The Royal Navy, Ruler of the Seas

The Purported Russian Threat

In the first half of the nineteenth century the Russians were busy consolidating their settlements in Alaska, making Sitka an administrative centre and regularly patrolling the coast with frigates from the Imperial Russian Navy. A few Russian officers had completed some remarkable explorations, among them naval Lieutenant Lukin who in 1832-33 had reached as far as the site of what is today Dawson by going down the Yukon River.

The war against Russia, which was declared in 1854, thus fed the worst fears of the colonists on Vancouver Island. Governor Douglas urgently called for troops, cannons, rifles, ammunition and provisions to battle his Russian neighbours to the north. His requests were given the cold shoulder in London. According to the staff, England had "no such interest in the maintenance and support of this outlying settlement," which was costing it a great deal. As for "taking possession of the Russian settlements," it was not clear to them "whether it would be worth our having." Douglas was thus advised in August that "H. M. Govt. deems it to be at once both unnecessary and unadvisable" 120 but that the warships would continue to patrol the coast.

Douglas was nevertheless convinced that his fears were well founded. The Russians had, as it happens, sent a Siberian infantry battalion to Sitka, but - and Douglas could not have known this - for the sole purpose of protecting their colony, and not to attack their British neighbours. In fact neither the British nor the Russians wished to do battle on the northwest coast. The two countries thus agreed not to fight in this part of the globe during the war, which ended in 1856. Eleven years later the Russians sold Alaska to the United States, making it Canada's only immediate neighbour.