LILLARD, History Column 1988, Issue 4




WITH THE VAGABOND FLEET (Sono Nis $27.95), Peter Murray has produced the definitive history 'of the North Pacific's pelagic (open ocean) sealing fleet.

Handsomely illustrated, it's mainly about the early sealers, both native Indians and whites, and the schooners that sailed the treacherous North Pacific. But lawyers, financiers and politicians also playa prominent role in the story.

"Most Canadians are unaware," writes Murray, "that their country was at the centre of an international dispute almost a century before the controversy over the killing of harp seal pups in the Gulf of St. Lawrence...but there was one striking similarity between the two events. Canada was widely regarded as the villain in both."

The author states his position on sealing in the first paragraph: "This is 'not an anti-sealing book. The events took place a century ago. ..It would be wrong to impose today's values on that era."

Murray, a veteran Victorian newspaperman, likes details and knows how to handle them. However different their books and their intentions, moments within Vagabond Fleet remind one of The Outer Shores, a two-volume collection of Edward F. Ricketts' papers, which contain much information about the trips Ricketts made to the B.C. coast in the 1940s.

Such books illustrate the historical role that our coast played in the international world of the Pacific. Similarly Robert Turner's The Pacific Princesses brims with details concerning the Alaska-British Columbia-Washington axis and Turner's The Pacific Empresses revives many of B.C.'s trans-Pacific connections. The late Derek Pethick's Victoria: The Fort made it clear that initially Victoria's contacts were chiefly with Sitka and San Francisco. As well, Pethick drew many of the details of the fur trade's history (which lasted until about 1820) in The Nootka Connection, subtitled Europe & the Northwest Coast, 1790-1795.

Pethick unravelled more early maritime knots in First Approaches to the Northwest Coast, the story of all 29 voyages to the Pacific Coast before 1792.

Murray's Vagabond Fleet is a bridge between the earlier international period and our own. Like his earlier book, The Devil and Mr. Duncan, a study of the Metlakathla settlement, it gives us a detailed grasp of much older realities on the coast and international conflicts.

Details -that's the problem with W. Wylie Blanchet's The Curve of Time. Much as we may love that book, primarily it is concerned with perceptions, not details. And details are what most post-war readers have come to expect. The first writer to answer those demands was Kathrene Pinkerton in Three's a Crew, which covers the same territory as Blanchet but Pinkerton was there a decade earlier.

Francis and Amy Barrow later cruised the same coast and their story has been published in Beth Hill's Upcoast Summers. Another book sure to stand with these is Edith Iglauer's recently published Fishing with John. "Beth Hill is one of the new breed of writers in B.C. women who are tackling subjects that traditionally have been masculine strongholds. She has explored what may be the coast's earliest art form in Indian Petroglyphs of the Pacific Northwest and she wrote The Remarkable World of Frances Barkley: 1769- 1845, the biography of the first white woman to reach our coast.

Hilary Stewart has also explored various aspects of the coast's Indian culture with Artifacts of the Northwest Coast Indians, Indian Fishing and Cedar. Stewart's latest book, The Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt, and Hill's Remarkable World should be read as a preface to The Vagabond Fleet.

These three books provide a splendid introduction to the European reaction to, and changing opinions of, the Pacific Ocean. They offer us man-on-the-spot views of the past's outer coast and go a long way towards explaining why ours is still so radically different than the other Pacific west coasts.

By Charles Lillard

[Winter / BCBW 1989]