SWIFT, Jonathan

Author Tags: 1700-1800

The first literary reference to British Columbia in English literature occurs in the second book of Gulliver’s Travels, a fictional work by satirist Jonathan Swift, in which Gulliver sails up the northwest coast of America in 1703 to a land of giants called Brobdingnag.

This land of giants was located north of New Albion in an area roughly approximate to the locale of British Columbia. Gulliver’s ship is caught in a storm “so that the oldest sailor on board could not tell in what part of the World we were.”

Swift blended some known geography into his creation by incorporating the findings of world traveller William Dampier, referred to by Gulliver in the text as “my cousin, Dampier.”

The term New Albion was derived from the secret voyage of Sir Francis Drake in 1579 when he was searching for a Northwest Passage back to England. In those days the dastardly Drake was the scourge of the Spanish, having plundered tons of silver and gold, so Queen Elizabeth had to be circumspect about backing the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world.

Only three copies of Drake’s original “Queen’s Map” were made. All copies have been destroyed or lost. Drake’s charts were kept secret but his term New Albion did begin to appear on some maps that attempted to depict the western coast of North America. The first public map to record the presence of Drake on the northwest coast of America was published in a book by Richard Hakluyt in 1582.

When Swift required a setting for a mythical faraway land of giants more than a century later, New Albion was appropriated. The myth of British Columbia as a land of giants, home to the elusive Sasquatch, also has some literary roots in the journals of John Ledyard, the young American seaman who sailed with Captain Cook.

John Ledyard wrote: “The 15th we altered our course in search of some islands, which the Russians said were inhabited by people of a gigantic size, who were covered with hair; but who notwithstanding were very civil, and would supply us with cattle and hogs, with which their island abounded.”


Travels Into Several Remote Nations Of The World. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships (London: B. Motte, 1726).


Gulliver's Travels. Ed. Paul Turner. Oxford: Oxford University, 1998.

Gulliver's Travels. Ed. Peter Dixon and John Chalker. Penguin, 1967.

Gulliver's Travels. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. 2nd Edition. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1970.

Gulliver's Travels. complete, authoritative text with biographical and historical contexts, critical history, and essays from five contemporary critical perspectives. Ed. Christopher Fox. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1995.

The Writings of Jonathan Swift; Authoritative Texts, Backgrounds, Criticism. edited by Robert A. Greenberg and William Bowman Piper. Norton Critical Editions. New York: Norton, 1973.

Jonathan Swift. ed. Angus Ross and David Woolley. New York: Oxford, 1984.

Gulliver's Travels. Aldren A. Watson, illustrator. Illustrated Junior Library. New York : Grosset & Dunlap, 1947.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2003]

We are Brogdingnag
Rear View Mirror #1

“And if you will take the trouble to follow carefully the course of the good ship “Adventure” as recorded by the voracious, if not veracious, traveller, Captain Lemuel Gulliver, you will find that his land of Brobdingnag was in this very latitude, and if you examine the map which is to be found in the early editions you will conclude that it could have been none other than our own Island of Vancouver. “– F.W. Howay



ONCE UPON A TIME our province was in dire need of a journal that would present its burgeoning history on a literary plane. So the most important collector of local literature in the first half of the 20th century, Judge Frederic William Howay co-created the British Columbia Historical Quarterly in 1937. Here is the first article in the first issue, written by Howay, who co-wrote a four-volume history, British Columbia from the Earliest Times to the Present (1914), followed by British Columbia: The Making of a Province (1928). It’s Howay’s presidential address at the first annual meeting of the B.C. Historical Association on October 12, 1923.


I wish on this occasion to trace in a general way and as interestingly as possible the earliest clays of our Province, to Strive to show that we had a story before the advent of the Canadian Pacific Railway, that we had a story before the days of Caribou and its wondrous gold wealth—yes, that we had a story before the foot of Hudson’s Bay trader or Nor’ West trader ever trod our soil. Not only so, but also that this story of our birth and infancy is just as interesting and romantic as that of our adolescence. I desire in this connection to stress the great influence exerted upon our story by the search for two things——the search for the North-west Passage and the search for the sea-otter.

The clouds of doubt and darkness that from the beginning of time had rested upon the western coast of North America found their last abode within the confines of the Province of British Columbia. The search for the North-west Passage lifted these clouds for an instant; the search for the sea-otter dispelled them altogether.

