Royal Navy Ships in the Pacific

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

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

There were many Royal Navy Ships stationed at the Navy’s Pacific Station in Esquimalt Harbour in the years between 1843 and 1867. But first, I should begin with a brief history of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Station, which was not always located on Esquimalt Harbour.

The Royal Navy’s Pacific Station was established in 1837, as one of the geographical zones into which the Royal Navy was divided. Its first home was at Valparaiso, Chile, and it was established to support British interests in the Pacific Ocean. Its representatives sometimes interfered with independent countries in the region: for example, in 1843, Captain George Paulet, of the HMS Carysfort, sailed to the Sandwich Islands to claim the Kingdom of Hawaii for Great Britain. King Kamehameha III capitulated, but in the summer of that same year, Rear-Admiral Richard Darton Thomas reigned Paulet in. On July 31, 1843, Thomas assured King Kamahameha that the occupation was over and that there was no British claim over the Sandwich Islands

So the first Royal Navy ship to come to Vancouver’s Island was the HMS Pandora, which sailed north from Valparaiso in 1847, under the command of Lieutenant Commander James Wood, to survey the coast of Vancouver’s Island. They found and surveyed the harbour at Esquimalt, discovering that the harbour had a depth of water and a size suited for use as a Royal Navy harbour. As tensions increased between the United States and British Territory as the result of the Oregon boundary dispute, it became obvious that having a base at the south end of Vancouver’s Island would strengthen British claims to Vancouver’s Island itself, as the island lay well south of the 49th parallel. In 1848 the Constance was sent north to Esquimalt, and she became the first vessel to be stationed there.

But, of course, the HMS Pandora, and the Constance, were not the first Royal Navy ships in the North Pacific Ocean: many had been here before her, according to this site:  I am not concentrating on these many early ships, but here is a little bit about some of them.  

The HMS Daedalus was here in the early years, but I do not know whether it was the same ship that arrived at Fort Victoria in 1850-1851, so I will discuss her in the time period she belongs to. I didn’t learn anything about the HMS Providence when I looked, but it will be another ship of exploration or survey. 

William Robert Broughton was the British naval officer who commanded HMS Chatham as part of a voyage of exploration through the Pacific Ocean led by Captain George Vancouver. The HMS Discovery was a part of the same expedition: she was a full-rigged ship with a standard crew complement of 100 men, and was the ship that Captain Vancouver sailed in.

The HMS Sulphur was a 10-gun Hecla class bomb vessel, later converted into a survey ship, and is famous as one of the ships in which Edward Belcher explored the Pacific Coast, “from Valparaiso to 63 degrees 30 ‘ North”: the HMS Starling is another of those ships. The HMS Blossom was an 18-gun Cormorant-class sloop-of-war, best known for the 1825-28 expedition under Captain Frederick William Beechey to the Pacific Ocean, when she explored as far north as Point Barrow, Alaska, the furthest point into the Arctic any non-Inuit had been at the time.

The HMS sloop, Racoon , under command of Captain William Black, sailed as part of a squadron escorting the slow-moving North West Company ship Isaac Todd, to the mouth of the Columbia, and she proceeded alone to the Columbia to “annihilate any settlement which the Americans may have formed.” On her arrival at Fort George [Astoria], as we know, she found the American-owned post had already been transferred to the British fur trading company.

So these early Royal Navy ships made some amazing explorations along the shores of the Pacific Ocean! The HMS Modeste is, of course, the next Royal Navy ship on the list. She was an 18-gun wooden sloop that sailed Victoria area waters from 1844 to 1847, and she also visited Fort Vancouver, as you will see here: I will probably write an entire blogpost about this ship, and when I do, it will appear here: 

The HMS America is next. She was a 74-gun fourth-rate sailing ship of the line of the Royal Navy, launched on April 21, 1810, at Blackwall Yard. She was 176 feet long with a beam of 47 feet, and a depth of hold of 21 feet: not a small boat at all! During the rising tensions between the United States and British territory, she was dispatched to the Pacific Northwest in 1845. I don’t remember if she visited Fort Vancouver (I think her captain and crew-members did), and I doubt she came into the river; and she doesn’t appear in the index for the Fort Nisqually journals. I know I have written about this ship, but I don’t know where, and it could be in my notes somewhere! At any rate, she must have visited Fort Victoria, as in October 1845, she sailed away from the Straits of Juan de Fuca for the Sandwich Islands. While at the Pacific Station [still in Valparaiso], Captain John Gordon ordered the valuable cargo of HMS Daphne be moved to his ship, and departed to deliver it to the United Kingdom. For removing the second most powerful ship from the Pacific coast during the Oregon crisis, Captain Gordon was both court-martialed and reprimanded.

