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dave obee Britannia's Navy: On the West Coast of North America 1812-1914
By Barry Gough
Heritage, 408 pages, $32.95

Reviewed by Dave Obee

Victoria's Barry Gough has become one of the most prolific authors dealing with Canadian history his output in the past few years has been second to none.

This time, he has travelled back to familiar territory with a book that has its roots in a much smaller book he wrote in 1971.

That one, The Royal Navy and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1810-1914: A Study of British Maritime Ascendancy, was based on Gough's PhD thesis and made its own history by being the first book published by the new UBC Press.

Time marches on, our thinking evolves, research methods change and new sources become available. Many writers of history would love to have a second chance at their most important works, to tweak them and change them and expand them.

Gough has been lucky enough to have that chance, and the resulting book - basically, the product of a lifelong labour of love - is an important one that touches on the history of the navy, of the Pacific Ocean, of the base at Esquimalt, and much more.

Gough's work started long before his first book was published.

In the 1960s, he did research in The National Archives, the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, The British Library, the Royal Geographical Society and the National Maritime Museum in London.

The new version of the book built on Gough's work on the 1971 book, with the addition of many more sources and the investment of many, many more hours.

As always, Gough has produced a well-researched, wellwritten volume, one that will be of keen interest here because of our connection to the navy.

It helps to explain, for example, why Esquimalt Harbour was chosen as the Royal Navy's base on our coast. Since soon after the British pulled out more than a century ago, that base has been the Pacific base for the Canadian navy.

That base has strategic importance to Canada and for the entire Pacific Rim. Not bad for a location picked a century and a half ago.

Gough's book deals with several major events in naval history, including the War of 1812, England's squabbles with the United States over the Pacific Northwest, the cries of "54-40 or fight" and the infamous Pig War, the dispute over the San Juan Islands that was settled by the German Kaiser.

The book ranges even farther afield, explaining the relevance of the port at Valparaiso, Chile, and the Crimean War to events on our coast.

For the century leading up to the First World War - the time period covered in this book - Britannia really did rule the waves, especially the Pacific ones. Its strong presence was based, in large part, on the naval station at Esquimalt.

That, in turn, helped promote the settlement of Vancouver Island, and then of the rest of British Columbia. It gave this province a strong interest in ports across the water from us, and gave us our first real Pacific century.

The British navy closed its Esquimalt station in March 1905, after it was determined that priorities lay elsewhere. The greatest risk was from Germany, much closer to home, and besides, the Esquimalt station would not be able to withstand a fight with the American naval fleet.

In the event of an attack on our shores, troops could be sent from eastern Canada in six days, from Hong Kong in 20, or from England in 27. As Gough notes, there was a sense among British Columbians that their interests had been sold out.

In this book, Gough lists commanders and ships in service in our waters. The book also includes 65 pages of notes and sources, which should make a good starting point for anyone inspired to examine the history of the British navy on our coast.

But what is left to be said? Gough's book is comprehensive and highly readable, giving us a strong sense of the people who shaped the navy, and the reasons behind their decisions.

It gets to the bottom of an important aspect of the history of Greater Victoria.

This review was published in the Times Colonist on December 18, 2016


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