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Mapping Vancouver Island

January 30, 2019

Mapping an Island Paradise

By Phyllis Reeve

The Land of Heart’s Delight: Early Maps and Charts of Vancouver Island. Michael Layland. TouchWood Editions, 2013. 

Vancouver Island. Marco Polo may have imagined it two hundred years before Columbus sailed. Novelist Jack Hodgins called it “the ragged green edge of the world.” Artist Emily Carr in her classic memoir of childhood, The Book of Small, perceived every aspect of the setting as “lovely” and “Western as West can be before Earth’s gentle rounding pulls West east again.” Captain George Vancouver agreed, describing it in 1792 as “the most lovely country that can be imagined.” The Vancouver Island Development League, hoping to lure settlers from Britain in 1911, touted it as “The Land of Heart’s Delight.” It has approximately six times the area and population of Prince Edward Island, which is a province, while Vancouver Island is not, and a real Emily Carr instead of a fictional Anne of Green Gables. It also possesses a history which may never have been so attractively told as in this sumptuous volume.

If the book has a predecessor, the most likely is British Columbia: a New Historical Atlas(2012) by Derek Hayes, who is warmly acknowledged by Layland and who contributes a foreword. But Hayes produces atlases, at least fourteen of them to date, and ranges widely over the history and geography of North America, whereas Layland has created not so much an atlas as a cartographic narrative and focuses with loving detail on one region. He has chosen his material from the sometimes secret treasure houses of archives, libraries, official sources, and his own collection.

His publisher, TouchWood Editions, appropriately based on Vancouver Island, has risen to the occasion with the quality of their paper, binding, photographic reproduction, and editing. 

Born and educated in England, Michael Layland was trained as an officer and mapmaker in the Royal Engineers, serving for seven years in Cyprus, Arabia, and Africa. After leaving the British Army, he worked on civilian survey projects in Central and South America and North and West Africa. So he saw many goodly states and kingdoms before making landfall in Victoria twenty years ago and establishing himself on this western island as a map historian, collector, and researcher as well as publisher of reproduction maps and panoramas of historical note. He has served as president of the Friends of the BC Archives and the Victoria Historical Society, and is on the committee of the Historical Map Society of BC. He is a member of the Society for the History of Discoveries and the International Map Collectors’ Society, His articles on explorers and exploration history have appeared in international encyclopaedias, including eight entries in the two-volume Oxford Companion to World Exploration.

West coast dwellers have always understood the importance of charts and maps, of the need to mark every treacherous rock and hidden trail, and the importance of continually updating the information. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Makah chief Tetacus, from the village of Esquimalt, read and amended maps shown him by the Briton Vancouver and the Spaniard Bodega y Quadra. Whether scratched on rock or printed on linen, maps point the way, not least, Layland shows, through the shoals of history. 

The maps are the story, glossed in a style so deceptively light-handed that a reader scarcely realizes how much information she has absorbed. Searching for realms of gold, early European cartographers relied heavily on speculation and myth, tall tales and wishful thinking; lacking facts, they offered unicorns and sea serpents. Layland’s first map, by the sixteenth century Venetian Bolognini Zaltieri, interprets Marco Polo’s reports by marking a Strait of Anian, and we are on our way through the Northwest Passage. 

Adventurers, pirates, capricious monarchs, and merchants of Venice crowded the sixteenth century with such characters as the dashing and untrustworthy Francis Drake, the exiled Robert Dudley, son of Elizabeth’s Leicester, and the ancient Greek mariner Ioannis Phokas a.k.a. Juan de Fuca, who gave his name to a strait separating Vancouver Island from Washington State. Scoundrels though they might be, wrapped in mystery and intrigue, they needed to know where they were. They literally made up their maps as they went along, rough drafts to turn into fair copies, sometimes sharing with unlikely colleagues, leaving fragments from which we may pick up hints of who was where when and why — if we can find them. A document, a “rough draft of everything’’ including a mountain range which is almost three-dimensional, was sent by a Spanish captain to a viceroy in Mexico City, lay buried among the latter’s personal papers through several wars and revolutions, and turned up two centuries later in the National Archives of the United States, at last available for Layland to show to us. 

Employed by European commercial and imperial powers, notably Spain, Russia and England and sometimes France, the mapmakers scoured the coast from California to Alaska. Layland’s characters seem to have cared less about sea otter pelts and gold than about the task itself, the exploring and documenting, and even the sharing of data. The exemplary friendship between Vancouver and Quadra is a case in point. They were to have shared the island’s name “Quadra and Vancouver,” but someone in London dropped Quadra’s name. He does have his own island, off the northeast coast of the big island, smaller but at 120 sq. miles (310 km2) still substantial.

As marine charts were joined by land maps, imperial bureaucrats continually ignored information and advice from people on site, ordering towns to be laid out according to criteria suitable for flat land thousands of miles away, negotiating international borders without bothering to consult the most recent corrected available information. Layland makes us feel the frustration. Indeed, the problem persists; a few years back someone decided Canadian boaters would be better served if the chart distribution services were removed from the west and east coasts and consolidated in Ottawa. Our letters languish somewhere.

As trading posts became colonies and railways approached, mapmakers moved inland. Surveyors arrived. Towns and neighbourhoods took shape. Maps took on a format more familiar to our eyes. Every map and plan has a human story. The province’s surveyors received their own book a few years ago: Made to Measure; a history of land surveying in British Columbia by Katherine Gordon (Sono Nis, 2006).

Explorers, professional and amateur, criss-crossed the island, noting its waterways and high lands, naming places and features for each other, their bosses and their families. Price Ellison, Commissioner of Lands, in 1910 led an expedition into what would be Strathcona Park. One of his party was his twenty-year-old daughter, Myra, for whom he named a river and a mountain peak. When I met her fifty years later, the thrill showed no signs of wearing off. Mapping Vancouver Island could be a very personal matter. Four maps chart the book’s final chapter, “A Sea of Mountains: Strathcona Park.” A 1911 map gives only a “park reserve” but by the next year Strathcona Park has taken its place, indeed a larger space than formerly allocated. Sir Richard McBride, the Premier, presented Lord Strathcona with an album of photos and a map of yet more expanded parkland, and topographer W.W. Urquhart used a new technique based on panoramic photographs from high peaks. Four different approaches to the same terrain served four different purposes. Myra River sometimes appears more modestly as Myra Creek, and Myra Peak is invisible, although I did find magnificent photographs online. Perhaps there is no such thing as a completely comprehensive map, and no end to the cartographic task.

Charts must be forever revised, to mark newly discovered details and hazards. In 1858 Captain George Richards RN on HMS Plumper undertook a mission to update the hydrography of Vancouver Island. Layland gives him a chapter, and his journal has recently been published (Ronsdale, 2012). And still the Canadian Hydrographic Service and Canadian Coast Guard issue notices to mariners: chart corrections and updates, sailing directions, buoys, and radio aids. 

The book reluctantly concludes with the First World War, but an afterword points the reader towards continuing adventures, new techniques, GPS and Google Earth. Layland happily concludes, “To keep abreast of developments in demographics and land use, the mapping of Vancouver Island should continue to progress for the foreseeable future.” Meanwhile he reports in an email that he is working on a “prequel — the stories and good stuff about the explorers” to whom he has introduced us in Land of Heart’s Delight. 

Phyllis Reeve is a contributing editor to the DR and lives on Gabriola Island. She wrote “Learning from Silence” for the Spring-Summer 2013 issue. 


This article was originally published in The Dorchester Review, Vol. 4, No 1, Spring/Summer 2014, pp. 102-104.

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