So, the HMS Pandora, as mentioned above: She was a 310-tonne, brig-rigged wooden sailing vessel, carrying four guns. She had been out of commission for a few years before her trip to Vancouver’s Island, but during the Oregon boundary dispute she was employed as a survey ship under the command of Lieutenant Commander James Wood, from 1845 to 1848. In 1847, the Pandora would survey Port San Juan, where Port Renfrew, B.C., stands today.

The HMS Constance also needs to be described here, as she is also one of the early ships on the coast, being the first to be stationed at Esquimalt Harbour. The Constance was a fourth-rate sailing ship of the Royal Navy, built at Pembroke Dock. She carried 50 guns and was 50 meters long [164 feet] by 16 meters [52 feet] wide, according to the Colonial Despatches site through the University of Victoria. I was questioning the beam of this ship: Wikipedia, however, confirms that she was 180 feet in length overall (keel length being 146 feet), and had a beam of 52 feet 8 in. From 1846 to 1847, she was commanded by Captain Baldwin Wake Walker, and from 1847 to 1849 her captain was George William Conway Courtenay (after whom the town of Courtenay was named). When she sailed around Cape Horn in 1846 or 1847, Captain Walker described her as a “good sea boat and a fine man of war.” 

The HMS Herald was an Atholl-class 28-gun sixth-rate corvette of the Royal Navy, launched in 1822 as HMS Termagant, but her name was changed and when she was converted into a survey ship in 1845 she continued to carry the name HMS Herald. At that time her armament was reduced to eight guns. She left Plymouth on June 26, 1845, and sailed via Brazil to the Falkland Islands before rounding the Horn into the Pacific. Together with HMS Pandora under James Wood [see above], she spent three years surveying the coast of British Columbia. 

Next we have the HMS Cormorant. She was a small warship at 1,401 tonnes, 6 guns, and a complement of 145 men. She was a coal-burning side-wheeler paddle sloop, built at and launched from Sheerness Dockyard in 1842. Though small, she was still sizable: 52 meters long [170 feet] and 11 meters [36 feet] wide. She would serve on the Pacific Station at Valparaiso from 1844 to 1849. She has the distinction of being the first naval steam vessel to ply British Columbia waters, when in 1846 she arrived with several other war vessels to strengthen British naval presence on the Pacific coast. Ships would come from England to deliver coal to this little ship: but of course, that was not the only load they carried! 

HMS Fisgard is next — a delightful story indeed! She was an imposing 46-gun frigate-class vessel, launched from Pembroke Dockyards in 1819. In 1843, Captain John Alexander Duntze took charge of the ship and sailed her to Pacific Northwest. She was anchored in front of Fort Victoria in May of 1846, with orders to remain on the coast until relieved. But there is one thing about this ship that makes her different from all the other Royal Navy ships that came to the coast: she was equipped with “new-fangled,” experimental lightning conductor consisting of copper rods, plates, and nails on the ships spars and hull.

Because of their tall masts, ships were in danger of being struck by lightning, which could splinter the mast or kill a crew member, or find its way to the powder magazine and blow up the entire ship! No one thought the lightning conductor that the Fisgard carried would work, but as one observer said “considering the grave number of ships which have been damaged or destroyed by lightning, it is not without considerable interest we witness and record such [events].” And there was an event! In September 1846, as the Fisgard was stationed off Fort Nisqually near what is now called Anderson Island, she was struck by lightning. “The thunder roared in the most awful manner,” one man at Fort Nisqually reported, “and its grandeur was greatly increased by the reverberations amongst the neighbouring woods, which were set on fire in several places by the vivid flashes of lightning.”

At 7.45 pm, a powerful bolt of lightning struck the ship’s main spar and shook the Fisgard to her core! “A sudden report, as if many guns had gone off, threw all hands into the utmost consternation.” The crew watched safely as the lightning followed the trail of copper down the mast, and those who were standing nearby on the upper deck described the beautiful stream of purple light. The lightning grounded in the sea, leaving the ship undamaged. And when the ship returned to London, she was greeted with fanfare, largely because she had beaten the lightning strike! [This story comes to me from Steven A. Anderson, who was manager, now retired, of the replica Fort Nisqually, at Fort Defiance Park in Tacoma. This is his research; not mine.]

This is the first in a series of posts about the Royal Navy ships that came to the Pacific shores, mostly to Fort Victoria but sometimes to Forts Nisqually and Vancouver. I will run this as a series through the last hot days of the summer, so that I don’t have to work too hard in the heat, which I dislike. When the next post in this series is published, it will appear here:

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

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