Esquimalt’s Chilean connection

CFB Esquimalt has direct links with Chilean Navy and particularly their submarine service.

While carefully sorting through collection objects at the Maritime Museum of B.C., looking for artifacts both sturdy and interesting enough to take with me to deliver outreach programming at a local retirement home, I came across a small, blue, modern jewelry box.

Curiosity compelled me to lift the pretty latch with my cotton-gloved hand, and I discovered inside a modest pin in the shape of a submarine.  It is approximately two inches long, and gold in colour.  Right beneath, pinned to the soft, black velvet cushion, is a label which reads: “The Chilean Submariners to the Canadian Maritime Museum”.

This delicate little find made me chuckle quietly to myself for two reasons.  Firstly, to my knowledge there is no such place as the Canadian Maritime Museum.

Secondly, Victoria and more specifically CFB Esquimalt have surprisingly direct links with Chilean Navy, and particularly their submarine service, which stretch back to the very earliest days of Fort Victoria.

When Sir James Douglas, then chief factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company, established Fort Victoria as a trading post in 1843, he chose this location for very specific reasons.

He sought land that was adjacent to a sheltered harbour that was appropriate for trade ships, but also had sufficient depth for naval vessels to anchor safely.  Douglas was thinking ahead to the new settlement as not only a fur trading fort, but also as a potential site for a Royal Navy base which would strengthen British claims to the territory.

He requested that the HMS Pandora survey the area in 1842 and she brought back favorable reports of not only the harbour, but the massive stands of high-quality, straight-grain timber like Douglas fir which could support a shipbuilding industry.

HMS Pandora was stationed in Chile and had sailed north to do this survey.  Indeed, the Royal Navy Base at Valparaiso, Chile was known as the Pacific Station, and was Britain’s only major naval base on the eastern rim of the Pacific Ocean.

Chile was a long way away from Britain’s main Pacific territorial disputes, which by the 1840s and 1850s were mostly along what is now the coast of British Columbia. With the chaos of the Fraser River Gold Rush in 1858, and the tension of the Pig War in 1859, the British Admiralty decided that the location of the Pacific Station should be shifted to Esquimalt harbour. There, with clear foresight, Douglas had quietly put the land aside as prospective site for a naval base as early as 1848, and had authorized the first buildings to be constructed as hospitals for those fighting in the Crimean War in the early 1850s.

By 1865, Esquimalt was known as the official site of the Pacific Station of the Royal Navy.

The Chilean connection again resurfaced nearly 50 years later.  In 1910 the Canadian Navy was created, and control over the Esquimalt base was transferred from the British to the Canadian government.

The fledgling Canadian Navy was underfunded, and for the first years of its existence had only two vessels to patrol all three massive coastlines of this country. By 1914, when war in Europe seemed inevitable, B.C. Premier Richard McBride, had a nervous eye on the vulnerable waters of B.C.

Knowing that Germany had a very sophisticated navy and fearing raids in Canadian waters, McBride made a sudden and extremely secretive decision.

Chile had commissioned two submarines (known as CC1 and CC2) which were being built in Seattle.  McBride knew that Chile was in arrears over the last $100,000 owed on the contract.  On the day that war was declared, Aug. 4t, 1914, McBride authorized the spending of $1.15 million (one-third more than Chile had agreed to pay for the same vessels) to buy those submarines out from under the Chilean government’s nose.

The Chilean officials waiting in Seattle for the submarines to be released to them were distinctly unimpressed when under cover of night they were instead sailed over the border with their electric motors running silently, and delivered into Canadian hands.

In fact, the secrecy of this transaction was so complete that McBride had neglected to alert the coastal militia batteries to expect the arrival of the submarines.  When tugboats outside of Esquimalt harbour saw the two subs surface and start noisily running their diesel engines, there was real panic that Victoria was about to face enemy fire.

The militia immediately trained their guns on the submarines, ready to defend our city. In the nick of time the militia was connected by telephone with the Esquimalt Dockyard, who could finally confirm that the two vessels were not only friendly, but the latest additions to the fledgling Canadian fleet.

I could not help but wonder if the modern submariners who presented that little gold pin to the museum were aware of the important, unlikely and slightly cheeky connection between the Chilean navy and Victoria. I certainly hope they were. It’s an awfully good story.

•••

Kate Humble is the interpretive co-ordinator at the Maritime Museum of B.C. The maritime museum will be running a regular column on historical and maritime topics.

The maritime museum will be running a regular column on historical and maritime topics.  If you have any questions that you would like to see addressed here, please send them to khumble@mmbc.bc.ca.

 

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