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HMS Discovery (1789)
Career (Great Britain) Royal Navy Ensign (1707 - 1801)
Name: HMS Discovery
Builder: Randall, Gray & Brent,[1] Rotherhithe
Launched: 1789
Acquired: November 1789
In service: 7 December 1789
Reclassified: Bomb vessel in 1799
Convict hulk between 1808-1812
Army hospital ship between 1812-1815
Convict ship between 1820-1834
Honours and
Copenhagen 1801[2]
Fate: Broken up by 15 February 1834
General characteristics [3]
Class & type: 10-gun survey ship
Tons burthen: 3306598 bm
Length: 99 ft 2 in (30.23 m) (overall)
77 ft 8 in (23.67 m) (keel)
Beam: 28 ft 3 14 in (8.617 m)
Depth of hold: 12 ft 4 in (3.76 m)
Sail plan: Full-rigged ship

Sloop-of-war: 94 - 100

As a bomb vessel, 67

Sloop-of-war: 10 x 4-pounder guns (short)+ 10 x ½-pounder swivel guns

Bomb vessel: 1 x 13" mortar + 1 x 10" mortar + 8 x 24-pounder carronades + 2 x 6-pounder guns

HMS Discovery was a Royal Navy ship launched in 1789 and best known as the lead ship in George Vancouver's exploration of the west coast of North America in his famous 1791-1795 expedition. She was converted to a bomb vessel in 1798 and participated in the Battle of Copenhagen. Thereafter she served as a hospital ship and later as a convict ship until 1831. She was broken up in 1834.

Early years[]

Model at the Vancouver Maritime Museum

Discovery was launched in 1789 and purchased for the Navy in 1790.[1] She was named after the previous HMS Discovery, one of the ships on James Cook's third voyage to the Pacific Ocean. The earlier Discovery was the ship on which Vancouver had served as a midshipman.

Discovery was a full-rigged ship with a standard crew complement of 100 including a widow's man.[4] She had been designed and built for a voyage of exploration to the Southern whale fisheries.[5]

Discovery's first captain was Henry Roberts, with Vancouver as his first lieutenant. But when the Nootka Crisis began in 1789, Roberts and Vancouver were posted elsewhere. The ship then became a depot (hulk) for processing sailors brought in by press gangs in Chatham. Vancouver then returned and was given full command of Discovery to assist with the Nootka Sound Conventions.

Voyages of discovery[]

Southern hemisphere[]

In 1 April 1791, Discovery left England with HMS Chatham. Both ships stopped at Cape Town before exploring the south coast of Australia. In King George Sound, the Discovery's naturalist and surgeon Archibald Menzies collected various plant species including the Banksia grandis. This was the first recording of the Banksia genus from Western Australia.[6] The two ships sailed to Hawai'i where Vancouver met Kamehameha I. Chatham and Discovery then sailed on to the Northwest Pacific.

Northwest America[]

Over the course of the next four years, Vancouver surveyed the northern Pacific Ocean coast in Discovery wintering in Spanish California or Hawai'i. Vancouver named many features after friends and associates, including:

  • Mount Baker, named after 3rd Lieutenant Joseph Baker, the first on the expedition to spot it
  • Mount St. Helens, named after Alleyne Fitzherbert, 1st Baron St Helens
  • Puget Sound, after Discovery's lieutenant Peter Puget,[7] who explored its southern reaches.
  • Mount Hood
  • Mount Rainier
  • Discovery Bay and Port Discovery.

Discovery's primary mission was to exert British sovereignty over this part of the Northwest Coast following the hand-over of the Spanish Fort San Miguel at Nootka Sound, although exploration in co-operation with the Spanish was seen as an important secondary objective. Exploration work was successful as relations with the Spanish went well; resupply in California was especially helpful. Vancouver and the Spanish commandant Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra were on such good terms that the original name of Vancouver Island was actually Vancouver and Quadra's Island.

Discovery ran aground in early August 1792 on hidden rocks in Queen Charlotte Strait near Fife Sound. Within a day Chatham also ran aground on rocks about two miles away.

In 1793, Discovery entered a bay on the northern end of the Prince of Wales Island when a storm arose. Its shelter led to it being named Port Protection. Baker Point, the northwest point of Prince of Wales Island is named after the Discovery's 3rd Lieutenant Joseph Baker.

It is remarkable that during Discovery's five-year voyage she lost only six sailors, all in accidents; none died from scurvy or violence.

