From Camosack Peace To The Jaws of Hell

It looked promising from the start when James Douglas sailed into Camosack Harbour in 1842 on board the Hudson’s Bay Company Schooner Cadboro. He was looking for a site on which to build a replacement for Fort Vancouver, which was in the process of being evicted from its old location on the banks of the Columbia River in the USA. Douglas had been wandering the coast for weeks looking for a sheltered harbour with an essential fresh water supply and – equally essential – enough arable land to feed the anticipated population.

He had poked his head into Sooke Harbour, Pedder Bay and Esquimalt Harbour. They were impressive but didn’t quite fit HBC requirements. Then came the day when the Cadboro found its way past what we now call Ogden Point, across West Bay and around Laurel Point to the Inner Harbour. There he anchored and made his – for Victoria – momentous decision: “I made Choice of a Site for the proposed new establishment in the Port of Camosack (Camosun) which appears to me decidedly the most advantageous situation within the Straits of Juan de Fuca …”

He returned to Fort Vancouver but was back in Camosack on March 16, 1843 – this time with a work party. He reported the weather “clear and warm and wild gooseberry bushes in bud.” He had 12 workers with him – six to dig wells, six “to start squaring timbers.” He later wrote that he informed the local natives of his intent to build a fort and “they offered to provide the pickets” for the pay of “one two-and-a-half point Hudson’s Bay blanket for 40 pickets.” A “picket” for the outer wall of the fort was to be “22 feet in length by 36 inches in circumference.” One blanket for 40 “pickets” was hardly a Bay Day bargain.

Douglas and other senior HBC officials supervised construction and explored the surrounding countryside for that vital arable land required to feed the occupants of the new outpost and new settlers the HBC hoped would follow. The success of their exploration and the hard work that followed the first plough is recorded in a detailed study compiled by Douglas in 1854 and published a year later as The Census of Vancouver Island, 1855.

The stats didn’t claim to be 100 percent accurate but were close: around 300 (white) people in the Victoria-Sooke area, plus 125 at Nanaimo and maybe 25 at Fort Rupert (Port Hardy). So, about 450 people in 1853 and all, especially the “254 persons in the (now named) town of Victoria,” requiring farm produce.

The 111 men, 50 women, and 93 children were well supplied. Eleven years after Douglas landed with his 12 workers, there were four farms in the Esquimalt area – Constance Cove, Esquimalt Farm, Maple Point (better known as Craigflower) and Viewpoint Farm. All four were Puget Sound Company operations.

Douglas ruled over the rural acres known then and now as Fairfield. There were North Dairy Farm, McPhail’s Dairy, Uplands Farm, Beckley Farm, and “Mr. Cooper’s farm at Belmont.” In addition, all the landed gentry of the day ran their own farm operations of varying sizes to contribute to the well-being and economic growth of a once tiny fort now rushing headlong toward urban status.

In 1853, the Fairfield farm produced 530 bushels of wheat, 300 bushels of oats, 150 bushels of peas, eight bushels of barley and 400 bushels of potatoes. It was located on 90 acres of “improved land” and 328 acres “unimproved.” It was home for “10 horses, four cows, 12 working oxen, six “other cattle,” 44 swine and 26 poultry.

John Work, the Hudson’s Bay man, was up in the high production ranks with “40 acres of improved land and 543 acres unimproved” producing 500 bushels of wheat, 200 of oats, 100 of peas, 1,200 of potatoes plus 150 pounds of butter. He stabled 18 horses, milked seven cows, worked 12 oxen and had 20 “other cattle,” 59 swine and a modest four poultry.

In total, in 1853 Victoria area farms produced 4,715 bushels of wheat, 1,730 of oats, 1,567 of peas, 381 of barley, 900 pounds of wool, 6,125 bushels of potatoes, 690 pounds of cheese, 4,544 pounds of butter and 100 tons of turnips from 1,418 acres of improved land, 9005 unimproved with the aid of 284 horses, 240 cows, 216 working oxen, 560 “other cattle”, 6,214 sheep, 1,010 swine and 1121 chickens.

Production was more than needed to well feed the expanding population, so what happened to the surplus? Simple, they sold or traded it, some south to the States but most north to Russian Alaska. Trade ties between the HBC and its Russian counterpart were so strong that when the Crimean War (1853-56) between Russia and England broke out, the companies shook hands on their own “peace treaty” – or at least a free-trade non-aggression pact. There was “concern” in British Columbia and Russian Alaska that led to some “military defence preparations,” but not enough to seriously interfere with the trade which continued virtually uninterrupted with both governments turning a blind eye.

On Vancouver Island in the mid-1850s, life was good, the trade link with Russia firm – at least out in the far west. While businesslike farmers on Vancouver Island were counting their revenues from trade with Russia, England’s leading pacifist John Bright was pleading with Parliament to stop the war with Crimea.

“I shall not say one word here about the state of the army in Crimea, or one word about is numbers or its condition,” he told a subdued House of Commons. “Every member of this House, every inhabitant of this country, has been sufficiently harrowed with details regarding it. To my solemn belief thousands – nay, scores of thousands of persons – have retired to rest, night after night, whose slumbers have been disturbed, or whose dreams have been based upon the sufferings and agonies of our soldiers in the Crimea.”

It is said the silence was palpable when Bright, a Quaker by religion, launched his eloquent appeal to stop the bloodshed: “I am certain that many homes in England in which there now exists a fond hope that the distant one may yet return – many such homes may be rendered desolate when the next mail shall arrive. The angel of death has been abroad throughout the land you may almost hear the beating of his wings … He takes his victims from the castle of the noble, the mansion of the wealthy, and the cottage of the poor and the lowly, and it is on behalf of all these classes that I make this solemn appeal … to put an end to this war.”

They didn’t listen to John Bright in England and on Vancouver Island they didn’t even know he had made his eloquent appeal for peace. They did eventually learn about the Crimea War and 600 cavalrymen charging to certain death in the madness known as The Charge of the Light Brigade – one of the greatest blunders in British military history.

3 comments

  1. I am always amazed with how quickly settlers in the western regions of Canada were able to develop it. On the eastern or Atlantic half there has been a European presence for 500 years. But what you are writing about began only two lifetimes ago.

    In the prairie provinces the settlement period is even shorter. Hard work and foresight in all of Western Canada produced impressive results.

  2. I am having an interesting time . Relating all your interesting information to the fact that my Grandmother , born in 1868 in rural England, probably knew little of what was happening to a country to which her granddaughter would emigrate in 1949, approximate 100 years later. M

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