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Vancouver & Menzies

In April 1791 HMS Discovery and HMS Chatham set out to survey the northwest coast of America, looking for the mooted north-west passage linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and, in the process but via the Cape and Pacific Ocean a global circumnavigation that would not be completed until 1795. George Vancouver (1757-1798), who had travelled on Cook’s second and third voyages, was commander. En route the vessels also ‘discovered’ and carefully surveyed the region of King George Sound which he found in September, noting its potential as a harbour before sailing on to Tasmania and New Zealand. In North America he charted the northwestern Pacific Coast regions of today’s Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon and he also explored the Hawaiian Islands. Combined with the voyages of Cook, Bass, and Flinders the British were esablishing trade routes that linked India, China, Sydney, the East Indies and North and South America.

For two weeks his much-travelled Scottish surgeon and botanist-naturalist Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), another Banks recommendation, sometimes with Vancouver, collected live plants, seed and herbarium specimens. Archibald Menzies and his elder brother had worked at Edinburgh Botanic Gardens for a while, Archibald being encouraged by the professor of botany at Edinburgh University, John Hope, to study medicine (the traditional path to the position of naval surgeon), a job which he duly undertook. He had assisted Banks with documenting his collections, a likely reason why Banks recommended him for the post of surgeon on HMS Discovery. His glass plant frame designed for the quarterdeck of HMS Discovery.[2] Many of his collections were sent to Aylmer Lambert, author of a major monograph on the genus Pinus and Fellow of the of the Linnean Society, who accumulated natural history specimens and drawings from Australia in the period immediately following the arrival of the First Fleet. In 1795 when dining with the Viceroy of Chile, Menzies was served the seeds of the Chilean conifer now known as Monkey Puzzle, Araucaria araucana, as a dessert, retrieving a few seeds which he grew on the Discovery just before returning to England, arriving with five healthy plants, the first seen in Britain. The Monkey Puzzle tree became a favourite in many formal gardens of the 19th century but only after the importation by nurseryman William Lobb of quantities of seed in 1844, these producing many of the established trees in England and Wales.[3]

During a fortnight spent in King Georges Sound between 28 September and 11 October 1791, Menzies spent six days collecting an accumulated 145 taxa (132 flowering plants, 4 ferns, 3 mosses, and 4 marine algae) of which 38 are types (a specially designated specimen used in drawing up the original scientific description).[1] During this visit the crew also planted watercress, vines, almonds, oranges, lemons and pumpkins ‘for the benefit of future visitors’.[4]

It is with this expedition that knowledge of Australia’s marine algae was established with the recovery of more than 300 new species. Also, to remove any doubt about British ownership, Vancouver claimed for Britain this western third of the continent in a formal naval ceremony at a site he named Point Possession.

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