Madness, Betrayal and the Lash charts Capt. Vancouver's battles
Madness, Betrayal and the Lash. By Stephen R. Bown. Douglas & McIntyre, 254 pp, $34.95, hardcover
Thanks to the uncommonly evocative novels of Patrick O’Brian, the world of the Royal Navy during the 18th century is a lot closer to us than it used to be. But if you’ve sailed through all 21 volumes of the Jack Aubrey saga, or even if you just want to know more about our city’s seafaring namesake, here’s a real-life adventure story that’s as rich in peril and intrigue as any fictional epic.
Captain George Vancouver, a rough contemporary of O’Brian’s Aubrey, was no swashbuckling action hero. A careful captain and a meticulous cartographer, he spent relatively little time under fire, preferring instead to survey unmapped or ill-mapped shores, including much of the B.C. coast.
And he lost the greatest battle of his life—fought not at sea but in the London media, circa 1796—when the wealthy and deranged Lord Camelford, once a midshipman under Vancouver’s command, set out to destroy his former captain’s reputation.
Seething over having been whipped for various acts of onboard insubordination, the aristocratic bully never got the duel he wanted, but did manage to convince the public that the Discovery’s ailing commander was a despot and a coward. Vancouver died soon after, his reputation in tatters.
Stephen R. Bown is no hagiographer, but with Madness, Betrayal and the Lash it’s obvious that his 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 mariners during that era.
One might quibble that Vancouver never fully comes to life in these pages. As Bown notes, “We will never know of his inner turmoil or emotional suffering, because he left no candid journal of his thoughts and aspirations.” Nonetheless, the explorer is well served by this Alberta-based historian’s clear-eyed, respectful charting of his life and times.