Esquimalt Harbour

Place of Gradually Shoaling Waters and Sudden Arrival of Empire

Esquimalt Harbour was Great Britain’s key strategic port in the Pacific Northwest… and gave them not only the means but a reason to defend Vancouver Island.

By the time Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) head James Douglas first scouted the harbor in 1843, Esquimalt already had a long human history.  A corruption of the Coast Salish word “es-whoy-malth,” meaning “the place of gradually shoaling water,” The vast and complex trading, social, and political networks of First Nations bands in the Salish Sea extended to the Songhees village site near Ashe Head in the harbour.  It was not until 1850, two years after Douglas negotiated land treaties with local groups, that white settlement began at the site.

The Royal Navy (RN) became interested in the site due to its sheltered harbour, easy access to the northern Pacific, and growing HBC presence on Vancouver Island.  In 1854, the Navy asked  Douglas (now Governor of the colony) to oversee the construction of “hospital huts” at Esquimalt; construction was completed the following year and the naval presence at the harbour has been essentially unbroken since.  This presence proved instrumental to Great Britain’s strategic decisions made during the San Juan Boundary Dispute.

The 1859 dispute colloquially called the “Pig War” pitted the United Kingdom against the United States as they attempted to resolve differing interpretations of where the maritime boundary was.  Britain had a vested interest in keeping San Juan Island within its borders due to the island’s strategic placement near Victoria the RN’s growing base at Esquimalt.  The port also gave the UK tactical options in the dispute: it was already home to HMS Tribune, HMS Plumper, HMS Pylades, HMS Satellite, and HMS Ganges.  Several of these warships were dispatched at various points in the dispute, and all posed a threat to the Americans.

Nor was the Pig War the first interaction that the residents of Esquimalt had with the growing population and commerce in the Salish Sea.  The height of the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858 brought over 5,500 hopeful miners through the harbour in the span of about two weeks as they stopped over in Victoria for supplies and news.  First Nations and White entrepreneurs alike vied for business ferrying the newcomers ashore from their steamers. 

Naval vessels stationed at the harbour were frequently dispatched to preserve the interests of British subjects in their conflicts with First Nations groups.  HMS Forward was sent chasing a group of Haida accused of raiding coastal towns and the schooner Laurel in May 1861; after refusing Forward’s order to surrender, the warship bombarded their camp with grape-shot, resulting in a firefight that killed four Haida outright, mortally wounding several others, wounding one crewmember of Forward. In the aftermath, five of Haida leaders were taken prisoner.  In April 1863, HMS Forward, once again, was called forth on similar duty.  It, along with three other gunboats, searched for a group of Lamalchi members accused of murder.  The search ended when Forward fired on and destroyed a Lamalchi village on Kuper Island, then took eleven men and six women prisoner to face Her Majesty’s justice.

On June 29, 1865, Esquimalt formally took over for Valparaiso Harbor, Chile as headquarters of Pacific Squadron and its community bloomed.  St. Paul’s Church was built, the hospital was expanded, and substantial facilities for naval repair were constructed in the subsequent years.  By 1887, the graving dock (another term for “dry dock”) was in service and quickly saw use by HMS Cormorant and HMS Caroline.  The naval establishment at Esquimalt continued to serve the Royal Navy until 1905 when it entered a five-year hiatus during the transition of defense responsibilities from British to Canadian governments.  On May 4, 1910, the Royal Canadian Navy came into existence and assumed ownership of the base at Esquimalt.  The facilities continue to serve, now christened Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Esquimalt, into the present day.