Douglas’s Royal Navy

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

This is a continuation of my first and second Royal Navy posts, and will deal with Governor James Douglas and the Royal Navy on the Northwest Coast after 1854. In my previous post I got as far as the Virago: here are the Royal Navy ships that followed the HMS Virago to the Pacific coast.

But before I start, I have a little more information on the Virago, from information taken from a UBC Thesis titled “Charting the Northwest Coast, 1857-62: A Case Study in the Use of “Knowledge as Power” in Britain’s Imperial Ascendency,” by Richard William Wallace. In this thesis, which you can find online, Wallace says: 

In 1854, a gold rush in the Queen Charlotte Islands occasioned the dispatch of Virago and Thetis to the north. Captain James Prevost and Master Robert Inskip produced charts of the harbours and anchorages surrounding the archipelago and proved that it consisted of two distinct land masses. HMS Virago also surveyed Vancouver’s northern route, and parts of the Strait of Georgia [now Salish Sea] and San Juan Island. In 1853, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and later HMS Virago, surveyed Departure Bay to accommodate the Nanaimo coal trade.

I may or may not be correct when I say that the “Vancouver’s northern route” might refer to the HBC ship, Vancouver.  (I don’t know, and will have to check this out). But to continue: During his survey of the San Juan Islands, Captain James Prevost discovered that the international boundary was imperfectly known, Wallace states. “In 1856, Prevost was appointed First Commissioner of the British Boundary Commission and given command of HMS Satellite to set the border on land and sea. He was to work in concert with the American Boundary Commission and with Captain George H. Richards of HMS Plumper, who was named Second Commissioner and Chief Astronomer.” 

So here’s the HMS Satellite: She was a corvette-class vessel of 1,327 tonnes, with 21 guns. Prevost captained her for the time she was on the Pacific Station, from 1857 to 1860, and she appears in dozens of dispatches. She was launched in 1855 in a Devenport dockyard, and in 1858, she was the guard-ship and licence-checker for miners heading up the Fraser River. Her name appears on at least three British Columbia geographical place names: Satellite Channel, which lies between Saltspring Island and the Saanich peninsula; Satellite Passage, north of Imperial Eagle Channel in Barclay Sound; and Satellite Reef, in Nanaimo Harbour. She got around! 

The HMS Havannah was a fifth-rate sailing ship of the Royal Navy which had already taken part in the Napoleonic Wars. During her time on the Pacific Station she was commanded by Captain Thomas Harvey. She leaves her name on Havannah Channel, and the Havannah Islands, both of which are close to the mainland, but still in the northern straits between Vancouver’s Island and the mainland. 

HMS Ganges is next, I believe. We are of course aware of the fact that she left her name on the town of Ganges, and on Ganges Harbour, Saltspring Island. She was an 84-gun second-rate ship of the Royal Navy, launched in November 1821 at Bombay Dockyard. She was the last sailing ship of the Navy to serve as a flagship, and was the second ship to bear the name. Ganges was commissioned at Portsmouth in 1823, and served in several locations over the following decades. For example, she was the flagship of the South America Station for three years, during which time she landed Royal marines in Rio de Janeiro after a mutiny of Brazilian soldiers. From 1857 to 1861, she was the flagship of the Pacific Station, based at Valparaiso, Chile (although she must have transferred north to Esquimalt with the other Royal Navy ships), and she played an important role in addressing the San Juan Boundary dispute. After her time on the Pacific Ocean, she was sent home to Britain, where she was converted into a training ship. 

The HMS Grappler was here in 1859. She was one of about 100 Albacore-class gunboats of the Royal Navy, and she, and her sister ship, Forward, served on our coast from 1859 until 1868, when the Grappler was sold. Under the command of Lieutenant Edmund Hope Verney, Grappler transported 35 British settlers to a new settlement at Comox in 1862, at the request of Governor James Douglas, and she continued to act as a transport vessel for the settlement before other transport was available. She helped to enforce the regulation of liquor laws in the colony, and her small size, steam power, and shallow draft made her useful as a lighthouse tender and for laying navigation buoys. She and her sister ship, Forward, were involved in the “Lemalchi incident” on Kuper Island, when in the spring of 1863, they hunted down and captured First Nations men believed to have murdered some Gulf Island settlers (Frederick Marks and his daughter, Caroline Harvey). She was then sold off, and put into commercial service. In 1883, when she was used as a passenger vessel, there was a fire aboard the vessel. She was carrying only two life boats, one of which capsized. When the ship went down, she took with her some 70 to 90 passengers who all drowned. 

