When Vancouver Island prepared for a Russian attack

Mar 16, 2022, 8:21 AM | Updated: 8:50 am

It’s a little-known chapter in Northwest history, but Britain’s Royal Navy had a sprawling base comprising thousands of acres on Vancouver Island for much of the late 19th century and early 20th century. And on at least one occasion, a crisis half a world away had the Royal Navy and citizens of Victoria preparing for Russian aggression directed at the southern end of Vancouver Island.

The Royal Navy base was at Esquimalt, which is the name of a harbor and community on Vancouver Island just west of Victoria – and just across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Olympic Peninsula, and within miles of other American territory, including the San Juan Islands, and the islands of Whidbey and Camano. The Royal Navy maintained a significant presence there with docks, a shipyard, hospital, barracks and other facilities – that functioned as a military outpost as well as a symbolic extension of the British Empire – from around 1848 until 1910. Once the British left, the Canadian military took formal possession, and the 15-square mile Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt remains in operation at the site to this day.

Beginning in 1849, Vancouver Island – and the Indigenous people who had lived there for thousands of years – was governed by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). HBC had pulled up stakes of its fur trade and agricultural operations in what’s now Washington and moved north as the International Boundary was settled at the 49th parallel, and HBC was no longer welcome in what had become U.S. territory.

World history of the 19th century can seem convoluted and unfamiliar in 2022, even to those who have a good sense of the complexities of the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Two centuries back, esoteric strategic alliances between countries in Europe – some of which no longer exist – could shift dramatically and lead to frequent wars between nations, which often touched off regional crises that sometimes spread around the world.

The defeat of Russia by Great Britain and others in the Crimean War in the early 1850s was one of the defining conflicts of the mid-19th century, but it was by no means the only conflict during those decades. For example, a few decades later, in 1877, Russia was at war with Turkey. Great Britain had alliances with Turkey, which meant that a state of tension existed between Britain and Russia, with fears that Russia would attack British colonies or Royal Navy vessels on the high seas. This state of tension actually had a name: the Anglo-Russian Crisis of 1877-1878.

For the British, the Anglo-Russian Crisis was indeed cause for global concern, especially where the seas and distant colonies were concerned.

“The British were on the alert against the Russians around the world,” Dr. Barry Gough said. “They were the number-one possible enemy, and they – the Russians – were showing their strength in every sea, and every part of the world.”

Dr. Gough, who is in his 80s and lives in his native Victoria, B.C., is something of a legend in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. He’s an author, historian, and professor emeritus of Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. He was also an associate professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, where he helped establish the Center for Canadian-American Studies.

A book Barry Gough wrote 50 years ago about the Royal Navy in B.C. is a classic. It’s also something of an eye-opener, especially about lesser known aspects of 19th century history in the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Gough says the Anglo-Russian Crisis touched even the far-away West Coast of North America in the winter of 1878. The Russians had sold Alaska to the United States a decade earlier, and had given up territorial designs after a century of fur trade and other activity in North America. Still, when there were reports of a squadron of Russian naval vessels off the coast of California, it caused a stir that stretched from the Golden State all the way to British Columbia.

“The Russians went all the way down to San Francisco,” Gough said. “They had about six or seven vessels down there of all sizes, and American authorities there were quite interested in what they were doing. They were well aware that the Russians were on the lookout for what they might possibly do to destroy American commerce, or Canadian or British Commerce, anywhere in the Eastern Pacific.”

That squadron of Russian ships in San Francisco ultimately didn’t destroy anything in California, Oregon, or Washington Territory waters. But they did pull something of a “fast one” at the Royal Navy Base in British Columbia on Feb. 18, 1878.

“There’s one ship called the Kreyzer that comes right into Esquimalt Harbor on a snooping expedition,” Gough said. “Although the Commanding Officer [of the Kreyzer] says, ‘I’m sorry. We need repairs here,’ … the Admiral ashore [in command of the base at Esquimalt] can figure this one out pretty quickly, and he realizes that this is absolutely bogus.”

