Vancouver Island’s mystery governor

The Curious Passage of Richard Blanshard: First Governor of Vancouver Island

by Barry Gough  

Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2023

$38.95  /  9781990776380

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh

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I drive along Blanshard Street in Victoria almost every day, but never think about Richard Blanshard, its namesake, the first governor of Vancouver Island and chief rival to James Douglas, the Hudson’s Bay chief factor whose name is on the street beside Blanshard. Barry Gough admits coming up short of archival material on this mystery man, but he still furnishes a boatload of good history about where we live.

Blanshard was appointed by the third Earl Grey, then British minister in charge of the colonies and ahead of his time in promoting self-government for the red bits on the world map representing the British Empire’s lands. When he first arrived at Fort Victoria, there was no official residence for him and his manservant. There was a welcoming ceremony, but it was clear to him that he had landed in a backwater. For the first while, he would bunk with Douglas and his Indigenous spouse Amelia.

As a young British aristocrat, expert yachtsman, and quintessential Victorian, he might have questioned whether the earl had done him a favour, sending him to this lost wilderness. Before 1849 he had built a distinguished military career in India, a law practice in London and worked in the family business in the West Indies. For a time, this included the slave trade helping make his father wealthy.

The London Committee, governing all things to do with the colonies, agreed with the earl’s proposal and the young man of property readied himself for overseas passage to “the far side of the world,” eventually “transiting the isthmus of Panamá” in a dugout canoe and working his way up the west coast.

It seems the committee expected two things of him when he assumed his duties: keep the Americans out and ensure that British authority was exercised through the full protection of the military. Blanshard’s plans to help build a permanent settlement soon went awry when the Company of Adventurers displayed its greed in controlling Vancouver Island for its own use. That meant discouraging settlement and putting him at odds with Douglas who’s first loyalty was to the company.

This would change to an extent when Douglas took over as governor after Blanshard made a hasty departure just 18 months after his arrival. He was suffering from an acute case of ague brought on by malaria. He left the island not much different than he found it. He also left poorer than he came because he had agreed not to take a salary. He had been promised 1,000 acres of prime land, from which he hoped to profit, but the company denied ever making the promise.

Historian and biographer Barry Gough lives in Victoria. Photo Zachary Gough

Gough does an admirable job of portraying Blanshard as the man who brought the idea of British law and order to the colony and the beginning of civilized government. But in the end it was Douglas who eventually delivered the goods.

Two events stand out as evidence that Blanshard did accomplish something. One involved him overseeing the apprehension of the murderers of three white people in what was called the Nahwitti War, named after the Nahwitti First Nation at Fort Rupert, the coal-rich area at the north end of the island. Nahwitti leaders eventually respected the law Blanshard represented and brought the fugitives to justice.

The second event involved him in the first Vancouver Island coal miners’ strike in April 1850. The miners had sent a petition to him outlining their grievances. “Blanshard, sympathetic from the outset, thought the miners ill-used by the Company – ‘grossly mistreated’ is the governor’s term.” He was also sensitive to the plight of labourers, “cast on a British shore but one quite alien to home, a rude place of grinding parsimony and little if any civic pride.”

S.S. Beaver anchored off Fort Victoria, 1846. Painting by Adam Sherriff Scott

Blanshard was partly responsible for the skilled labour required to build forts, harbours, and housing in the fledgling colony. It would seem he was describing his own parsimonious station. We also get a reminder of how Indigenous people introduced coal to the power-hungry HBC and how it was eventually exploited by the Dunsmuir family following in miner John Muir’s path.

Despite some minor successes, the young Blanshard’s “experience as governor was a tragedy,” Gough argues, adding that he was a “casualty of empire” who had “a cruel trick played on him” in that he did not have the power of empire behind him. No doubt he was happy to return to England where he recovered from his illness, got married, and lived the life of a wealthy squire for the rest of his days.

He also took his revenge on Douglas and the company, testifying to the corruption under their rule. “Blanshard had come as close as any outsider to exposing the way the monopoly worked itself out – in land control, in denial of land to others, and in pushing others to the margins,” Gough opined. “He also knew of (and exposed) price-fixing of provisions and supplies, and squeezing-out of any rivals.” Blanshard knew “the company was ‘fudging the books’,” Gough writes.

Barry Gough’s earlier title, Possessing Meares Island, earned him the Lieutenant Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing

But by Blanshard’s own admission, he had “not accomplished the purposes for which sent out.” Perhaps he might have done more, but for “the tyranny of distance” and his ill-health. With that, he put the experience behind him. A “gentlemanly capitalist,” he died childless and blind in 1894 at 77 years old and but for his name on a street in the BC capital few will remember his short sojourn in the mud and rocks of the rugged Pacific Northwest.

I sympathize with Gough, a celebrated historian and author of many books on BC history. His biographical subject clearly frustrated him at times and he had to resort to speculation, suggesting that Blanshard “may” have done this or “may’ said that. Still, he has done the archival digging and gives readers some gems to ponder.

Sources are the bread and butter of historians. When they are absent or impossible to find Gough ably fills in the biographical blanks with detailed histories of Vancouver Island, early Victoria, and the US Oregon Territory. He acknowledges that “the full story is unlikely ever to be told,” but he dutifully follows “the hints to guide a sleuth.” And he speaks for all historians when he concludes that “the fun is in the chase.”           

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Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian, and short documentary filmmaker. Ron Verzuh has recently reviewed books by Elaine Ávila, Ken McGoogan, Mostafa Henaway, Kennedy Stewart, Henry Tsang, and Robert Lower for The British Columbia Review, and he has contributed an essay on trade unionist Harvey Murphy.

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The British Columbia Review


Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie


Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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