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SOOKE HISTORY: Unveiling Sooke’s connection to the opium trade

How Victoria’s economy once thrived on illegal trades and hidden caches
This tiny opium bottle, gifted to the Sooke Region Museum, by Glen Chowjka shortly before his death, harkens back to Victoria’s 19th-century opium trade era. Victoria and San Francisco were key North American hubs for opium importation during this time. (Kevin Laird/Black Press Media)

Elida Peers/Contributed

A few years ago, just weeks before he died, Glen Chowjka, one of Sooke’s devoted bottle collectors, visited my house with a gift. To my surprise, it was an opium bottle — one of those tiny ones designed to be easily carried without drawing attention.

It appears that during the late 1800s, the opium trade constituted nearly one-third of the economy in the Victoria region.

Rum running is probably much better known in our local legends, especially during the Volstead Act between 1920 and 1933, when liquor was illegal in the U.S. Much clandestine marine activity took place in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Prohibition was in effect in Canada only from 1917 to 1919, and apparently, opium was legal in Canada until curtailed by Mackenzie King (later prime minister) in 1908.

Back in the 1970s, when I interviewed the celebrated historian Maj. George Nicholson about early marine activities on this coast, I had little luck when asking about rum running or opium. The major would smile knowingly but never let me tape his comments. It was said that liquor caches were left on Whiffin Spit and even in Sooke Basin.

Victoria and San Francisco were famously known as the North American hubs for opium importation during the mid to late 1800s. In Victoria, several businesses were engaged in processing raw opium into the drug for widespread use.

As an important port city, Victoria was a headquarters for the sealing industry, which provided revenue for a significant part of our regional population, including European immigrants and the Indigenous tribes. Many vessels left Victoria and Sooke moorings each season for the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea.

One notable vessel was the sealer Vera, which started its journey as a 74-foot yacht named the Halcyon, originally built for a businessman in San Francisco. Renowned for its remarkable speed, the yacht gained such a reputation that it became involved in the Trans-Pacific opium trade, smuggling opium from Victoria to the U.S.

When the Halcyon became too notorious as a smuggler’s ship, it was sold to a sealer, renamed the Vera, and placed under the command of Captain William Sheilds of Sooke. The international treaty of 1911 marked the end of the pelagic sealing industry, and the opium trade also saw a significant decline.

Elida Peers is the historian of the Sooke Region Museum. Email