Royal Navy at Esquimalt

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 Royal Navy Ships blogpost, and in this post I will concentrate on those ships that visited Esquimalt Harbour and Fort Victoria in the early years. Some arrived at Esquimalt before the Fort Victoria Post Journals (which begin in 1846) could record their visits.  

So in my last post, I went as far as my favourite Royal Navy ship, the Fisgard. Her story is here: A little more on the Fisgard: In Fort Victoria Letters, 1846-1851, edited by Hartwell Bowsfield [HBRS, 1979], James Douglas and John Work tell us that “Her Majesty’s Ship Fisgard sailed from this place [Fort Victoria] on the 14th October [1846], and the Cormorant followed on the 20th November for San Blas.” The Cormorant was also mentioned in the previous blogpost on the Royal Navy Ships. 

So, who comes next? I think it’s the HMS Plumper, who left her name up and down the British Columbia coast. 

HMS Plumper was a 43 meter [141 foot] vessel launched at Portsmouth in 1848 as a barque-rigged steam sloop: so she obviously didn’t arrive in 1848, but a year or two later. She anchored in Esquimalt Harbour, like many, if not all, of the other Royal Navy Ships. Her captain was George Henry Richards, and the Plumper surveyed the coast in great detail, taking particular care in surveying the waterways between Haro Strait and Rosario Straits, which might be involved in the maritime boundary question. Richards apparently grew sick of James Douglas’s many demands such as helping with policing and transport. I don’t know what beam the ship had, but apparently her name did not refer to her “plumpness,” but was a word that referred to a sudden shot or heavy blow.

Onward! Now we have the HMS Inconstant, a fifth-rate frigate of the Royal Navy designed by a Captain Hayes and launched in June, 1836. While she was on the coast, Captain John Shepherd refused passage to disgruntled HBC employees who were upset about the absence of their employer, and who wanted to make their way to San Francisco. James Douglas tells the story, in Fort Victoria Letters:  

Captain [W. Colquhoun] Grant arrived here by the way of Fort Vancouver and Nisqually on the 11th of August [1849]. We had much difficulty in keeping his men, who came out by the Harpooner two months before his own arrival, from leaving the Island, as they were dissatisfied about the absence of their employer. Before my arrival here they applied to Captain Shepherd of her Majesty’s ship Inconstant, in the character of distressed British Subjects, for a passage to England probably with the intention of leaving his ship at San Francisco, California, for which Point he was bound direct, but fortunately he refused to receive them on board. 

The HMS Driver was a brig-rigged wooden paddle sloop of the Royal Navy, credited with the first global circumnavigation by a steam-ship when she arrived back in England on May 14, 1847. She was launched just before Christmas Day, 1840, and commissioned in November 1841. Her length was 180 feet, her beam 36 feet, and she was docked in Victoria Harbour to witness Richard Blanshard assume the Governorship of the newly formed Colony and Vancouver’s Island. That means that at about that same time, she was also a visitor at Fort Nisqually, where Governor Blanshard interfered in HBC business and enraged the HBC men. It’s in the book: you will have to wait. But here is what James Douglas had to say of Blanshard’s arrival at Fort Victoria, in Fort Victoria Letters:

His Excellency Governor Blanshard arrived here on the 11th March [1850], in Her Majesty’s Steam Sloop Driver, Captain Johnson, 53 days from Lima. I immediately waited upon him on board, and it was arranged that he should land the following morning. That ceremony accordingly took place, under a salute of 17 guns from the Fort, while I received him on landing, attended by the gentlemen of the establishment, and conducted him to the house. Her Majesty’s commission appointing him Governor of Vancouver’s and the adjacent Islands was there publicly read, in the presence of all assembled, and he afterwards returned aboard the Driver.

The HMS Daphne was already mentioned in the last blogpost, as being the ship that Captain Gordon, of the HMS America, ordered her valuable cargo to be removed to his ship, which gave him an excuse to return to London (where he was court-martialled). She is mostly mentioned in despatches dated 1851 and 1852, and so those are the years when she would have sailed on the coast. But here is the story of her arrival at Fort Victoria, on June 26, 1851:

A large full rigged ship is reported in the offing apparently bound to this place. I will inform you of the object of that visit in a postscript if there be time before the mail leaves…

P.S. The strange vessel, mentioned above proves to be H.M. Sloop Daphne, Captain Fanshawe, whom I have not yet seen, but one of the Officers who has just landed, informs that she will not remain more than three or four days here — being ordered to the Port of San Francisco.

There seem to be quite a number of steam-powered ships in the Royal Navy at this time, and HMS Devastation is another one of them. She was launched in 1841, and under the command of Captain John W. Pike was involved in a number of missions on the coast of Vancouver’s Island and in mainland British Columbia. This included traffic checks near Nanaimo, and the protection of British interests in Sitka Sound and in the Stikine River region. So, she had wide-ranging duties and saw quite a bit of the northwest coast. My information says she was on the coast in 1854; she was a steam-driven paddle-wheeler sloop that measured 55 meters [180 feet] long and 11 meters [36 feet] wide. In 1863 she, with the Grappler and Forward, searched for the murderers of Frederick Marks and his daughter, Caroline Harvey, around Kuper and Saturna Islands. In 1864 the Devastation investigated the suspicious death of agent Banfield at Barkley Sound, who was reported drowned in October. [The story is told in Barry Gough’s book, Gunboat Frontier, UBC Press, 1984]. 

