Strait Crossing (in which we learn the origins of several colonial place names)

Setting out for Howe Sound from Nanaimo

Thursday 31 May 2012

We set out from Nanaimo for Howe Sound in the morning after listening to the weather report.  It’s about 26 miles across the Georgia Strait, anchorage to anchorage, on this calm grey morning. We hope for a bit of wind—last year we had a speedy sail—but this time we motor the entire way.  Our friend Carolyn had said, “Sometimes the Strait is like a mill pond.” It was today. The crossing takes just five hours.

To pass the time, we read from our favourite cruising guide, Wolferstan’s Sunshine Coast, which is from 1982, and often radically out of date, but full of marvellously interesting historical detail.  We learn, for example, that virtually every island and passage in Howe Sound has been named for a prominent naval figure or vessel—British of course—from the battle of “the Glorious First of June” 1794, in which “Lord Howe was victorious.”  Thus, the Barfleur Passage, which we enter at the edge of Howe Sound is named for the HMS Barfleur, a 98 gun vessel engaged in the battle, at the cost of nine lives and 24 injuries.  And Bowen Island is named after Rear Admiral James Bowen, master of HMS Queen Charlotte (which also gave it’s name to Queen Charlotte Channel), who, for his “valuable and exceptional service” during the battle of “the Glorious First of June,” was promoted to lieutenant, then commander, then post captain.  Gambier Island was named for Admiral of the Fleet, James, Lord Gambier, captain of HM. Defence—“first to break through the line and hotly engage three French ships.”

Contemporary agents of trade at anchor in Nanaimo

It took us a while to figure out what this “Glorious First of June” battle was about—the 218th anniversary of which we inadvertently celebrated whether we liked it or not, on waking our first morning in Howe Sound. For who remembers that day, aside from this geography?

“The Glorious First of June” was a battle between the English, who were anxiously keeping “revolutionary fever” at bay, and the French, who were protecting a convoy of American ships bringing grain to French ports.  The battle took place at sea, in the North Atlantic, some 350 miles northwest of Cape Finisterre. The British captured seven French battleships, including, Wolferstan notes, L’America, a US-built naval ship presented to France once France beheaded its king and became, as well, a “republican” patrician nation.

Arrival in Howe Sound

And then that story, from that coast, was written large upon the landscape here in 1860, 66 years after it was over, by British geographers and surveyors who were themselves quite worried about another battle taking place just to the south on San Juan Island between American settlers of the “Oregon Country” and British (Canadian) settlers, chiefly functionaries of the Hudson’s Bay Company (itself, we could say, a forward arm of British imperialism).  That battle, known as the “pig war,” because it began with the shooting of a British owned pig owned by an American settler in 1857–a proxy if there ever were one!–continued with a fifteen year stand-off and joint US-British occupation.

The dispute over which nation should have right to the jointly settled territories between the 42nd parallel and latitude 54° 40’ was finally settled when both nations agreed to abide by a ruling by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany.  (Why him?  We still don’t know the answer to that question, but encourage responses from anyone who does.) The Kaiser made his ruling on 21 October 1872, drawing a boundary between the two expansionist empires through Haro Strait, on the 49th parallel.  Thus the Americans got the San Juan Islands, and the British (Canada) the entirety of Vancouver Island and what we now know as the Gulf Islands.  But as place names up and down the British Columbia coast were conferred by the surveyors aboard the HMS Plumper in 1860, the standoff on San Juan Island was still raging, and so too, we imagine, were (British) nationalist sentiments.

Time rolls on, but imperial histories still ravage and scar the landscape, and confuse us all–more perhaps than they should.  We should not consider ourselves, after all, innocents.

Three generations of tree, Plumper Marine Park, Howe Sound

 Notes from our ship’s log

Flat or nearly flat water on the crossing, silver in the dull glaring light. Clouds cover the higher peaks on Bowen and Gambier Island, and the snow-capped peaks that surround them are invisible, merely a matter of reputation.