The HMS Forward was sister-ship of the above vessel, Grappler, and so was similarly built. The Forward was constructed at Northfleet, Kent, England, and launched in December 1855. She earned a fearsome reputation among the First Nations people along the coast. The Captain of the Forward, Horace Douglas Lascelles, characterized the First Nations people as “the terror of the coast.” According to Lascelle’s report, upon arriving at the village on Kuper Island, he had dispatched an interpreter to speak to the chief, but the chief had refused to meet, “nor would he give up the murderers.” The First Nations people have a different version of the story, and while the records of the discussions before the incident occurred might differ, the Forward’s attack did not. She used her guns to level the village, and then transported her captives to Victoria where they were tried and hanged. After this incident the Forward was sold off and ended up in Mexico, where she was seized by a descendant of Christopher Columbus and used as a pirate ship. She was eventually found and destroyed by the sloop-of-war USS Mohican. So neither she, nor her sister Grappler, had a good end. 

These stories never end! If you want to know more about Lascelles, who does not seem to be a good man, you can look up his page in the Colonial Despatches, online, at There is lots of other information about these Royal Navy ships, too, and perhaps more. I haven’t yet explored everything they have. 

So, next ship! The HMS Pylades was a Royal Navy screw-driven corvette-class vessel that carried 21 guns. After her launching in 1854, she fought in the Crimean War. The Pylades then went on to serve two commissions on the Pacific coast, arriving along with HMS Tribune at Esquimalt Harbour in 1859, with a crew of “supernumerary marines” who were to assist the Royal Engineers until such time as.they were needed for military defence elsewhere. Governor James Douglas was, of course, pleased to see them, as they would help to keep the new colony of British Columbia in British hands. 

The Pylades‘s sister ship, HMS Tribune, was a steam frigate of the Royal Navy, and before she arrived on the coast she was involved in both the Second Opium War with China (over the right to import Opium), and the Crimean War. The two ships sailed to Esquimalt Harbour from China, and arrived in Esquimalt Harbour in February 1859. The despatch reports that it transported seven officers and one hundred and sixty non-commissioned officers and privates of the Royal Marines to British Columbia. Later that year, and under the command of Captain Geoffrey Thomas Phipps Hornby, the Tribune was involved in the diplomatic clashes caused by the Pig War between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Americans who lived in the San Juan Islands in 1859.  

The HMS Amethyst was a sixth-rate Royal Navy ship commanded by Captain Sidney Grenfell during her time in the Pacific. She was built in Plymouth dockyard, and was 40 meters  [131 feet] long and 12.5 m. [41 feet] beam, and carried twenty guns. She arrived at the Pacific Station in Esquimalt in 1859, alongside the HMS Tribune and HMS Pylades, sailing from the East Indies [China?] and carrying a compliment of “supernumerary Marines” aboard.

The HMS Topaze was another Royal Navy ship that appeared on the Pacific Station in 1859 or so. She was a 51-gun Liffey-class wooden screw frigate of the Royal Navy, launched in May 1858 at Devonport Dockyard, Plymouth. (I notice that the spelling of Devenport/Devonport varies in my sources, and in this case the dockyard appears to be located in Plymouth Harbour). She was a large ship: 235 feet long; and had a 600 horsepower steam engine to drive her. While she was on the coast her crew assisted in the building of the Race Rocks Lighthouse outside Esquimalt’s harbour, and on the same voyage the band from HMS Topaze played for the dedication of Congregation Emnanu-El, now the oldest surviving synagogue building in Canada. On her return home to Britain in 1868, her crew landed at Easter Island and dug out two moai Hoa Hakannanai’a and Moai Hava, dragged them to the shoreline on a sledge, rafted them aboard the ship, and carried them off to England. These are, as you probably know, the large statues that Easter Island is known for even today, and these primitive sculptures are probably in the British Museum.