The HMS Thetis is another Royal Navy ship that spent time on the coast. She was named for the Greek sea-nymph, and was a 5th rate frigate of the Royal Navy. She was launched in 1846, and was 164 feet in length and 46 foot beam, with 13 foot draught. She arrived here in 1851 as a survey ship under the command of Captain Augustus Leopold Kuper, and she remained until 1853. The Thetis was part of a force of ships under the temporary command of James Douglas, that went to Cowichan Bay to arrest the murderers of settler Peter Brown.

The HMS Trincomalee is a ship that interests me, as I have sailed Trincomalee Channel, on the east side of Vancouver Island. She was a Leda class frigate, built in 1812 in India, of teak (due to shortages of Oak in Britain because of the Napoleonic Wars), and was launched in 1817. Her length was 150 feet, and her beam 39 feet, with a depth of almost 13 feet. The Trincomalee departed from Portsmouth in 1847 and served on the North American and West Indies Stations, in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1852 she sailed to join the Pacific Squadron on the Pacific shores, and so would have arrived at Esquimalt Harbour in that year, or early in 1853. One of the books I have owned for years and years is Exploring Puget Sound and British Columbia: Olympia to Queen Charlotte Sound, by Stephen E. Hilson [Van Winkle Publishing Co., Holland, Michigan]. It tells me that the Trincomalee, Captain Wallace Houston, was on the Pacific station from 1853 to 1856. She finished her Royal Navy service as a training vessel, and today she is the centrepiece of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, based in Hartlepool, Great Britain. So, the HMS Trincomalee still lives today, and she carries with her a little bit of our Pacific coast history.  

Next, the HMS Pique — Launched in 1834, the HMS Pique was a fifth-rate wooden warship of the Royal Navy, some 160 feet long and 49 feet wide. As early as December, 1853, she was part of the Pacific Squadron, and her commander was Captain Frederick William Erskine Nicolson. 

The last ship I will speak of in this post is the HMS Virago, whose name means “strong, warlike woman.” I like that. She was a first-class paddle sloop and she was here to protect the HBC’s coal interests, particularly at Haida Gwaii — that is, the Queen Charlotte Islands. There is a Virago Point on Galiano Island, in Porlier Pass, that might have been named by or for the ship. It is possible: Ladysmith is nearby, and it was a coal mining town if there ever was one! The HMS Virago also served as a temporary prison to a First Nations man described as a minor chief, who was involved in the sacking and plundering of the ship, Susan Sturges. Hmmm, I wonder where that story will lead me. 

And it led me to a story that involved an American ship, called the Susan Sturges, the HMS Virago, and the HMS Trincomalee! (You can find the story by googling “The Curious Case of the Susan Sturges.”) It seems that the American schooner, Susan Sturges, traded between Haida Gwaii and San Francisco in the early 1850s: in fact, she participated in British Columbia’s first gold rush in the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1851. One year later, the Susan Sturges returned to Haida Gwaii, searching for the Haida chief named Edenshaw, that the captain knew. The captain located Edenshaw near Skidegate and picked him up to return him to his village of Kung, near Rose Point, on Graham Island. On their way north, the Susan Sturges met a canoe from Masset, and Edenshaw and the Haida men in the canoe had a conversation that the Americans could not understand. Then, the next day, one hundred and fifty Haida men, in their canoes, captured and pillaged the Susan Sturges, burning it to the waterline and enslaving its crew.

Chief Factor John Work, of Fort Simpson, was involved in the crew-members’ rescue, trading blankets to purchase the enslaved sailors from the Haida. The captains and crews of two Royal Navy vessels, HMS Trincomalee and Virago conducted separate investigations into this incident. John Work and the two captains of the Royal Navy ships believed that Edenshaw had instructed the Haida men to capture the ship, but nothing could be proven. Because Edenshaw was a man of great influence in the neighbourhood, and one who should be treated with utmost respect, the case remained unresolved. Still, the first missionary who lived among the Haida people in 1876 wrote that some members of the tribe had informed him that Edenshaw gave the order that the schooner, Susan Sturges, was to be attacked and demolished.

So, a little mystery to carry you onto the next blogpost, which, when written, will be posted here:

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

Twitter: @Marguerite_HBC

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2 thoughts on “Royal Navy at Esquimalt

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      No, I am not writing a book about the Royal Navy ships. But these ships will appear in the Headquarters book, and so I need to know a little about them. I believe Barry Gough wrote a book, called “Gunboat Diplomacy,” which covered some of the Royal Navy ships (if not all).