Milky green water from the Squamish River clouds even the deepest water at the mouth of Howe Sound, and quantites of debris flow by in the current—huge logs and then smaller deadheads.  Seagulls hitch a ride on the moving logs and face into what little wind flows up out of the southeast.  Shreds of blue sky and sunlight as we arrive. Blue heights at a distance.

Plumes of smoke rise from the mill in Thornbrough Channel—and when the clouds lift, huge patches of clearcut are visible, enormous rectangles hacked from the mountainsides.

That reviled (foreign, invasive) species, Cytisus scoparius, Scotch Broom

Birds sing and yellow broom bends down towards the water, as if, like narcissus, peering at its own reflection.

It is always a moment of note when you put away the old charts and get out the new ones, as we must do here.  It takes hours of poring over the charts to learn their new lines and contours and hazards and names.

Vancouver had apparently named the sound in 1792 after his superior officer, Admiral the Right Honorable Richard Scrope, Earl Howe.  (We imagine how astonished Earl Howe would be today to find his own fame utterly eclipsed by that upstart Vancouver’s.)  Captain Vancouver had hoped to find the Northwest Passage up this inlet (and each of many others ranging north up the coast), but was sorely disappointed, finding, as he proceeded up the inlet to the Squamish River, “a dreary aspect” to the steep surroundings and a “chalky aspect” to the water.  The sound was a “gloomy spectacle,” wrote Vancouver in his log. “Not a bird, nor living creature was to be seen, and the roaring of the falling cataracts in every direction precluded their being heard, had any been in our neighbourhood.” (Vancouver quoted by Upton, Journeys Through the Inside Passage, 32.).

Walbran, in British Columbia Place Names, says:

“Captain Richards, R.N., who made the survey of Howe sound, 1859-1860, followed up Vancouver’s name by giving to all the principal islands, points, passages and mountains in and around the sound, the names of the ships and officers engaged in Lord Howe’s celebrated victory of 1 June 1794.  Thus this sound is a record of the battle.”

The Sound sounds out a battle in dozens of forgotten names, overwriting one landscape with the wars of another. Does anywhere else remember them?

Nootka Rose, Plumper Marine Park

Walbran continues:

“In the same manner, Jervis Inlet, also named by Vancouver and surveyed by Richards, is a record of the battle of St. Vincent, 14 February 1797; and also Nelson’s Victory of the Nile, 1 August, 1798” (p. 256, “Howe Sound”).

Walbran goes on to note that Lieutenant Eliza, one of the Spaniards surveying the area in 1791, before Vancouver arrived, named the inlet we call Howe Sound Boca de Carmelo.  We find this name justly descriptive, for the water is like green caramel, the luscious colour of saltwater taffy—Vancouver’s “chalky aspect”: fine glacial silt.

 We gather other bouquets of names here too, sweeter ones:

Nootka rose


Each name bound up with a story.  These are the stories we prefer.

Salmonberry bloom, Plumper Marine Park

We wonder what were the names of these peaks and points and islands and bays and inlets before English notables’ names gave sign of imperial claims upon the land and its stories? Will those Coast Salish names ever return? Where might we look for them? How might we learn them, and learn to read their take on the shapes and histories of the land? Our books and cruising guides are silent on this matter.

About Karin Cope

Karin Cope lives on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. She is a poet, sailor, photographer, scholar, rural activist, blogger and an Associate Professor at NSCAD University. Her publications include Passionate Collaborations: Learning to Live with Gertrude Stein, a poetry collection entitled What we're doing to stay afloat, and, since 2009, a photo/poetry blog entitled Visible Poetry: Aesthetic Acts in Progress. Over the course of the last decade, with her partner and collaborator Marike Finlay, Cope has sailed to and conducted fieldwork in a number of remote or marginal coastal communities in British Columbia and Mexico. Their joint writings range from activist journalism and travel and policy documents, to an illustrated popular material history of the Lunenburg Foundry entitled Casting a Legend, as well as their ongoing west coast travel blog, West By East.
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