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The Land of Heart’s Delight: Early Maps and Charts of Vancouver Island

By Michael Layland

Review By Barry Gough

October 30, 2013

BC Studies no. 183 Autumn 2014  | p. 148-49

As a subject for cartography and historical geography, Vancouver Island has many attractions. Islands are uniquely advantaged in this regard, bordered as they are by waters and seas. The Enlightenment demanded scientific designations and definitions of geographical configurations. New place names had to be applied. The cartographic history of Vancouver Island belongs to this scientific era. As a geographical entity, what we now regard as a quite familiar place came out of the depths of cartographic darkness only with the arrival of the maritime traders in the late 1780s. Official examinations by British and Spanish authorities and mariners extended that knowledge to 1792, when all of a sudden and for half a century outside interest vanished and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) traders, who had taken up the role played by the North West Company in the area of New Caledonia, the interior heartland of the fur trade west of the Continental Divide, remained almost the sole map makers. There were few outside travellers and, when colonization began, some surveyors such as W.C. Grant lingered hardly at all here before passing on to more attractive prospects. The HBC monopoly of trade is demonstrated in its cartography, which was always about land use, land sales, and developing export crops, including agricultural products and timber resources.

The greatest spur to mapmaking and cartography came in consequence of the Oregon Crisis and the establishing of the Colony of Vancouver Island under charter to the HBC. As the imperial tide rose so did the extent of mapmaking. Fort Rupert, with its coal, gets some minimal attention here as, likewise, does Nanaimo. Hydrographic surveying constituted another feature of this rise in interest, sparked as it was by American challenges to the San Juan Islands. But it was the Fraser River gold rush that was the great spur, for it put “the mainland” on all regional maps and was the subject of much discussion by those who never went near Vancouver Island or the goldfields, such as William Carew Hazlitt. Many mapmakers borrowed readily from others, incrementally building up the database. Not until the First World War and aerial photography did the technical means exist of mapping the many remote locales on Vancouver Island.

This work provides the essential maps, though it is certain that many others had to be set aside on grounds of size, condition, legibility, deterioration of the original, and perhaps expense of reproduction and of copyright clearance — these last the bugbears of modern scholarship. All in all, this entire book presents 131 individual maps and drawings with various degrees of clarity and legibility. Many a reader will be charmed by this very fine production. That having been said, the choice of title, though attractive to some, will be abhorrent to others. In the later category would be the First Nations whose patrimony has been subverted. Maps of Indian Reserves (and fights for enlargement of these reserves) do not feature and are, in terms of political sensitivities nowadays, conspicuously absent. There is a discussion of Strathcona Park under the head of “A Sea of Mountains” — perhaps a correct description, though surely an oddity because that term was first used by Sir Alexander Mackenzie in a different part of British Columbia when on route to the Pacific. The author seems convinced that Drake navigated as far as Vancouver Island when only a dotted, disappearing line on a rough map indicates that faint possibility. Such a claim, boldly made, is not universally credited. There are many fine plans, surveys, and maps of Victoria and its surroundings, and the accompanying narrative assists in telling the story of urban growth and suburban expansion of the town, city, and capital of the Province. There are maps, too, of railway lines and land concessions. I was looking for one of the “Cordwood Limited,” the Victoria & Sidney Railway (founded 1892), thinking it an essential inclusion in view of current discussions about light rail, but had to find it elsewhere. Inasmuch as Chinatown Victoria is the oldest of its kind in Canada, I hoped to find it included here; but perhaps no contemporary map (or even a selected section of an urban map) could be found. At the end is a list of each map with page number conveniently cross-referenced for ease of study. There is a glossary of terms, also a brief bibliography of works consulted by the author. In all this is a fine book, and a very handsome production. Collectors of works in British Columbia history will wish it on their shelves for future use and enjoyment. This is a credit to author and publisher alike.

The Land of Heart’s Delight: Early Maps and Charts of Vancouver Island
By Michael Layland 
Victoria: TouchWood Editions, 2013. 240 pp. $39.95 cloth

This review has not yet appeared in BC Studies and may be altered upon publication.