The Royal Navy, Ruler of the Seas

The Royal Navy Patrols the West Coast

Esquimalt Naval Base Key to Defence

Ships of the Royal Navy, between 1850 and 1860

Caption: Ships of the Royal Navy, between 1850 and 1860

The 1858 gold rush and the Pig War the following year hastened the search for a lasting solution to the problem of defending the new colony. Instead of building fortifications defended by troops, which was a costly undertaking, the British government opted to establish a naval base at Esquimalt. The permanent presence of warships would, it was felt, suffice to secure the west coast.

The Royal Navy had regularly used Esquimalt Harbour since 1848, and had over the years developed more or less temporary facilities such as foundries, carpentry workshops, a coal depot and a small hospital. As in all ports, a village had grown nearby, with its taverns and its brothels. Beginning in 1858, there was considerable new construction, including barracks, and in 1860 a lighthouse was built on Fisgard Island at the entrance to the port, as well as a major depot that could hold some 1,400 tons of coal. This coal, which was essential in those years for steam-powered warships, came from the Nanaimo mines located only 130 kilometres to the north. Construction of a powder magazine was completed in 1862, the very year in which the British Admiralty moved its headquarters for the Pacific Squadron from Valparaiso to Esquimalt. The North Pacific was growing in importance as trade with the United States, Japan and China increased. The Esquimalt base was ideally located to protect these maritime routes, whereas Valparaiso in Chile and Callao in Peru were used as secondary bases for the South Pacific.