The Royal Marines of Garrison Bay

The sun never set on the British Empire, thanks in part to the Royal Marines of Garrison Bay.

The British Empire was at its height in the 1850s when this quiet and calm part of the San Juan Island suddenly bustled with activity as a distant outpost of British power. In 1860 a detachment of Royal Marines arrived at Garrison Bay to build a British military outpost.

Following their victories in the Opium Wars of East Asia, some Royal Marine veterans of the Second Opium War came here to Garrison Bay. They agreed to extend their service for extra pay. Earlier, conflicts between British and American settlers on San Juan had escalated, and the prospect of war threatened the region. As part of the joint occupation of the island agreed upon by the United States and the British Empire, the Marines landed on the site in March of 1860 and quickly began establishing a camp at Garrison Bay.

The Marines dismantled the abandoned Indian longhouse that once stood here, cleared brush, and planted a fenced garden. They initially resided in tents, but as the weather grew colder they constructed living quarters for both the officers and enlisted. They also built the guardhouse near the shore, intended as a defensive measure against threats from the sea, but also used as a prison. Eventually, there were twenty-seven buildings in the camp, which included a commissary, officers quarters, and enlisted barracks.

The men of Garrison Bay came from all over the United Kingdom and had fought and traveled across the British Empire. About one hundred Royal Marines initially garrisoned the camp, almost all of whom were Opium War veterans. These men fought in the 1st and 2nd Royal Marine Battalions, composed from several different smaller units, from 1856 to 1860 in China. These units included the Portsmouth, Plymouth, Chatham, and Woolwich divisions.

During their time at the English camp, the Royal Marines were led by two commanders. From 1860-1867, they were led by Captain George Bazalgette, and then from 1867-1872 by Captain William Delacombe. One of the more notable Marines stationed in the camp was Colour Sergeant John Pettyjohns, the first Royal Marine recipient of the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for heroism. He earned the medal in the Crimean War at the Battle of Inkerman in 1854, where he led a group of Marines to clear occupied caves. Upon exhausting their ammunition inside the caves, they repelled an enemy counterattack with stones.