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In Nature's Realm: the prize essay

Seven years before Confederation, the HMS Topaze arrived in Esquimalt with precious cargo: a brilliant surgeon and perceptive natural historian with a boundless curiosity for the flora and fauna of Vancouver Island.

The following is an excerpt from In Nature’s Realm by Michael Layland. Full copyright information follows below.

In March 1860 the gunboat HMS Topaze arrived in Esquimalt with Dr. Charles Forbes, who had been the original surgeon to Plumper. On learning that Forbes was also a geologist, Governor Douglas requested his services for a survey of the route from the head of Harrison Lake, Port Douglas, to the Lillooet trail. This was the favoured access for prospectors headed for the new gold diggings. The Royal Engineers Columbia Detachment were also blasting a wagon road through this same route. This work revealed the geological strata in greater detail, allowing Forbes to improve his final report to Douglas. At the Victoria Theatre, during the winter of 1861/62, he gave a four-part public lecture series on geology.

Apparently Forbes took a great interest in all matters related to Vancouver Island. Although their accounts do not record it, he certainly would have met with his fellow naval surgeon Wood during the winter respite at Esquimalt, and quite probably also with Dr. William Tolmie.

From these men and, indirectly, from Wood’s discussions with Lyall and Lord, Forbes would have acquired a far greater knowledge of the region’s natural history than he could have gleaned in just a single year’s personal observation. When, in late October 1861, the Colonial Secretary announced a public essay competition to extol the features of the colony, Forbes decided to enter.

To follow up on the huge success of London’s 1851 Great Exhibition, the British government planned a second for 1862. Douglas needed booklets to distribute there to attract British settlers to both the island and the mainland colonies. So he launched twin competitions, each with a prize of £50. The stated objective was to “set forth in clearest and most comprehensive manner the capabilities, resources and advantages of Vancouver’s Island as a Colony for settlement.” The panel of three judges included Dr. Tolmie, and entries were required by the end of the year.

Forbes’s essay won the prize for Vancouver Island and the colonial government published it in booklet form in June 1862. The booklet consisted of 63 pages of text, plus an appendix of data from various sources. Clearly structured, it fulfilled all the requirements, although the Daily British Colonist complained about the multitude of technical words. Some of them to the unscientific reader are perfect jaw-breakers. There are so many facts . . . that we might excuse the display of so extensive a knowledge of the natural history of the country.

Conscious that his target readership included potential farmers and landowners, Forbes took care to mention the opportunities for traditional countryside leisure pursuits:

The sportsman will find abundant use for both rod and gun, and as a hunter he may distinguish himself in the forest, the puma, the bear and the wolf, being worth of his prowess. . . . Great numbers of [deer] are shot annually, and the great red deer, or elk, as he is popularly called is indeed a prize any sportsman may be proud of. . . . Grouse shooting begins on the 12th of August, but the sport is very different from that enjoyed on the breezy moors of Yorkshire, or of Scotland, and more resembles pheasant shooting. . . . In the early winter snipe and wild duck afford good sport. . . . Excellent trout fishing may be had on every stream, and in the arms of the sea into which fresh water runs. . . . Trolling with minnow and spawn, are the only means by which salmon can be caught, these lordly gentlemen refusing to show a fin to any fly.

A mature male Roosevelt elk in velvet, photographed near Youbou on Cowichan Lake [image edited]. Photo © courtesy of Malcolm Chalmers Photography.
He devotes eight pages to “The Natural Productions of Vancouver Island in the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdom.” Forbes describes the fisheries as “inexhaustible,” the timber as “unrivalled,” and the coal as “the best on the whole North Pacific Coast.” He provides details on the types of fish available for commercial activity, and similarly for the trees. He describes the coal found and already being exploited as “almost inexhaustible wealth.” He mentions that traces of gold have been found in many places but not, so far, in worthwhile quantities.

The appendix provides a variety of official statistics and relevant proclamations, as well as three lists of the wildlife and three of the botany found on Vancouver Island, giving their popular and scientific names “in accordance with Vols 8 and 9 of the Pacific Railroad Reports.” With one exception, he did not provide sources for the information in the lists. The first cited 24 animals, some of which are questionable: he listed a red fox, which did not occur on the island, and a “Black Bear” and a “Brown Bear,” both as “Ursus Americanus.” He did not list any mammals smaller than the ermine, nor any cetaceans (although, in the text, he did mention that there were several found in local waters).

The second list of birds contained 97 species and included the pygmy owl, which could indicate the observation by Lord. The list is clearly a composite one. Several of the names Forbes gave are no longer in use, so identification is not always straightforward. For example, his “Suckley’s Gull” is now Heermann’s, and his “Oregon ground Robin” is now the rufous-sided towhee. There appears to have been little correlation in Mayne’s book between Forbes’s zoology list and that of Wood. Different species were mentioned, and the names, both common and scientific, were given differently. Wood’s identification seems the more reliable.

Of the pygmy owl, J.K. Lord wrote, “How the recluse lives, where it lives, or what it does, are secrets.” Photo © courtesy of TJ Watt.

Forbes’s third list was of shells collected “from the rocks and dredges off Esquimalt and Victoria Harbours.” Again, this seems to have been the work of zoologist J.K. Lord. Forbes cited 38 species from five orders, but for these he did not provide any common names. Nor did he list any crustaceans.

The botanical lists included 22 species of “Trees and Shrubs of Economic Value,” 23 species of “Shrubbery Under Growth,” and 8 species of “Grasses, Leguminous Plants &c., &c.” It was these botanical lists that Mayne later incorporated into his book. In all, Dr. Forbes provided the most comprehensive record of wildlife and plants found on Vancouver Island up to the date of publication.

The tour of duty for Topaze at Esquimalt concluded in June 1863, and Forbes returned to Britain with the ship. He then seems to have retired from naval service, to take up private practice. On March 14, 1864, he read a paper to the Royal Geographical Society in London entitled “Notes on the Physical Geography of Vancouver Island.” The society published it the following year in its journal, accompanied by a map.

Coincidentally, one of the survey officers with the Columbia Detachment, Lieutenant H.S. Palmer, RE, also read a paper at the same meeting: “On the Geography and Natural Capabilities of British Columbia, and the Condition of its principal Gold-Fields,” published with another map.

Reprinted with permission from In Nature’s Realm by Michael Layland, 2019 TouchWood Editions. Copyright © 2019 by Michael Layland.

Born and educated in England, Michael Layland trained as an officer and mapmaker in the Royal Engineers. During his civilian career, he continued with mappingrelated projects in South and Central America, Arabia, North and West Africa, and Antarctica. These experiences permitted him to pursue his interests in the natural history of many regions across the world, particularly photographing butterflies in the wild. He has lived in Victoria for the last twenty-seven years. An amateur naturalist, he is a member of the Victoria Natural History Society, and is former president of the Victoria Historical Society, and of the Friends of the BC Archives.