The Private Journal of Captain G.H. Richards
Edited by Linda Dorricott and Deidre Cullon Ronsdale, 270 pp., $21.95
Capt. George Henry Richards played a key role in our early history; he was in charge of the crew that surveyed and charted the entire coastline of Vancouver Island.
Richards has not, however, achieved the fame enjoyed by those who did similar work - men such as Capt. George Vancouver, Col Richard Clement Moody of the Royal Engineers, and surveyor Joseph Despard Pemberton.
That oversight might be corrected with the publication of The Private Journal of Captain G.H. Richards, a book made possible through the efforts of Nanaimo residents Linda Dorricott and Deidre Cullon.
This book includes a transcript of the journal Richards kept in 1860, 1861 and 1862, when he and his crew were using HMS Plumper and HMS Hecate to explore as much of the Island's shoreline as they could.
The original journal is in England, in the hands of one of Richards' descendants. In 2006, Dorricott and Cullon obtained a copy of the Richards journal.
Along with the transcription, their book includes excerpts from the journals of John Gowlland, the second master, as well as photographs and reproductions of charts.
Richards wrote about much more than his work, so this book includes observations on everything from the weather to a visit to San Francisco, to the social conditions of the day.
He was a witness to one of the Island's greatest tragedies of the 19th century - the smallpox epidemic that devastated the First Nations population, village by village, from one end of the Island to the other.
In June 1862, for example, Richards was at Fort Rupert, on the northern tip of the Island. There he found the grave of "a young Tyhee girl" who had died in Victoria and had been brought back to her home.
"We found the smallpox raging here among the natives, who were much subdued and terrified by it," Richards wrote. "Sixteen cases had occurred up to today, five of them had proved fatal."
He said that the village was deserted, with the inhabitants spreading out to avoid contact with each other. Hunting and fishing had ended.
A few days later, in Nanaimo, Richards found that all of the natives had been removed from the village because of fear of the disease.
By the time the smallpox epidemic ended, almost every aboriginal on the Island had been hit.
About 30 per cent of them died. It was a terrible toll among a population which had almost no immunity.
The transcript of the journal compiled by Richards has been produced with care, and it includes his abbreviations and peculiar spellings.
While that helps to preserve the historical record, a transcript of a 150-yearold document can often be frustrating, since it lacks the context that would make it understandable.
That's why the editors used Gowlland's work - it adds information to complete the story. They also have included annotations which ensure that readers are able to follow the tale told by Richards - a tale that was probably never meant for publication.
The Richards journal adds to our appreciation of early Vancouver Island history. After a century and a half, it's safe to say one thing about this book: It's about time.
The reviewer is the acting editor-in-chief of the Times Colonist and author of The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia.
© Copyright 2013