Sir James Douglas aboard HMS Rocket.

Sir James Douglas aboard ship

Elida Peers writes about the history of the Sooke region.

James Douglas is a name recognized by everyone interested in British Columbia’s history. Coming north from the Columbia River area in 1842, scouting for a new location for a fur trading fort, Douglas took note of Sooke Harbour, and observed: “a spacious inlet … where shipping may lie at all seasons of the year in perfect safety …” Because of the company’s need for extensive farmland, though, he determined “… the character of the country is totally unfit for our purpose, the shores being high, steep and rocky, and everywhere covered with woods.”

The new fort, of course, was established at Camosack in 1843, becoming Fort Victoria where Douglas ruled as Chief Factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1851 he also became the Governor of the new Colony of Vancouver Island.

James Douglas and his wife Amelia raised a large family in Victoria, establishing a home in James Bay.  Among the daughters in the Douglas family was Cecilia, the eldest, who married the colony’s physician, Dr. J. S. Helmcken.

In time, one of Dr.  Helmcken’s and Cecilia’s children, their son James, was sent to Scotland to be educated, where he too, became a physician. It was the second Dr. Helmcken, (a grandson of Sir James Douglas) who became friendly with the Ted and Kitty Gordon family of Gordon’s Beach and frequently journeyed to Otter Point to visit them.

After Douglas’ term as Governor, he was knighted by Queen Victoria. In this photo, believed taken in the 1870s, Douglas is shown in retirement aboard HMS Rocket on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Standing out in his bowler hat in the centre, Douglas is posed with the ship’s officers. HMS Rocket was a gun vessel launched in 1868, built by London Engineering Company, was 155 feet in length and sailed on this coast for two decades.

Not long after, the oldtime statesman passed away quietly at his James Bay home. At noon on August 6th, 1877, HMS Rocket arrived in Victoria Harbour, where the sailors disembarked and joined the local militia to become the marching military honour guard to escort Sir James from his home to the service at the Reformed Episcopal Church. This church still stands, at the corner of Blanshard and Humboldt Streets.

After interment at Ross Bay Cemetery, the bells of the churches all tolled and the guns of HMS Rocket fired a final salute.

Elida Peers

Historian

Sooke Region Museum

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