The early history of Vancouver island – around 1840 – was inextricably linked with the Hudson Bay Company. Initially, the fur trade was the primary goal and so many sea otter pelts were collected that they were almost extinct.
Many of the settlers were well-to-do Scots who settled there after their HBC contracts had expired, as well as the men who came out as farmers, builders and miners. Some came with their families and endured harrowing voyages around Cape Horn where sixty foot waves often lashed the sailing boats during brutal storms. Those in steerage had a bad time of it with cramped, crowded conditions, poor rations and seasickness. Imagine caring for children in those perilous circumstances. Some poor women even gave birth during these voyages.
For those who survived, I wonder what they would have made of their new homeland. Initially, Victoria had a walled pallisade of timber posts. Despite being promised good conditions, the new settlers often had to go out into the heavily forested country to clear the land and build homesteads.
No doubt, the settlers would have felt intimidated by the clusters of canoes around their ships as Indians came to barter for goods. Though some of the inland tribes were hostile, coastal tribes were fortunately more amenable to the visitors. They also proved a valuable workforce for the HBC, receiving blankets and mere trinkets for their labour. Sadly, in the latter part of the century, thousands of the indigenous peoples were decimated by epidemics of cholera and smallpox brought in from San Francisco and the goldfields to the south. Payment in alcohol and guns did further long term damage to historic living patterns and tribal self esteem.
Settlers were recruited from the Ayrshire District in the lowlands of Scotland as miners. There the whole family, including children as young as ten, worked in the mines to survive financially. On Vancouver Island, coal was initially mined at Port Rupert but this venture failed. The Indians knew about the “black diamonds” and showed the visitors where to find seams. The town of Nanaimo grew up around the new mine. Back home, the Scots were politically active and soon made their dissatisfaction with the poor conditions known to the HBC managers who were brought in to negotiate improved working conditions.
One well-known Scot, Robert Dunsmuir, worked for the HBC until his contract expired and then went into business for himself. He became one of the richest men on the island and later built a castle for his wife, which he called Craigdarroch. The Scots were present at every level of society.
Other settlers were recruited from the Orkney Islands where men from all over northern Scotland including the Highlands, Skye and the Hebrides, gathered to join the ships as they stopped to take in fresh water and supplies before the Atlantic crossing.
The HBC recruited these resilient young men and their families for their ability to handle the inhospitable conditions – the Orkneys were roughly on the same latitude as Hudson Bay. Having been to the town of Stromness, I could imagine the vessels moored in the deep water harbour, and the men on board – sadness and fear vying with excitement at the forthcoming adventure – whilst they watched tearful relatives and friends gathering on the wharf.
Desperation drove these men from their homeland but it was their courage and determination which helped them to survive and thrive in far-off Canada. I’d like to think that Robert the Bruce’s ethos of ‘Try, try again’ inspired these hardy settlers and helped them to persevere and achieve their dreams of a grand new life.