I will probably not need to know about these Royal Navy vessels found on the British Columbia coast in 1860, but here they are anyway. The HMS Alert was a Royal navy sloop propelled by both screw and sail. She was later converted into a survey ship for the British arctic exploration of 1875-76, and was later used by both the United States and Canada in its capacity as an arctic vessel. The HMS Hecate was sent to the Pacific Station to replace the HMS Plumper, mentioned in the last blogpost. She was 50 meters [164 feet] long, 11 meters [36 feet] wide, a paddle-wheel sloop armed with four guns, and she arrived at Esquimalt Station in 1860 under Commander Anthony Hoskins. The majority of the Plumper‘s crew then transferred to the Hecate, and she continued with the Plumper‘s work until she ran aground in 1861 near Cape Flattery. Its as good a way to find a reef as any, I suppose, but I think that there were safer places to run ashore than near Cape Flattery!

The HMS Bacchante was a Liffey class frigate carrying fifty one guns and 560 crew. Although she had both boiler and screw [propeller] she regularly used sail as a source of propulsion, like many others of these vessels. While on the Pacific coast she served as the flagship for the squadron’s commander-in-chief, Sir Thomas Maitland, although her captain was Donald McLeod Mackenzie. She had a short life: she was launched in 1859; was frequently at anchor in Esquimalt Harbour where she served as unofficial headquarters for the Pacific Squadron (according to the Victoria newspaper); she was decommissioned in 1864; and scrapped in 1869.

HMS Cameleon [Camelion, Chameleon] is next: She was captained by Hardinge, was another of the ships that took part in the “Lemalchi Incident” on Kuper Island, when they were searching for the murderers of settlers Frederick Marks and his daughter, Caroline Harvey, on Saturna Island. She was a 17-gun corvette stationed at Esquimalt periodically between 1861 and 1874. The Cameleon was considered “by all nautical judges to be a beautiful specimen of her class,” according to the Victoria newspaper of the time. She was 55 meters [180 feet] long by 10 meters [32 feet] wide. A long, lean, beauty, I suggest, in comparison to many of the other ships.

Two more! No, three. The HMS Charybdis was a 21 gun Royal Navy Pearl-class corvette launched in 1859 at Chatham Dockyard, and she joined the Pacific Station in early 1862. The source says “she sailed to Vancouver in early 1862 joining the Pacific Station,” but that must be in error. She served at the Pacific Station until 1867, when she was assigned to the Australia Station. Then there is HMS Sutlej, whose name commemorated the victory of the East India Company over the Sikh Khalsa Army in the Battle of Sobraon, on the banks of the Sutlej. She was launched April 1855, and was a 50-gun Constance-class fourth-rate frigate, 180 feet in length and of 51 feet beam. She arrived on the coast as a screw vessel in 1864 under Captain Matthew Connolly, and was the flagship of Rear-admiral John Kingcome when on the coast. 

And the final ship, the HMS Zealous, was on the coast in 1867. She was launched in 1864 as an armoured frigate, 252 feet long and 58 feet, 7 inches wide. Like many of these ships, she was propelled by both steam and sail, so carried both a ship rig and a 3,612 horsepower engine with six boilers. Interestingly, she was a wooden steam vessel converted to an ironclad in 1860, and while on the coast she was the flagship for the Pacific Station for six years. A little description that a writer might put to use is that she had a straight stem and a rounded stern, but otherwise remained unmodified from her original form. And something else: she was coal-powered, but as coal was expensive on the west coast she generally used her sails, and covered more miles under sail than any of the other Victorian sailing ironclads. She was also the first British ironclad to sail further from Britain than the Mediterranean Sea, and in her entire career she never sailed with any other ironclad.

So let’s finish this post celebrating a ship that was unique among her class. This is probably the last post in the series: if you want to begin at the first post, go here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved.

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2 thoughts on “Douglas’s Royal Navy

  1. Kees van Weel

    Am I correct in the assumption that the Hecate left her name on Hecate Strait and Hecate Island? There is also Heceta Island in Alaska (different spelling); would that be associated with the ship also?

    I greatly enjoyed this post!

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it. I am sure the answer to this question is in “Exploring Alaska and British Columbia: Skagway to Barclay Sound,” but I can’t deal with the tiny printing anymore. Wikipedia, however, tells us that Hecate Strait is named after the survey vessel HMS Hecate in 1861 or so. So there you are!