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Cover: The Best Loved Boat: The Princess Maquinna

The Best Loved Boat: The Princess Maquinna

By Ian Kennedy

Review By Jason M. Colby

April 11, 2024

Recent years have brought an outpouring of cutting-edge works on the history of travel.  This isn’t one of them.  Rather, Ian Kennedy’s Best Loved Boat is a nostalgic portrait of early-twentieth-century maritime life through the lens of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Princess Maquinna.  Launched in 1913, the vessel served the west coast of Vancouver Island for more than four decades.  In its weeklong voyage from Victoria to Quatsino Sound, the vessel tied remote communities and extractive industries to the global economy while enabling visitors to catch glimpses of the rugged outer coast.

Kennedy structures the book around a fictional 1924 voyage.  It is a clever choice, giving his story a bit of narrative drive and enabling him to paint a vivid picture of the vessel and its ports of call. Unfortunately, the book offers little more than description.  This isn’t necessarily a problem.  Many readers enjoy books that offer an escape into heroic days now passed.  Yet in historical writing, this approach usually involves lost opportunities.  One hardly need club one’s readers over the head with repetitive argument in order to offer some insight or food for thought.

In the spirit of this critique, I will identify two missed opportunities.  First, in reading Kennedy’s thick descriptions and block quotations of life aboard the Princess Maquinna, one cannot help but be impressed by how much more travel and industry were once intertwined.  In contrast to mass tourism today, which aims to whisk travelers to idyllic settings while avoiding the grime of everyday life, the Princess Maquinna’s passengers saw, heard, and smelled the activities that were remaking life and the environment on the outer coast.  They visited fishing villages, sawmills, and whaling stations such as Cachalot—named after the sperm whale.  The vessel itself was critical to this commerce, transporting timber, fish oil, and whale meat to urban centres.  Since 1945, tourists have increasingly sought escape from commercial realities.  Aboard the Princess Maquinna, in contrast, passengers caught glimpses of the work and workers who made industrial society possible.  Among them were Japanese fishers, Chinese flensers, and Indigenous hop pickers, invariably excluded from spaces reserved for white passengers aboard the vessel.

Which brings me to the second missed opportunity: race.  Kennedy is not unaware of the racial realities that shaped life on Vancouver Island.  By the 1920s, he notes, company advertising featured Indigenous imagery, thereby capitalizing “on the images and skills of people generally not allowed entry into the interior of any of the DPR ships on the West Coast run.” (180). Yet Best Loved Boat treats such practices as unfortunate blemishes on a glorious era, rather than fundamental features of it.  This blind spot shapes the book’s narrative digressions.  While Kennedy finds ample room to depict the feats of figures such as entrepreneur Gordon Gibson and Scottish gardener George Fraser, Indigenous, Chinese, and Japanese peoples remain nameless, without stories of their own.  Kennedy might protest that his focus was on vessel and voyage, but that would beg the question.  Not only does his book make space for settlers’ exploits, but even when such stories intersect with subjects such as Indian residential schools, not a critical word appears.  In a similar vein, after informing readers that all five of the vessel’s cooks were Chinese, he offers not another word about them, despite waxing poetic about the quality of meals they prepared—but weren’t allowed to eat with passengers and the rest of the crew.

None of this is to impugn Kennedy’s intentions.  This is a kind book and should be received as such.  But if an author wishes to write history, he would be well served to read a lot of it first—and not just accounts celebrating famous settlers.  If done well, topics such as this can provide space for both nostalgia and critical thought, revealing not only what we have lost but also how far we have come.

Publication Information

Kennedy, Ian. The Best Loved Boat: The Princess Maquinna. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2023. 248 pp. $34.95 hardcover.