officially commissioned artist. Fortunately for Vancouver, there were four crewmen aboard who had enough artistic skill that their drawings could be transformed into illustrations for the publication. These men were John Sykes, Harry Humphrys, Thomas Heddington, and Zachary Mudge. Vancouver exclaimed, "It was with infinite satisfaction that I saw, amongst the officers and young gentlemen of the quarter-deck, some who, with little instruction, would soon be enabled to construct charts, take plans of bays and harbours, draw landscapes, and make faithful portraits of several headlands, coasts, and countries, which we might obtain in the course of the voyage, would be rendered profitable to those who might succeed us in traversing the remote parts of the globe that we were destined to explore, without the assistance of professional persons, as astromomers or draftsmen." [18]

Because the men who drew during Vancouver’s voyage were seamen, not trained artists, some problems appeared when considering which images to select for publication.  Succinctly put, “...almost all of them lacked human interest. To make good the shortcomings, Alexander [William Alexander, artist employed to redraw sketches in preparation for engraving] had to make certain amendments and additions to some of the drawings that were chosen to illustrate the Voyage. Some merely required to be compressed horizontally to meet the intended page size, others required more drastic treatment. One of the latter was ‘View of a remarkable Rock on Bhem’s Canal,’ drawn by Sykes, the original of which merely depicts the rock and the surrounding waters…significantly Alexander has added some native canoes, ships’ boats, men on the island and birds and clouds over the rock.” [19]

John Sykes (1774-1858), a midshipman, was the most prolific artist. He created over 90 drawings throughout the voyage and his are the first depictions of the Puget Sound area. A significant number of the original drawings are held in the Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley, Honeyman Collection (search under "Vancouver expedition"). Many of Sykes' illustrations of coastal views can be found in the folio atlas. Sykes, as well as Thomas Heddington (1776-1860) and Zachary Mudge (1770-1852), continued their careers in the military and lived past the age of 80, while Harry Humphrys died of smallpox four years after the voyage, in 1799.

Holdings

Special Collections holds the original publication of Vancouver’s voyage, as well as subsequent editions. To search, look under LC Subject heading Vancouver, George, 1757-1798, Dewey call number 979.511 V27, and LC call number G420. V22.

Reproductions of images from Vancouver’s voyage can be found in the Bibliotheca Australiana, number 30.

Also in the holdings is a facsimile of a brief letter from George Vancouver to Sykes on January 11, 1798. 


[17] George Vancouver, 1757-1798, A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World; in Which the Coast of North-West America Has Been Carefully Examined and Accurately Surveyed. Undertaken His Majesty's Command, Principally with a View to Ascertain the Existence of Any Navigable Communication between the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans; and Performed in the Years 1790, 1791, 1792, 1793, and 1795, in the Discovery Sloop of War, and Armed Tender Chatham, under the Command of Captain George Vancouver, 3 vols. (London: Printed for G. G. and J. Robinson [etc.], 1798), xxix.
[18] Ibid., xiv.
[19] Andrew David, Vancouver's Artists (Burnaby, B.C. : Vancouver Conference on Exploration and Discovery, Dept. of History, Simon Fraser University, 1991), 10.