Diplomatic role[]

Discovery was meant to bring a resolution to the disposition of control over Nootka Sound. But despite four years of dispatches with their home governments, Vancouver and Quadra failed to formally conclude an agreement.

Later years[]

Discovery as a prison ship at Deptford

Discovery put into St Helena in July 1795. There on 2 July 1795 Discovery and the brig Chatham captured a Dutch East Indiaman, the Makassar, which sailed in, unaware that the newly established Batavian Republic was at war with Great Britain.[Note 1] Some prize money was due to be paid in November 1824.[9][Note 2]

From there Vancouver and Discovery sailed in convoy with Sceptre, the East Indiaman General Goddard, their prizes, and a large number of other East Indiamen. They arrived at Shannon in September and Discovery sailed on to England.[11]

After four years at sea, Discovery was in great need of a refit. She was laid up until 1798 when she was refitted as a bomb vessel and recommissioned under Commander John Dick.[3]

In October 1800 Commander John Conn replaced Dick.[3] Discovery participated in the Battle of Copenhagen in April 1801.[3] In 1847 the Admiralty authorized the issuance of the Naval General Service medal with clasp "Copenhagen 1801" to all surviving claimants from the campaign.[12]

On 4 August 1801, Discovery served with Nelson when he resolved to attack an enemy flotilla off Boulogne using Bomb vessels. On the night of 15 August, the British attacked in four divisions, with Conn in charge of four boats armed with howitzers. Discovery had one man wounded in the unsuccessful British attack.[13] Discovery was then paid off in October.[3] Discovery was laid up in ordinary in May 1802.[1]

Later career and fate[]

Discovery was recommissioned in May 1803 under Commander John Joyce,[1] with Commander Charles Pickford replacing him in August.[3] Pickford continued in command until 1805.[1]

In 1807 Discovery was at Sheerness, serving as a hospital ship. She continued in this role until 1815.[1]

In 1818 Discovery was converted to a convict ship at Woolwich. In 1824 she moved to Deptford, where she continued to serve as a convict ship until at least 1831.[1] She was broken up there in 1834.

Notable crew and passengers[]

Among the notable persons who served on Discovery's great voyage:

See also[]

  • European and American voyages of scientific exploration


  1. Makassar, under the command of Captain Frederik Markt, had been launched in 1787 and had a burthen of 1150 tons.[8]
  2. A first-class share, such as would have accrued to Vancouver and Peter Puget (by then deceased), of Chatham, was worth £39 5s 0¾d; a fifth-class share, i.e., the share of an able seaman, was worth 6s 11½d.[10]
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 "NMM, vessel ID 383539". Warship Histories, vol v. National Maritime Museum. Retrieved 30 July 2011. 
  2. Britain's Navy
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Winfield (2008), p.398.
  4. "Muster Table of His Majesties Sloop The Discovery". Admiralty Records in the Public Record Office, U.K.. 1791. Retrieved 15 December 2006. 
  5. Naish, John (1996). The Interwoven Lives of George Vancouver, Archibald Menzies, Joseph Whidbey and Peter Puget: The Vancouver Voyage of 1791-1795. The Edward Mellen Press, Ltd.. ISBN 0-7734-8857-X. 
  6. For People & Plants Quarterly journal Issue 55 published by Friends of Kings Park
  7. Wing, Robert and Newell, Gordon (1979). Peter Puget: Lieutenant on the Vancouver Expedition, fighting British naval officer, the man for whom Puget Sound was named. Gray Beard Publishing. ISBN 0-933686-00-5. 
  8. van Eyck van Heslinga (1983), pp.224-5.
  9. "No. 18087". 4 December 1824. 
  10. "No. 18091". 18 December 1824. 
  11. Vancouver (1798), pp.471-486.
  12. "No. 20939". 26 January 1849. 
  13. "No. 15397". 15 August 1801. 


  • van Eyeck van Heslinga, Dr. E.S. (1988) Van compagnie naar koopvaardij: De sheepvaartverbinding van de Baatfse Republiek met de koloniën in Azië, 1795-1803, Hollandse Historische Reeks No. 9. (Amsterdam:De Bataafsche Leeuwe). ISBN 90-6707-174-9
  • Vancouver, George (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 by 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, 1794, and 1795, in the Discovery sloop of war, and armed tender Chatham, under the command of Captain George Vancouver: in three volumes. (G. G. and J. Robinson)
  • Winfield, Rif (2008). British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793–1817: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. Seaforth. ISBN 1-86176-246-1. 

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