Long before the days of Columbus many dreamed of a navigable water communication between Europe and China after 1493 this became a fundamental tenet of geography. With the increase of geographical knowledge the great island-studded ocean, which in the early maps occupied the space where is now the Continent of North America, gradually dwindled down into a mere strait, the Strait of Anian, or the North-west Passage, as it was commonly called. But as a strait it persisted. And the mere fact that it did not exist in any particular latitude in which the geographers had placed it was held to be no proof of its non-existence; but only proof of its non-existence in that place. In fact, it was a kind of peripatetic waterway whose location depended, as Sam Weller would have said, “upon the taste and fancy” of the geographer. Finally, the poor strait was driven clear off the map of the Atlantic Coast, but that did not dispose of it. It must exist; and if it did not reach the Atlantic Ocean, it must enter into Hudson or Baffin’s Bay.

We turn now to the Pacific Ocean side. In 1579, Sir Francis Drake. the freebooter, had ravaged and pillaged the coast from Chili [sic] to Mexico. With the hold of the "Golden Hind” filled with treasure, he feared to return to England by way either of
Cape Horn or of the Cape of Good Hope, lest he should he captured by the Spaniards. He determined to sail home through the North-west Passage. Of course, the effort was unsuccessful. Drake reached, in this search, perhaps 48°, certainly 43°. Ink enough to float the “ Golden Hind” has been spilled in the discussions as to his extreme point.

The only spot left for this poor hunted strait, then, was north of Drake’s limit; so it, like a hunted hare, found refuge for years right within our boundaries. Some of the early maps of the 1600’s and 1700’s show this region as vast sea; others show it as a collection of islands; others again show it as a wide strait; while others show it as containing two or even three straits. Naturally, the spot became a favourite with romancers. Bacon, that wisest and that meanest man. selected it as the location of his ideal land of Atlantis. And if you will take the trouble to follow carefully the course of the good ship “Adventure” as recorded by the voracious, if not veracious, traveller, Captain Lemuel Gulliver, you will find that his land of Brobdingnag was in this very latitude, and if you examine the map which is to be found in the early editions you will conclude that it could have been none other than our own Island of Vancouver. In this neighbourhood, also, three persons at least claimed that they had found and sailed through a North-west Passage—Maldonado, de Fonte, and de Fuca. It is not my purpose to enter into any details of these alleged voyages. Maldonado’s was always regarded as a false tale; de Fonte won belief for a few years. but later he also was found to be false; but de Fuca, for some unaccountable reason, has had believers in his story up to the present clay. He was a more fortunate liar than either of the others, that was all. Either the geography of our country has changed wonderfully since he sailed across and through time great barrier range of the Rocky Mountains and the vast prairies, or else the voyage was never made and is naught but the baseless fabric of a dream. And his supporters may take whichever horn of the dilemma they may think the more softly cushioned.

Aside from Drake’s voyage, two nations only, until 1778, gave any attention to the coast-line of the Pacific—Spain and Russia. Vastly different reasons were operating in their respective cases. Spain’s only interest was in obtaining information of the existence of harbours that might furnish refuge to the treasure-ships from the
Philippines. Beyond that, she neither wished to know nor to have any other nation discover what lay hidden under the mists of the North....


[Editor's note, 2014: Historian Derek Hayes has read this article and commented, "All accurate till the last paragraph. Spain's northward voyages of 1774 and 1775 were prompted by the concern that the Russians might be encroaching on what they viewed as "their" territory (they had reports of the Bering voyage of 1741). It was only the earlier voyages still, up to Vizcaino, that were looking for refuges for the Manila galleon. The Russian voyages, Bering in 1728 and 1741, and Chirikov in 1741, were the result of Peter the Great wanting to determine what was there - to find out if America was joined to Asia - so empire building, really.]


This article is part of an ongoing series of looks into the Rear View Mirror of the past that is presented by our colleagues at British Columbia History, the province's most venerable literary periodical, dating back to 1937. As the journal of the B.C. Historical Federation, BCH is published quarterly in March, June, September and December. It provides feature-length articles as well as documentary selections, essays, pictorial essays, memoirs, and reviews relating to the social, economic, political, intellectual, and cultural history of British Columbia. British Columbia History began in 1923 as the Annual Report and Proceedings of the British Columbia Historical Association (now the British Columbia Historical Federation). From 1937-58 it was published as the British Columbia Historical Quarterly. From 1965-2005, it was called the BC Historical News. The BCHF is fortunate to have the support of the UBC Library in digitizing the back issues of its publications and supporting the stewardship of these important links to the past. To access the material directly, click on http://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/pdfs/bchf/1st_bcha.pdf