Having read Captain Vancouver’s journals years ago, I thought I knew the history of his epic voyage in the Pacific Northwest. I took for granted, foolishly, the accuracy and veracity of his records. Of course, we should all know that history is written by the victors, and those in charge of recording the events of history often have ulterior motives and biases that color how those events are presented to the world.
As a Northwest native and an armchair student of history, I was excited to get a copy of Wade Baker and Mary Tasi’s book, which I knew nothing about other than the title: The Hidden Journals: Captain Vancouver and his Mapmaker. I don’t know exactly what I expected, but what this book delivers a massively compelling look at Vancouver’s connection to the Native people of the Northwest, and it opens up a part of our shared past that has been otherwise ignored in literature.
Third Lieutenant Joseph Baker was the mapmaker on Captain Vancouver’s ship The Discovery from 1791 to 1795. The book is as much about author Wade Baker’s search for information about the mapmaker as it is about the mapmaker himself. The authors collect and weave the oral histories of Native peoples into what they learned from their unprecedented access to the early journals and logbooks of both Baker and Vancouver. It is deeply researched and incredibly detailed, and on that measure alone is quite an accomplishment.
But it is also engaging. If you’ve read any of Vancouver’s journals (even those “translated” into modern English), you know what a slog it can be at times. In his own journals, Vancouver comes across as gruff and uncaring. His disdain for the inland waters of the Pacific Northwest is consistently made clear, and the conventional understanding is that he fell into conflicts with the Native populations he came across. What this book shows is a very different man, keenly interested in the people as much as the place. Baker’s charge was to chart the waters, but it is revealed here that he considered the people a vital part of the landscape. He was as interested in culture as he was coastlines.
It is remarkable the degree to which key parts of Northwest history have been, as the authors say, “airbrushed” from the history books. I read this while cruising the San Juans and Gulf Islands and it opened my eyes to how easy it is to stampede over the history of a place without thinking completely or clearly about its true past. A few place names stand out as nods to native culture, but European names dominate the charts and maps.
Vancouver may have been the gruff, business-like captain history has painted him, but this book suggests that in a different time and climate, the Native cultures he encountered would have played a more central role in the history he helped write. The Hidden Journals belongs on your nautical bookshelf, and its message belongs in the history curriculum.