Little more than 150 years ago Vancouver Island came within a pen stroke of owning Alaska by right of conquest.
As noted in this spot a week ago, in mid-1850s England, owners of what was then a remote Pacific Island were at war with Russia on the other side of the world in Crimea. Vancouver Island, with an infant settlement tucked in a sheltered bay, was prospering under its new name Victoria, that had been bestowed on June 10, 1843, by the Hudson Bay Company’s (HBC) Council of Northern Development meeting in Fort Garry. Five months later on November 10, Queen Victoria gave her blessing and Camosack, the original name bestowed by the First Nation Lekwungen people, and the briefly named HBC’s Fort Albert became Victoria.
It was soon playing an unusual role in the Crimean war – at least the Hudson Bay Company was. The new settlement was prospering and producing far more in crops than it required. HBC marketed some surplus south to Washington and Oregon – but its most lucrative market was to the north, Russian Alaska. The Russian trade was approved by London with HBC and the Russian American Company signing a neutral non-aggression pact for the duration.
A weird situation. On the Black Sea in Europe, British troops were finding the supply of everything from munitions to rations difficult to maintain; Florence Nightingale and her nurses were beginning their fight to reform field hospital care and nutrition. Meanwhile, on the Pacific Coast, the HBC was making a tidy profit from officially approved trade with the enemy.
In addition to the dollar value he was providing his company, headman James Douglas was keeping a wary eye on his Russian trading partner and on May 16, 1854, penned a formal report and request to the Duke of Newcastle in the Colonial Office in London.
London’s decision makers, weeks away by even the fastest mails, probably spilled a few drinks when they eventually received Douglas’s shopping list.
He was asking for 400 muskets, 100 Minie rifles (a new super rifle), general gear, uniforms and boots for 500 men he was convinced he could raise locally. He would need one year’s supply of rations, four light guns (artillery) and some heavy guns to protect the entrance to Victoria Harbour. And, almost as a footnote, he said a squadron of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Fleet would help.
What did he intend to do with his instant army? In their book, British Columbia Chronicle 1847-1871, historians G.P.V. Akrigg and Helen B. Akrigg tell us what they found when they dug through British Public Records. Wrote Douglas: “A very serious injury might be inflicted on Russia by taking possession of all her settlements on the American coast north of Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii). They are all upon the seaboard and accessible to shipping. Their defences are on a scale merely calculated to cope with savages and could not be maintained against a regular force.”
The warriors of Whitehall were not impressed with the Douglas plan and launched instead a joint French-British land-sea attack on Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula. It was a brief and disastrous campaign with the British and French soon in full retreat. The British, with 26 dead and 79 wounded, retired to Victoria (Esquimalt); the French, with 26 dead and 78 wounded, to San Francisco.
Among the English dead was Rear Admiral David Price, overall commander of the operation. After his thwarted attack he attempted suicide by a shot to the heart, missed his target but hit a lung. In incredible pain he begged his second in command to finish the job but the officer refused to kill his commanding officer. Price died in agony a few days later.
The meticulous Akrigg historical researchers suggest Whitehall would have been better off accepting the Douglas offer: “Had the warships so ineffectually used at Petropavlovsk directed their guns against the weak Alaskan establishments, with landing parties made up of Douglas’s 500 Scots, French-Canadians and Indians, the campaign could hardly have failed.” They also noted that Russia had lost interest in its North American holdings and would probably have been open to offers to hand ownership to Britain as part of the treaty Russia signed in defeat to end the war in Crimea.
Whether the UK was slow to pick up on the offer or had enough with wild west acquisitions isn’t known, but all opportunity was lost in 1867 when Russia offered America its Alaska holdings for $7.2 million.
For those who love useless trivia it works out to two cents an acre.