The Royal Navy, Ruler of the Seas

The Pacific Coast

Royal Navy warships, Esquimalt harbour, circa 1865-1870

Caption: Royal Navy warships, Esquimalt harbour, circa 1865-1870

Circumstances were different on the Pacific coast, which the Hudson's Bay Company's network of posts extended to as well, because the British were not the only white men there. Even before the Spanish had withdrawn from Nootka, an American navigator had discovered the Columbia River, in 1792, and the American army officers Lewis and Clark' had reached the Pacific through Oregon in 1805. In 1811 American fur traders built Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River, which the British took during the War of 1812 and renamed Fort George.

The British considered that the entire Pacific coast from California to Alaska belonged to them, but the Americans felt it was theirs. Believing firmly in its right to do so, the Hudson's Bay Company established a relatively large number of posts in northern California, and in 1845 the dispute degenerated into the Oregon Crisis, which was finally settled by extending the border along the 49th parallel to the Pacific, with the exception of Vancouver Island, which remained British territory.

It was then up to Royal Navy warships to defend the interests of England on the Pacific coast, because the army had no military garrison there. Thanks to an agreement with Chile, the British navy had a base at Valparaiso as of 1837, and from there the HMS Pandora left for Vancouver Island in 1846. Two years later the HMS Constance used the excellent Esquimalt Harbour as a temporary base. Immediately following the Oregon Crisis, however, it became important for the British to have a real colony on the west coast to counter any American or Russian claims. In 1849 Vancouver Island was turned over to the Hudson's Bay Company in return for a commitment to settle it. The capital became Victoria, a trading post erected by the company in 1843, and the government appointed a royal governor who was independent of the company. At this point the British navy began its frequent patrols along the west coast.