Esquimalt Royal Navy Dockyard

Daphne Eze

Duncan BC, Canada

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Esquimalt Royal Naval Dockyard was a major Royal Navy yard on Canada’s Pacific coast from 1842 to 1905.

The naval dockyard was located in Esquimalt, British Columbia, adjacent to Esquimalt Harbour and the city of Victoria, to replace a base in Valparaíso, Chile as the home of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Station and was the only Royal Navy base in western North America.

A hydrographic survey carried out by the HMS Pandora around 1842, determined that the location and depth of the Esquimalt Harbour would make it acceptable for use as a British naval port on the west coast of North America.1 The following year James Douglas went out to Vancouver Island intending to set up a trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company. After looking at the shores of Esquimalt Harbour he decided they were too densely wooded for development so he opted to build what would become Fort Victoria on the shores of the adjacent Victoria Harbour and thereby establish what would become the city of Victoria. Pandora Avenue in Victoria is named in honour of the survey ship, which in turn was named after Pandora of Greek mythology.

In 1848 the HMS Constance arrived at Esquimalt and became the first Royal Navy vessel based there. She was commanded by Captain George William Courtenay, after whom Courtenay, British Columbia is named.1

From 3 July 1850 to February 1854 Augustus Leopold Kuper was Captain of HMS Thetis from her commissioning at HMNB Devonport. He sailed her to the southeast coast of America and then to Esquimalt. Kuper Island in the Strait of Georgia, off the east coast of Vancouver Island, was named for Captain Kuper after he surveyed the area from 1851–1853. Thetis Island and Thetis Lake are named for the survey ship. In 1852 sailors from the Thetis built a trail through the forest linking the Esquimalt Harbour with the Victoria Harbour and Fort Victoria. The trail would eventually be paved and is now known as Old Esquimalt Road (it runs parallel to and just north of Esquimalt Road).

In the summer of 1854 several ships, including President, Pique, Trincomalee, Amphitrite, and Virago set out from Valparaíso and sailed across the Pacific Ocean stopping at Marquesas Islands then on to Honolulu where they met a French fleet of warships. In late August the combined fleets sailed to Russia to engage in the Siege of Petropavlovsk at which Commander-in-Chief Pacific Station David Price died. Captain of the Pique Frederick William Erskine Nicolson was brevetted and took command of the British naval forces from 31 August 1854 until the arrival of the next Commander-in-Chief.

On 25 November 1854 Rear Admiral Henry William Bruce who had been at the West Africa Squadron was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Pacific. Upon arrival at Esquimalt Bruce asked James Douglas to provide the navy with a hospital to receive the expected sick and wounded from the Crimean War. In 1855 three wooden huts were built on Duntze Head, which would also be known as Hospital Point.56 The buildings were the first shore establishment of the Royal Navy at Esquimalt.

In 1859 the British Colony of Vancouver Island started to construct lighthouses on the approaches to Esquimalt and Victoria Harbours in part to support the Royal Navy and in part to support civilian navigation amidst the Fraser gold rush and other gold rushes. Fisgard Light was illuminated on 16 November 1860 and Race Rocks Light was lit on 26 December 1860.78

In 1865 the facilities in Esquimalt were recognized as an alternate base for the Pacific Station which was based in Valparaíso. The emphasis of the station started shifting more to British Columbia as the United Kingdom’s economic interests shifted northward.1 The move also allowed the Admiralty to avoid involvement in the Chincha Islands War (1864–1866) between Spain, Chile, and Peru.

In the late 1860s and early 1870s any navy vessel in need of hull repair at Esquimalt had to be taken to shipyards in Seattle, Washington in the United States. To remove the dependence on American shipyards a graving dock was constructed at Esquimalt starting in 1876.9 The graving dock was commissioned in 1887,1 having cost CAD$1,177,664 to build.9 HMS Cormorant became the first vessel to use the new drydock on 20 July 1887.9 In its first seven years of use the graving dock serviced 24 merchant ships and 70 navy ships.9 From 1887 through 1927 the graving dock averaged work on 21 vessels per year.9 Although the original graving dock was large enough to accommodate the largest ships in the British Pacific fleet at the time of its construction, by the early 20th century larger ships were routinely being built. In 1924 the government of Canada built a larger graving dock at Esquimalt that could accommodate ships up to Panamax size.910111213 The 1887 graving dock was last used to service the HMCS Coaticook on 31 August 1945.9

Esquimalt was vacated by the British Royal Navy at sunset on 1 March 1905.1 The Canadian Department of Marine and Fisheries took over control of the shore establishment and the responsibility of enforcing control of Canada’s maritime interests in the area after the Royal Navy left. After passage of the Naval Service Bill in 1910 there was a Canadian Naval Service (CNS) that controlled the base and the CNS became the Royal Canadian Navy in 1911. In the 1960s a consolidation of defence forces in Canada led to its reformation as the Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt. It is now home to the Pacific Command of the Canadian Forces at CFB Esquimalt.

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