Was it an attack? No, Gough says, but it was probably a strategic move of some kind that might have preceded an eventual attack.

“They’ve come in here to Esquimalt Harbor to see what the hell is going on, and what defenses the British have there, and would it be easy to attack,” Gough said.

As Gough wrote more than 50 years ago in his book, “The Royal Navy and The Northwest Coast of America, 1810-1914”: “The corvette Kreyzer, 11 guns, steamed right into Esquimalt Harbour and, as might be imagined, caused considerable concern on shore.”

It can be stated with some level of certainty that the “considerable concern on shore” did not inspire a British sailor or officer at the Royal Navy at Esquimalt base 144 years ago to exclaim, “Russian warship, go —- yourself,” but the appearance of the Kreyzer apparently did stir up emotions and spur authorities to take defensive action.

On that February day, the Russians didn’t attack, and there is murkiness around their actual intentions. One other account of the visit posits that the Kreyzer was on a “surveying voyage from [the Russian port of] Kronstadt,” and actually had ordered supplies from Victoria that were delivered to Esquimalt. For some reason, the crew failed to take aboard those supplies before the ship abruptly departed the next day. Whatever the case, the visit of the Kreyzer was something of a wake-up call about Esquimalt’s potential vulnerability.

Efforts accelerated to build coastal defense infrastructure in the form of batteries of large guns on the shore in and around Victoria and Esquimalt, with one of the first being built at Finlayson Point, which is now part of Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park, during the summer of 1878. Local politicians ultimately secured federal funding to build a series of installations not unlike what would come to American territory a few decades later at places like Fort Warden and Fort Casey.

“The Finlayson Point site was, up until the early 1800s, a First Nations encampment,” wrote Roy Fletcher in an email, using the Canadian phrase “First Nations” for describing Indigenous people.

Fletcher is the retired long-time director of Friends of Beacon Hill Park, and has lived nearby for 76 years.

“Sometime in the early 1800s, a smallpox epidemic moved up the coast from Mexico/California,” Fletcher said. “Every person in the Finlayson Point encampment died. From that time on, First Nations never resettled the Point.”

Fletcher told KIRO Newsradio that there’s no evidence of those original 19th century coastal defenses that once stood in what’s now Beacon Hill Park.

“There was a very old gun placement installed on Finlayson Point, which is in the park, in 1878, but it was dismantled in 1892,” Fletcher wrote.

There are some more recent facilities preserved nearby, Fletcher continued, “in Colwood, a suburb of Victoria: Fort Rodd Hill. It’s a Parks Canada Historical Park. The bunkers from the First World War have been preserved/reconstructed. There is complete access to the whole historical site.”

Meanwhile, the Anglo-Russian Crisis ended in May 1878, when the conflict between Russia and Turkey – and Britain’s potential entanglement – was settled at a diplomatic meeting known as the Congress of Berlin. But, according to Barry Gough, it was in the decades after this when the Royal Navy presence at Esquimalt served its most critical role: protecting Victoria – and, says Dr. Gough, protecting Vancouver Island, protecting British Columbia, and even protecting Canada’s West Coast presence – from what amounted to an existential foe.

“It’s my historical argument that had we not had a Navy here, somebody would have come and taken this territory,” Gough said. “Sea power and naval power is really important in defending interests on shore.”

Gough says, the Kreyzer notwithstanding, that it was not those Russians who posed the biggest threat.

“We rather think that the United States would have been the most likely nation to have taken” British Columbia, Dr. Gough said. “Even towards the end of the 19th century, there were persons in Congress like [James Beauchamp] “Champ” Clark, who thought that the United States should own all of Canada and have the Stars & Stripes flying over the North Pole.”

“This is what happens in Congress from time to time,” Gough said, chuckling, though clearly serious about the threat he believes the United States posed to British Columbia more than a century ago — and perhaps still a little disappointed that the U.S. prevailed in the long dispute over possession of the San Juan Islands.

Still, you can almost hear those long-ago residents of Vancouver Island and mainland B.C. calling out, in unison, “American warship …”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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When Vancouver Island prepared for a Russian attack