1843 – 1878

1843-1878 picture(1)

Members of the Victoria Battery of Garrison Artillery Finlayson Point.

During the early colonial period of Vancouver Island’s history, Victoria was to experience slow but steady growth during the first decade and half of its existence.

The infant colony was almost entirely reliant on the warships of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Squadron for its defence. From 1848 on, warships visiting the colony used the harbour at Esquimalt as an anchorage. The harbour was large and sheltered and close to Victoria.

During the Crimean War (1854‑56), three hospital huts were built on the shore. These were constructed after an unsuccessful assault on the Russian port of Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula had brought damaged ships, with many wounded on board, to Esquimalt. This was the beginning of the navy’s shore establishment.

The Fraser River gold rush, which began in 1858, caused a massive increase in Victoria\’s population. Thousands of prospectors, mostly Americans, passed through the colony en route to the gold fields. This created fears of American assimilation, particularly when U.S. troops landed on the disputed border territory of San Juan Island in 1859. Tension increased in Victoria and fears of an invasion of the colony arose.

To assert British sovereignty, the Colony of British Columbia was proclaimed on the mainland in November, 1858. Ships of the Royal Navy were made available to support the authority of the colonial Government. The navy helped to maintain law and order with a guardship at the mouth of the Fraser River, on the miners’ route, to collect licence fees from miners heading inland to the gold fields.

A detachment of Royal Marine Light Infantry was landed on San Juan Island by agreement with the U.S.A. on a joint military garrisoning of the island while the issue of sovereignty was considered.

The increasing importance of Esquimalt as a naval base was further underlined in 1877, when the Admiralty nominated a world‑wide network of coaling stations for the use of the Royal Navy’s steam‑driven warships. It was vital that these fuel supplies be protected if the navy were to continue its role of defence of the British Empire. Esquimalt was ranked eighth in importance and, again, it was recommended that permanent defences be erected to protect the naval yard and harbour.

With a greater number of warships cruising in local waters, increasing use was made of Esquimalt harbour and it was soon being suggested that coast artillery batteries should be provided for its defence. In 1859, Rear Admiral Baynes, the commander‑in‑chief of the Pacific Squadron, had recommended the transfer of his headquarters to Esquimalt and the placing of shore batteries to defend the harbour. Although Esquimalt was to become the major station of the Pacific Squadron over the next few years, the shore batteries were not emplaced.

In 1866, the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia were united under the latter name, with Victoria as the capital. The colony joined the Canadian confederation in 1871. The new province’s volunteer companies, formed during the 1860s, were reorganized as part of the Canadian Militia organization. However, the Royal Navy remained the province’s first line of defence.