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Cover: The Eventful Life of Philip Hankin: Worldwide Traveller & Witness to British Columbia’s Early History

The Eventful Life of Philip Hankin: Worldwide Traveller & Witness to British Columbia’s Early History

By Geoff Mynett

Review By Barry M. Gough

April 18, 2024

Philip Hankin was a peripatetic of Empire, a Victorian gentleman. It was said that the sun never set on the British Empire, and true this was in its heyday – and in the years of Hankin’s most energetic activities, both official and unofficial. In his time, he sailed the Seven Seas in British men-of-war, most notably in the heroic work of catching slave trading vessels off the east coast of Africa. At other times we find him as an administrator in British Honduras. He also traveled to Madras in India as personal secretary to the Governor, the Duke of Buckingham. His timing was exquisite for he was at Delhi when Queen Victoria was ostentatiously proclaimed Empress of India. Such divergent places as Ascension Island, Tasmania,  Straits of Magellan, Suez Canal, Panama, and Honolulu were at one time or another on his itinerary. He himself said that he had travelled several times around the world, and was therefore a global citizen. True this was. He put it this way: “… although I have been somewhat of a rolling stone, yet, I have indeed gathered some moss.” Born in 1836 in Stanstead Abbots, Hertfordshire, he died in 1923 in Aldrington, Sussex. He compiled memoirs in his later years; they are now in the British Columbia Archives. Placenames mirror history, and so it is with Philip Hankin: Captain John Walbran’s 1909 compilation, British Columbia Place Names, tells us there is a Hankin Island; Hankin Rock;  Hankin Point in Quatsino Sound, and Hankin Range. Elsewhere we find another Hankin Point and Hankin Ledges, in Principe Channel.

As a subject for biography Hankin presents a challenge on account of his meandering tendencies and his own desire to keep moving on. He seems an unsettled sort of fellow, but, to some, he was engaging in personality and good in many ways of administration, also a competent naval officer. Some associates found him baffling, others gave him strong endorsements. It was in British Columbia that he made his mark, first in naval surveying vessels, second as Victoria’s chief of police, and third as secretary to Governors Kennedy, Seymour and Musgrave. He worked gold diggings in Barkerville for awhile but without success; however, a personal connection there led him to a secretaryship in Victoria, which suited him better. When a governor was absent Hankin gladly served as chief administrator. In the trading sloop Kingfisher piracy and murder affair, he exhibited coolness and presence of mind. He could speak Chinook and knew something of West Coast languages. His account of his actions, written fifty years after the episode, adds somewhat to our knowledge of events, which on account of the gap of time the author rightly treats with guarded care. Hankin met many a prominent visitor to British Columbia, among them Lady Jane Franklin and her companion Sophia Cracroft. He crossed Vancouver Island’s northern latitudes on exploration. He knew Sir James Douglas and Admiral George Henry Richards. Not least, he was at the centre of political affairs just before British Columbia was united with Canada in 1871.

This is a competent biography of what this reviewer, with sympathy, judges to be a difficult subject. Even though Hankin left a memoir, and there are many references to him in collaborative or contemporary records as well as photographs that enrich this work, we are left pondering the wellspring of Hankin’s being. His memoir was written long after events described, by which time moral appreciations and government policies had changed. He seems neither a contemplative nor a reflective person, for those levels of disclosure in literary form were rare among persons of the Victorian age. We should not expect revelations or prognostications, and certainly he demonstrates attributes of a man in a hurry. Steam navigation and railways sped his breathless progress across time and space. In frontier conditions he was tough, resilient and resourceful. The more we know of him the more we like him, or at least admire him. Many a biographer has less to work with than might have been hoped for. Hankin will always be a figure of interest even if on the margins of our colonial past. The author and publisher are to be commended for filling a void in British Columbia’s history and shining light on some other locations of the Imperial project.

Publication Information

Mynett, Geoff. The Eventful Life of Philip Hankin: Worldwide Traveller & Witness to British Columbia’s Early History. Qualicum Beach, BC: Caitlin Press, 2023. 240 pp. $26.00 paper.