The 10,000 ton British cruiser HMS Monmouth, “the largest ship ever seen” on Canada’s west coast, was welcomed with “great excitement” when she tied up in Esquimalt naval base on Vancouver Island on June 19, 1907. Two weeks earlier as she patrolled her China Sea “station” off Yokohama she had received a command from the British Admiralty to up anchor and make all speed to British Columbia.
What was going on in the pleasant backwaters of Vancouver Island to require the presence of one of Britain’s newest and most powerful warships and why the urgency? Ah, there, as the well-worn cliché says, hangs a tale, a weird tale at that.
In 1907 Victoria lived in fear of “the yellow peril” – the jingoistic term used to describe the ever-growing tide of Chinese immigrants. It was the year Premier Richard McBride made it clear in public speeches that while BC needed immigrants the “most desirable are white working people, preferably from the British Isles.”
The local newspaper supported McBride’s “whites preferred” policy proclaiming BC must keep out “those of a class that has no ambition or that has no prospect of bettering its condition. (They) are not desirable and the government (must) oppose the introduction of races who in the nature of things would compose such a class.”
In one edition a blazing headline across a double page feature read – THE ISLAND OF VANCOUVER – ITS MIGHTY FUTURE and boasted Vancouver Island was a “treasure house of natural resources occupying a commanding position on the seaboard of Western America and offering great attractions for the retired British gentleman.”
But not for “celestials” as the newspaper condescendingly termed the Chinese immigrants who came to Canada to do chores the hands of white gentlemen were too delicate to handle. Those same “celestials” paid a $50 head tax to get into a country where they were in great demand as cooks, servants, gardeners, laundry operators – or labourers. It was regretted that they came to BC to work, save their money and then have the audacity to want to stay in Canada.
So, was London expressing some concern that the celestials, so contemptuously treated for years, were in rebellious mood and threatening the life styles of nervous English gentlemen and other early white settlers? No indeed. The Monmouth was in port with just five days to re-stock her bunkers with 1,600 tons of coal and apply enough naval spit and polish to make her fit to give a select “celestial” a free ride home.
The “celestial” scheduled to sail on the Monmouth on June 25 was His Imperial Japanese Highness Prince Fushimi at the end of a tour on which he had crossed Canada by train to Vancouver and boat to Victoria. He was now ready to go home and the British government had promised him transportation for the last leg of his junket.At taxpayers expense.
After making that promise London was informed the largest ship on station at Esquimalt was HMS Shearwater – a mere “sloop of war” and far too small to impress a Japanese “Prince of the Blood.” That’s when the British Admiralty ordered HMS Monmouth to leave its “China station” off Yokohama, nip across the Pacific to Victoria and give Prince Fushimi a ride home courtesy of British Empire taxpayers. The Monmouth left as she arrived with bands playing, thousands cheering – but with 30 members of her crew incarcerated below decks facing charges of desertion.
Re-coaling Monmouth in a hurry had resulted in highly inflated wages for the labourers. White labourers were paid an extraordinary $10 a day, the Chinese $8. The Monmouth’s crewmen received standard navy pay of 60 cents.
Thirty sailors went “over the side” seeking fortunes in a city where a labourer could earn more in a day that a sailor could in a month. Two of them worked a full sawmill day-shift before the mill manager turned them in. The manager never paid them for their work and the daily newspaper praised him for doing his “patriotic duty.” All 30 sailors were eventually arrested, “manacled and returned to the ship…to be held secure until back on their China station where there is no such incentive to desert.”
What did the citizens of Victoria think of all this? The newspaper reports said thousands turned out to wish the Prince bon voyage and gushed in print the hope that when Prince Fushimi was “ushered into his cabin he would find it filled with fresh flowers.”
I wonder how many Chinese “celestials”, having paid a $50 head tax for the right to live, work and help build British Columbia, were in the “crowd of thousands” waving farewell to a royal blood Japanese Prince who was never, ever, termed a “celestial.”
And I wonder how many remembered the Monmouth and her crew seven years later when two hours before midnight on November 1, 1914, she capsized and sank after being savaged by shells and torpedoes from superior German forces in the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile. None of her 735 member crew survived Great Britain’s first naval battle defeat since the war of 1812.